If you’ve not been in London for a while, don’t particularly care for the big city, or haven’t been hooked into popular media for a couple of years, the arrival of a new bus in London to replace the old Mercedes-Benz ‘bendy-buses’ might well have passed you by. For the rest of us, it’s good to see that these British-built buses, which nod to their past without dipping into retro pastiche, are really starting to appear in numbers in the capital.
For me personally, I’ve tended to view buses as a bit of a peripheral interest, sparking a little nostalgia when I see an old one, or being mildly irritated when I need to overtake one lumbering in front of me on a country lane – but, after a day spent riding the Wright New Bus for London in service, it’s hard not to be impressed with what they’ve achieved when it finally came to replacing the old Routemasters.
The job of creating a replacement for a 1960s British icon is never going to be easy – just ask MINI, Jaguar or London Taxis International. However, in each case, it could be argued that coming up with something suitable for the 21st century, which is inspired by the original, pays respectful homage but isn’t too mired in the past, is possible. The styling of the Wrightbus NBfL does take a little getting used to but, once you’re on board with its awkwardly long front and rear overhangs and the quirky, modern and asymmetric paint job, the styling really works.
But the true genius of the NBfL is inside, where the clever use of themed seat trim, flooring design, a domed roofline and old-style (but padded) hand rails harks back to the original. For a seasoned traveller on the old one, it’s the interior that’s the most evocative aspect of travelling on these buses. It has to be said that the technology’s pretty impressive, too. Up front, on the top deck, the view is panoramic, so for cruising on Route 390 to Notting Hill Gate, you get such a good view of the West End, one wonders why anyone would shell out for one of those pricey topless bus tours. And I’m also easily pleased by another aspect of the NBfL – the satisfying old-school ‘ping’ you hear from the Stop button when it’s pressed.
The 4.5-litre Cummins diesel, which is neatly tucked underneath the rear staircase, is a generator for the hybrid drivetrain – so, for the passenger, the engine note never matches the road speed, as it does in more conventional vehicle. Silent getaways are a treat – as are the lowered emissions. According to its maker, the NBfL puts out 640g/km and delivers 11.6mpg. Given that it has a capacity of 87 passengers, that’s rather impressive – especially as that equates to the total emissions or fuel usage of, say, five Ford Fiestas. So, not only is this bus good looking and great to ride on, it’s also highly efficient.
I’m sure it’s pricey compared with other buses and will probably only end up being run on the more high profile routes in London, but sometimes – and one has to admire TfL for this – cost considerations can be given less priority than normal in the name of prestige. I suppose its real effectiveness as a bus will be to determined by how many other towns and cities, both here and overseas, take an option and purchase these £330,000 NBfLs.
However, for now, let’s rejoice that we’ve successfully reinvented another transport icon of the past and that it’s built here in the UK – Ballymena in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Wrightbus employs 1000 people, and business is booming, following further recent new orders from FirstGroup. Proof, if ever it was needed, that the UK is still at the sharp end when it comes to design and innovation. If I do end up driving in the capital again any time soon (and I hope not), I’ll make sure I give any NBfL driver I come across a nod and a smile in appreciation of his fine choice of steer…