Lower Tier vs. The Elite Hybrid

Metroline have introduced LT543-563 to headquarters Cricklewood (W) to convert route 16 to 'New Routemaster' service.

Route 16 is a relatively straight route, but maintains a status as one of the busiest routes throughout all of the areas it serves. From Cricklewood Bus Garage, the route starts on Cricklewood Broadway, collecting its first bunch of passengers at The Crown pub. As traffic becomes more free-flowing towards and along Shoot-Up-Hill, the smooth drive is abruptly halted by the infamous Kilburn traffic, which prolongs all the way to Kilburn High Road Station, route 16 dropping off and picking up more passengers throughout the steady approach to Maida Vale.

Patience is rewarded from here as the road opens up to create more space and drive to breeze to Edgware Road, where more infamous traffic is met. Off come a crowd of passengers, on come a new bunch to keep the bus packed into the route's tourist sections of Marble Arch and Hyde Park. Buses moderately empty approaching Victoria, ending what was a busy 45-minute journey, but probably now an hour long journey with a reduced frequency of every 7-8 minutes and a reduced peak vehicle requirement (PVR) to 18 from 22 to make possible the introduction of 'New Routemasters' not intended for the route or its PVR.

Route 168 is allocated Alexander Dennis Enviro400 hybrid buses
with its introduction under Metroline from Cricklewood (W).
LT543-563 were, in fact, intended for route 168, its surprising tender result announcing a new contract with Metroline from Cricklewood (W) starting on 26 September 2015. However, due to disapproval from Camden Council, the 'New Routemaster' hybrid buses specified for the new contract were postponed for next year.

Meanwhile, a batch of LTs were ready for service, so why not give a route with a stunning service - considering its high demand - and a batch of The Elite Hybrids a refresh with a supply of Lower Tier buses which do not meet demand? Sounds like a company who have wasted their income on over-production of their own vanity project before studying what customers want - or need, providing this is actually a high-frequency ... pfft, was ... service which should be prioritised in ensuring it runs at a frequency and reliability tolerable for its daily commuters, bus type secondary to this.

Which is why I stood my ground, counter-attacking talk of LTs for route 16 until this was confirmed. I would not accept this completely unnecessary farce of a service change for this simple reason: a bus service which can maintain its reliability and quality of buses with such high demand on it does not even need to be considered for a service change and does not need to be replaced by buses that claim they are the best hybrid buses in the world yet struggle to perform as well as some of the average hybrids in London.

Yes, they have an ultramodern design and a name that shows admiration to what it should look like. Yes, the 168 needed hybrid buses for its new contract, so hybrid buses needed to be ousted from somewhere. But why not from the 189, which could have got LTs instead with its PVR of 18, one extra bus for Saturdays and one surplus? We were expecting the route to get them, that would have been more logical and everyone would be indifferent. No-one's happy? Fine, let's make them angry instead.

Unfortunately, there was an unexpected excitement brewing as I approached my bus stop in the mornings, awaiting my first glimpse of an LT on the 16. I was surprised, upon arriving at the bus stop, to have just missed one but only need wait 2 minutes for the next. And along came LT560 (LTZ 1560) with a weirdly compelling presence; perhaps it was the capitalised destination qualifying point on the displays that got me. So with a decent frequency - as far as I needed to be concerned at that moment - after a frequency decrease and the excitement of having a daily LT commute, it was time to board the bus. Even more surprising was how much I embraced the introduction of the new buses on my route!

The bus was quiet: running in electric mode to start off with before switching to diesel as we built up considerable speed, as expected from the hybrid bus. The composure of the drive illustrated the tranquility of morning life through the suburban surroundings of Maida Vale and as the journey came to an end, I had to admit to myself: this was a beautiful introduction of 'New Routemasters' for route 16.

LT554 (LTZ 1554) parked a few metres before Carlton Vale bus stop, Maida Vale.
Later on in the day, I saw LT554 (LTZ 1554) parked a few metres before Carlton Vale bus stop, the bus halted from service to Cricklewood for an issue that required assistance. Soon, an engineer arrived with LT554's replacement: TE1312, the same 32-like downgrade route 16 had recently seen with more TEs returning to the route. (You should see what the 32 used whilst the 16 awaited a full allocation of LTs.)

The next day, I took a trip to Cricklewood on LT545 (LTZ 1545) to analyse the buses more thoroughly. What differentiates LT543-563 from other LTs is the robust nature of the bodywork and suspension. The drive feels more controlled, the bodywork feels bulky and there is a rigidity within the suspension that creates a strong sense of stability about the bus. But it all feels a bit stiff, a bit less agile, a bit less light.

Noticeably, LT543-563 has quite a few uneven variations within the batch itself. You can have a 'New Routemaster' as dreamily calm, silky smooth and cosily air-conditioned as the LTs on route 38, then have a bus that is a complete fumble ... like Metroline LTs ... at Holloway (HT). Enough said about that. LT554 was back in service the day after it got replaced by a TE, a 12-reg at that, which does not help its case. Neither is fact it sounded terrible and I'm sure the brake discs were glowing white as the bus choked away from the bus stop.

Further analysis came from LT546 (LTZ 1546). It has been established that 25mph does not feel fast inside a 'New Routemaster' whose engine grumbling does not want to shut up for the short while that it should do to be classed as a hybrid bus.

Notwithstanding this, LT548 (LTZ 1548) restored the compelling character I first met the buses with. Cricklewood (W) and their ability to get buses fixed (or tolerable, at the very least) or make their buses fix themselves back to high quality is what I love about the standard of buses there! LT548 stayed in diesel when I got on, but at the next stop switched into electric and remained in quiet mode as we cruised along Edgware Road, no hum from the battery charging or engine required. Superb quality for an LT. A good journey, forcing me to embrace the introduction of the 'New Routemaster' on my local route.

Yeah, fantastic. The next day, though, the air-conditioning and humming of battery were at full force, as soon as I got on the exact same bus, pretty much to make as much noise as possible, before turning off as soon as I got off. Looking at the bus glide away past the traffic lights to progress down a less congested Edgware Road than what is the norm, I realised this was a reverse experience to yesterday's journey on LT548. What you can also realise from the 'New Routemaster' is some buses sporadically decide when to stay in diesel mode and when to go into electric, rather than a fixed pattern. Nothing to rant about, though - better than a hybrid bus in diesel all the time, ain't that Wright, Holloway (HT)?

LT547 (LTZ 1547) is another mostly quiet bus, producing little noise except for the unnoticeable high-pitched whirring of the battery. Even the recharging battery grumble was quiet. What is not quiet is Alexander Dennis, who have just took competition to another level by making their own alternative to the 'New Routemaster'. More on that later.

How is the 168 doing? Some say better, some say worse. I don't really know. I had one experience where there was a half an hour gap behind my bus, then a few bunching of buses before the service balanced out again. All I can say is that route 168 has gained a new allocation of superb hybrid buses. And Metroline's new extended southernmost presence has been anti-climatic: not as spectacular as it first sounded. It is possible to suggest that route 16 is running better.

For a Metroline LT route, the 16 has impressed. In terms of my Borismaster Performance Hierarchy, I would say there are many better complete batches on other routes and the fact that some buses are noticeably better than others with LT543-563 is what lets down the route. As well as the frequency. 

My goodness, I know I said I was impressed with an LT coming 2 minutes after I missed one, but this was in the direction of Cricklewood. Meaning buses towards Victoria were less than that going back to the bus garage. This reliability issue became more noticeable when there was immense traffic in Kilburn in late October and while buses appeared frequently on the 16 towards Cricklewood, none were passing by towards Victoria, creating more than a half an hour gap in the service. I must have counted at least 4 buses on the 98 and 332 each go by before a 16 even bothered to turn up. 

Now that the 16 is less reliable than it was outstanding being so before, it has allowed the 98 to become a more frequent route where they parallel and sometimes the 16 is as frequent as its younger partner, the 332. Which is just shameful. And the 98 is taking the double-decker electric buses initially publicised with popularity to enter service on route 16, too.

So a ridiculous service change and varied quality within its batch of LTs makes for a fairly average conversion. The Borismaster Performance Hierarchy looks like this: 38, 73, 148, 9, 8, 453, 137, 15, 55, 16, 12, 88, 11, 10, 390 and 24. Yes, it has the best 'New Routemasters' with Metroline - that's not saying much. Yes, the service is not as bad as I expected - that's not saying much. Yes, Alexander Dennis are laughing with Arriva as Borismaster Watch has a new bus type to introduce.

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