Routemaster Bus

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1 min short, including the classic ding ding – hold tight

The charismatic London bus is gone from the streets of the city. I recorded one in 2005, as they were being phased out. There are many sites dedicated to keeping the memory of these alive, but not so many dedicated to one of the aspects many Londoners will remember them by – their quite unusual sound.

Part of their sound  was a result of the dynamic between the conductor, passengers, and the driver. Unlike modern buses the driver was in his own compartment and never had anything to do with the public. That was left to the conductor, who collected fares and managed the starting and stopping of the bus by signals on the bell, which was the only means of communication with the driver other than the buzzer which performed the same function from the top deck and the open platform.

The bell was mechanical – a cord ran the length of the ceiling of the bus halfway over the left-hand row of seats. This cord went through the front wall of the passenger compartment to a clapper. When the cord was tugged, the bell sounded and both the driver and the passengers could hear it.

In London Transport usage, the bell signals were as follows-

  • One ring. This was for passengers, to indicate  they wanted to get off at the next request stop. This was the only signal passenegrs were meant to sound, though obviously the temptation could get too much for London’s schoolkids at times.
  • Two rings. The conductor signals to the driver that everybody has boarded and disembarked from the bus and he can move off
  • Three rings. This depended on context – the most common was cancel the two ring move off instruction just given (either in error, or by one of the schoolkids) However, it could also mean ‘don’t stop at the next stop to take on more passengers as the bus is full and nobody is getting off’

and every frequent user knew the familiar sound of the conductor calling out ‘hold tight’ followed by a ‘ding ding’ of the bell.

The Routemaster had a really unusual engine and transmission sound. I believe that in the early 1970s they had a manual transmission, but this was replaced over that decade by an odd kind of automatic transmission. The engine was in the front, unlike most modern buses, and there was a bell-housing which protruded into the passenger compartment slightly just behind the driver – the passengers in the aisle side of the first row of seats could rest their foot on this. This was the seat I took to record the friendly sound of this bus, with its distinct speed-dependent tone, odd idling characteristics and typical squeal of the brakes.

These buses were about 50 years old when they were retired later on in the year. It took several goes to get a photo of a bus that was in reasonable visual condition.

recorded 12 April 2005

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