A celebration of failure: the AEC Merlin

If you ask someone to picture what a London bus looks like, it’s pretty certain that they’ll tell you it’s a red double-decker, and it’s highly likely they’ll picture a Routemaster. These buses became so well-known, and were in service for so long, that they’ve become an iconic symbol of London. There’s no shortage of Routemasters on tea towels, biscuit tins and postcards, even now, over fifteen years after the final ones in regular service were withdrawn.

The Routemaster proved to be extremely reliable, and well suited to the tough traffic conditions in central London. There’s some debate as to whether this is really true or not, but for many years, London was considered such an arduous place to operate buses that only specially-designed ones ever got to operate there. The Routemaster was the last of this line of bespoke London buses. Much as it has proven popular and enduring over the years, when it was introduced it was expensive to build, and many people thought it was over-engineered and a waste of money. By the time the Routemaster building programme was coming to an end in the mid-sixties, London Transport was in trouble. Routemasters need a driver and a conductor, and by this time, they had a serious recruitment problem. As well as the Routemaster, thousands of its predecessor type, the Regent Three, remained in service, and these had only 56 seats (the Routemaster had 64 or 72). These buses were getting on and urgently needed replacing, but it was essential they were cheaper to operate in a difficult climate. Driver-only operation would save money, and solve the difficulties with recruiting enough conductors.

Unfortunately, in the mid-sixties, although rear-engined double deckers existed that were suitable for driver-only use, it wasn’t legal to operate a double decker without a conductor, and wouldn’t be for a few years to come. Single-decker pay-as-you-enter buses had been around for a while, though, especially in the far-flung corners of London Transport’s empire, and they were considered a success. Therefore, it was decided to try and design a single-deck bus that wouldn’t need a conductor, and could carry getting on for sixty passengers, to replace the old RT buses.

It was permitted to build buses that were 36 feet long at the time (eleven metres in new money), considerably bigger than anything ever built before. London Transport ordered an experimental batch of buses known as AEC Merlins, and used them on new “Red Arrow” services in central London. These vehicles only had seats near the back, with a large space for standing passengers at the front. In an effort to speed up entry, fares were collected using automatic turnstiles. They seemed to work well, so after a brief trial period, over 600 buses were ordered. They went into service in large numbers in 1968.

The centre vehicle in this picture is London Transport MBA582, one of the Merlins that lasted on Red Arrow duties until 1981. Shot in the London Transport Museum Depot at Acton, it sits between a 1950s RF type bus, and a late-80s Dennis Dart, showing an interesting evolutionary process. I’d argue it’s the best looking of the three.

Before I go on to why and how they proved to be a failure in service, I’d like to comment on what these buses looked like. Although the design looks dated now, when they were new they looked sleek and modern, considerably more contemporary and cutting-edge than anything London Transport had ordered previously. The prototype buses had a rather clumsy-looking front end, but the production buses looked purposeful and smart. I always thought so, anyway. Buses in London have always been designed to high standards, and these were no exception.

Unfortunately, once out on the streets, things didn’t go well. They were too long, and frequently got bashed and scraped as drivers struggled to guide them through narrow and congested road. Passengers were confused by the automatic fare collection machinery, and didn’t trust it to work, so big queues built up for paying the driver. Worst of all, the buses frequently broke down. They were rather more sophisticated than London’s previous buses, and needed more attention to keep them going reliably. There weren’t enough mechanics at garages, so breakdowns caused big problems. London Transport was used to thrashing vehicles hard before giving them a periodic complete rebuild at Aldenham Bus Overhaul Works, but these vehicles weren’t able to cope with that method of operation and maintenance.

To cut a long story short, all these problems made the buses very unpopular, and most of them only lasted a few years, as before long LT was desperate to get rid of them. They tried solving the problems by experimenting a bit with different fare collection methods, but people weren’t ready to trust machines back then, and paying the driver still proved too slow to oust Routemasters from central London. The next batch of vehicles ordered were shorter, at ten metres long, in an effort to make them easier to manoeuvre, but they needed smaller engines which made reliability worse. Eventually, driver-only double deckers were permitted, and London Transport bought over 2600 Daimler Fleetlines, replacing earlier crewed buses and the unsuccessful driver-only single deckers. Most Merlins had gone by the mid-seventies, despite being intended to operate well into the eighties.

It took London Transport a long time to get used to modern off-the-peg buses, and it was only when MCW Metrobuses, Leyland Nationals and Titans came along later in the seventies that they got driver-only buses working reliably. They gave up on automatic fare collection in 1979, though, realising that the public hated it and it generally created more problems than it solved. Unfortunately, this meant that driver-only operation in central London just wasn’t practical until a faster method of boarding could be devised, and the Routemaster lasted much longer than intended. Creating an instant method of boarding and paying became a Holy Grail for London Transport, and lots of time and effort was put into trying to come up with a solution. Eventually, the problem was solved with the launch of the Oyster Card in 2003. This, and the need for buses to be more accessible for disabled people, finally banished the Routemaster from the streets of London.

About a tenth of the Merlin fleet soldiered on until 1981, on the Red Arrow services. They worked quite well here, and London Transport had learned how to make them reliable enough by then. In fact, lots of other companies bought them secondhand and had no trouble with them at all. They ended up as far afield as Australia, but quite a number were sent to Belfast, where buses were regularly destroyed in The Troubles. Citybus and Ulsterbus seemed to operate them quite successfully, but almost all the exported vehicles ended up bombed or burnt out by terrorists.

Although the Merlin had a short life and is widely considered a failure, it represented the first serious attempt to modernise London’s buses at a time when this was sorely needed, and a lot of aspects of the design fed into later, much more successful, vehicles. I’m always on the side of the underdog, and I have a great deal of interest in this widely-ignored and unloved batch of vehicles. I don’t think I ever travelled on an original 36ft Merlin in service, but I’m pretty sure I travelled on its slightly shorter successor, the Swift, at least a few times when I was a kid. A few survive in preservation, though, and I’m really keen to ride one if I ever get the chance. They were short-lived and didn’t achieve what they were meant to, but I think they deserve a little niche in history. You could even argue they started the long journey to Oyster, and the revolution in public transport this brought about.

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