Facts & Figures

The History of the London Bus

The distinctive features of a bus service are that the buses run to a fixed timetable along a specific route stopping at intervals to pick and set down passengers, with fares which are cheaper than those charged by taxis. On that basis, London's first buses began operating between Paddington and the Bank on 4th July 1829. They were horse-drawn carriages with facing seats along the sides for 20 passengers. There was a driver in charge of the horses and a conductor who rode at the back where passengers boarded and alighted through a door. The fare for the whole journey was one shilling (5p) or sixpence (2½ p) to the Angel, Islington. For that period these fares were relatively expensive (five pence is the equivalent of perhaps £4.00 today) and certainly put bus travel beyond the means of most Londoners (making a mockery of the full name, omnibus, which is Latin meaning "for all people").

This novel mode of transport was introduced to London by George Shillibeer, who had observed horse-bus services running in Paris and saw an opportunity for a similar operation here in London. He exploited the fact that his line of route, the New Road (now the Marylebone and Euston Roads), was outside the limits where the horse cabs had a monopoly. That monopoly quickly crumbled under the rush of new bus operators.

By the time of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, the traditional British double-deck design had appeared, with passengers sitting back-to-back on the roof which was reached by a staircase at the back. Another 20 years later, forward facing seats were introduced on the upper deck, but passengers continued to be exposed to the elements until well into the motor bus age.

Competition between bus operators was initially fierce, but from 1855 a French company, the Compagnie Générale des Omnibus de Londres, began to buy up many of these operators. By 1858, when it was registered in this country as the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC, or The General for short), it already ran most of the 800 buses in London.

By the end of the 19th century, there were some 3 500 horse buses in London, and commuting - not only by bus but also by train and horse tram - had become a normal feature of working life. But the rôle of the horse on London's roads was being challenged. Experiments had been carried out to find a self-propelled road vehicle, and battery, steam and internal combustion engines were all tried.

By 1905 it was clear that the petrol engine was the way forward with an engine fitted where the horse had been, ahead of the driver. This development quickly led to the famous mass-produced B-type double-deck motor bus which first appeared on London's streets in 1910. They were very reliable, and proved their worth during the 1914-1918 war when many were sent to France as troop carriers. To mark the bravery of many of the drivers who took their buses into the battle zone, the LGOC was invited to take part in the Remembrance Parade at the Cenotaph. London Transport (LT) is still accorded this honour today, the only civilian organisation allowed to take part in this annual ceremony each November.

During the inter-war years, the two most significant developments in bus design were the introduction in 1925 of pneumatic (in place of solid rubber) tyres, and of a roof over the upper deck once police fears that such an addition in weight would make the bus unstable were finally overcome. In 1929, an enclosed cab for the driver and enclosed staircase for passengers added new standards of comfort. Meanwhile the bus route network developed into the comprehensive system which today's bus passengers would recognise, particularly after a single organisation to take charge of urban public transport was created in 1933. The London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) incorporated the General and all the other competing bus companies as well as the trams, trolleybuses (electric buses powered from overhead wires), express coaches and the Underground.

The LPTB embarked on designing its own buses in its own workshops at Chiswick, a programme which was initiated with the first buses of the RT type in 1939. However, the outbreak of war interrupted the programme, and Chiswick Works was converted to aircraft production. Large-scale introduction of the diesel-engined RT type buses was not resumed until the withdrawal of London's trams ten years later, by which time the design of this classic London bus had been revised (taking account of flow-line principles learned during wartime aircraft manufacture) to incorporate standard interchangeable parts allowing simplified maintenance and overhaul.

7 000 RTs joined the LT fleet, but by the mid-1950s the next generation of purpose-built London bus was already being designed. London Transport's finest bus, the Routemaster (RM type), was wider and carried more passengers than the RT (64 seats compared with 56) yet was lighter being designed without a chassis. Some 500 of these magnificent buses, of which over 2 800 originally entered service mainly to replace London's trolleybuses in the early 1960s, have been refurbished and continue to run on busy central London routes.

All the buses up to the Routemaster needed a crew of two staff, the driver in the cab at the front and a conductor to collect fares and look after the safety of passengers as they boarded and alighted (just as was the case in 1829). With the growth of private car traffic, however, London's buses no longer covered their costs of operation. This in turn made it inevitable that London Transport adapted to what was already commonplace elsewhere, one-person operation of its buses. The vehicles had to be radically redesigned, with the engines at the back so that passengers could board at the front and pay their fare, or show their Travelcard or Bus Pass, to the driver.

Today all but a very small percentage of London bus routes are operated in this way. The other major transformation in the last 25 years has been LT's decision to buy buses from the manufacturers rather than design itself a bus suited specifically to the congested conditions of London's streets. The buses running in the Capital today include double- and single-deck vehicles, and shorter midibuses which are more suitable in environmentally sensitive residential areas. Increased awareness of the needs of passengers with disabilities has also had its impact on bus design with both "kneeling" buses, where the front suspension can be lowered at stops to allow easier access, and others with a wheelchair lift.

Since the beginning of 1995, London Transport has ceased to own any buses itself, and all buses operating London Transport's bus services are now provided by private companies. Working with these operators LT looks forward to a resurgence in bus travel in London. In the next few years buses will be given greater priority over other road vehicles which will attract even more passengers. For this expanding market, buses in future will be equipped with the latest technology to speed ticket checking and aid bus location and provide passengers at principal stops with waiting time information, and possibly also with sophisticated micro chip smartcard and ticket-checking equipment. These developments will ensure that the bus will continue to play a leading rôle in London's public transport network.

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