P148 - Street stars named desire by Mark Townsend

The Guardian, 26 September 2004

AS ICONS of London go, the Routemaster bus has few peers. News of its imminent abolition prompted disbelief across the world, in particular the US whose citizens have marvelled in their millions at the classic design for more than half a decade. Yet the real reason why the Routemaster will soon disappear commercially from the capital's streets is another altogether more modern US import: compensation culture.

Bus chiefs have admitted that in the fiercely competitive world of the London bus trade they can no longer afford the upsurge in litigation from passengers who fall off the famous 'hop-on-hop-off' design. The final straw came when an American lawyer fell from a Routemaster last year in Putney High Street and suffered brain damage.

Although the claimant had been drinking, he is understood to have sought compensation of more than £3 million. Experts claim the compensation for 'personal injury claims' on London buses has reached £50m a year with the majority of payouts going to Routemaster passengers. The design has also led to a handful of fatalities.

David Brown, the chief executive of bus company Go-Ahead in London, said:

'Thirty years ago when a passenger fell off the back it wouldn't cross their minds to seek litigation. Now it is the second thing they do after receiving treatment. The problem is that when people fall of a Routemaster they tend to land on their head.'

To ascertain the scale of the problem, research was commissioned last year to determine precisely how dangerous Routemasters were compared with their modern counterparts. It concluded that passengers were five times more likely to suffer an 'alighting accident' than on a modern, closed design.

Even before the research could report its conclusions, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone had

announced that Routemasters would be gradually phased out. By the end of next year they will have gone entirely. However plans have been drawn up for a heritage tour to satisfy US visitors who remain mystified how such a national symbol could be taken out of service.

While their imminent passing has been widely mourned, a Routemaster can be acquired for as little as £2,000. Scores of redundant models are for sale in a vast Essex car park.

One recent visitor was former All Saints star Natalie Appleton, who bought a Routemaster as a surprise birthday present for her husband, Liam Howlett, frontman for the Prodigy.

'Appleton just came down and picked one up, a lovely model,'

said a spokesman for Ensign Buses, a secondhand bus dealership in Purfleet, Essex.

Appleton had followed the lead of Andrew Lloyd-Webber who had also decided to procure a Routemaster for his long-time friend, the theatre impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh.

A spokesman for Transport for London said they understood why the bus would attract such sentimentality, but added there were a number of factors aside from safety that had led to the decision to phase out Routemasters.

He said that new buses offered better access for the disabled and elderly and as more people tended to buy tickets before boarding, conductors had become less relevant.

'We are not anti-Routemasters, we are simply pro-progress.'

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2/10/04 Last Updated 2/10/04