London's famous red Routemaster buses to retire

After half a century, London's famous red Routemaster buses are rattling into retirement. Thousands of fans were bidding farewell to the famous hop-on, hop-off buses Thursday, the last full day of regular service for the workaday icon that has graced thousands of photographs and postcards of the city.

Transport authorities are withdrawing the blunt-nosed double-decker from its last route, the 159 from Marble Arch to Streatham Hill, on Friday. The final Routemaster will leave central London just after noon (1200 GMT), bound south of the river to a bus garage in Brixton. "My experience of London is diminished by their passing," said Travis Elborough, author of a book about the Routemaster, "The Bus We Loved."

Many Londoners agree. In a poll last month for the city's Evening Standard newspaper, 81 percent of respondents opposed scrapping the Routemaster. But city transport bosses say the venerable vehicle cannot accommodate disabled people and must be replaced by more user-friendly buses. "We want to provide the most modern, fully accessible safest buses we can," Transport for London spokesman Stephen Webb said. "It's not romantic, but it works."

The bus is not disappearing completely. Sixteen Routemasters, restored to gleaming 1960s glory, will remain on two "heritage routes" that run through central London between 9:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.

But its demise as part of everyday London life has triggered an outpouring of nostalgia. The British Broadcasting Corp. is running an evening of TV programs celebrating the bus on Saturday. Composer Tom Smail has created "Requiem for the Routemaster," an orchestral piece that evokes the throb of an engine, the tinkle of a bell and the zip of a conductor's ticket machine. "It's actually more of an 'in memoriam,"' Smail told BBC radio. "So you have the sadness, and you have the joy of being on a bus."

Travelers appreciate the conductors who dispense tickets, and often travel information, once passengers are seated. "The Routemaster is a child of austerity, but it comes into its own in the late '50s and early '60s, when London is becoming a much more polychromatic city, the Kodak-color, James Bond, color-supplement London," said Elborough. "It becomes an embodiment of London at that point." The long-lived bus has been condemned and reprieved in the past.

During Livingstone's first term, old Routemasters were refurbished, and fans hoped they would stay in service at least until 2016, the deadline for making all buses wheelchair-accessible under EU rules. But in 2003, Routemasters began disappearing, replaced by newer double-deckers or, horror! by single-decker, articulated behemoths known as "bendy buses." Two years ago, there were still 500 Routemasters running in London; after Friday, there will be only the 16 "heritage" vehicles. "We live in an era where brands are constantly reinvented, new VW Beetles, new Minis, new London cabs," said Elborough. "It's just a shame that we are losing this key piece of London vernacular", reports the AP. N.U.

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