By Darren Johnson AM, Green Party member of the London Assembly
The New Bus for London is loved by many and nice to look at, but it is wrong in so many ways that it is hard to know where to start. It is probably bad news for British exports, probably bad on value for money, very bad for fares and awful for the environment.
The Mayor has created what he describes as a ‘world class piece of technology’, but the problem is that the world doesn’t want it. Despite the Mayor talking up ‘covetous foreigners’ sniffing around the new bus earlier in the year, the reality is that the odd design of the bus makes export sales unlikely.
Rather than being a bonus for British industry, it may well divert one of our main bus companies away from a focus on export sales. In fact, the unique design that the manufacturer is unlikely to find any takers for these Boris buses anywhere else in the UK.
Despite TfL denials, it is the unique design which has led Transport for London (TfL) to take the unprecedented step of buying the buses themselves and to state the buses would spend all their 14-year ‘economic life in London’.
Instead of achieving the economies of scale from a production run of thousands, the Mayor is ordering 600 over a four-year period. Instead of opening up the bidding for building the new bus to a selection of manufacturers in a highly competitive market, we have a monopoly supplier dictating the price of a Mayoral manifesto promise.
Instead of a bus which can be resold in a few years time to operators elsewhere in the country, we have a bus which will live and slowly die in London. Instead of a bus like the old Routmaster - which I’m told you could fix with a spanner and a host of inter-changeable parts - we have a bus full of ‘uniqueness’.
This country has a highly developed bus market in which bus operators compete for contracts and purchase their buses from a large pool of bus manufacturers. Boris has now bucked the market and set up a monopoly in which he tells operators to use the bus he personally favours.
Londoners are shouldering all the costs and risks of this venture. Fares will rise because of the £37 million a year bill for the extra staff who have to be present when the rear door is open. Fares will also rise to cover the cost of a bus that is bought at a premium from a monopoly supplier and which TfL can’t sell on. Any additional insurance costs (due to the open rear door) will also be covered by TfL within the price of the contract.
A big selling point of the new bus has been its environmental credentials. I have raised doubts about the environmental claims made by the Mayor. I have accepted the Mayor’s claim it is more fuel efficient that the average new bus and has lower emissions, but it is only marginally better than other new hybrid buses which are starting to roll off production lines.
The thing is technology is improving all the time and TfL are constantly raising the environmental bar on what they expect from new buses. We are only a short while away from all new buses being cleaner than the Mayor’s New Bus for London and it is even conceivable London will follow the path of other European cities and switch to all electric buses.
London’s bus contracts are on a five-year cycle and this enables TfL to constantly tighten the standards. That is why London bus operators resell their older out of date buses to places like Bournemouth. The problem for the New Bus for London is it is spending the whole of its ‘economic life in London’. I worry that in 14 years time it will be old and outdated compared to every other vehicle in the London bus fleet, but Bournemouth won’t be a retirement option for this bus. Instead it will be heading straight to the scrap yard.
Finally, there is the problem of TfL spending £160m of its capital budget on the new bus, rather than the operators making the purchase as part of the normal contractual arrangement. This figure has appeared in the Standard and on BBC, but it has been my own unofficial estimate based upon the Mayor keeping his promise that the new bus (bought from a monopoly supplier) will cost no more than a standard hybrid bus.
Whatever the price, the real problem is that this money could have been used by the Mayor to stick to his commitment that all new buses would be low-polluting hybrid buses from 2012 onwards. Instead of 600 low-polluting uniquely designed buses by 2016 we could have had thousands of the ordinary low-polluting kind.
The Mayor has wasted another opportunity to improve London’s chronic air pollution problem.