Christopher Booker's Notebook


(Filed: 13/10/2002)

Mayor to axe the London bus
Politicians waffle as EU onslaught continues
Standards without an ounce of sense
UK in the dock over non-existent rail service

Mayor to axe the London bus

Thanks to a strange alliance between the taxi-loving Europhile Ken Livingstone and the Brussels Commission, it seems that a 10-year campaign to get rid of the double-decker Routemaster bus, a London icon, is about to achieve what one lobby group hails as "a great victory".

Dick Halle, "strategy director" of London Buses, gleefully predicts that within five years the last Routemaster will have disappeared from the London streets. Already its preferred replacement, the 60 ft Continental-style "bendy bus", made by Mercedes-Benz, with two articulated coaches and most passengers standing, is appearing on central London bus routes. The intention is it should soon become the mainstay of the capital's public road transport.

One odd feature of this campaign is the hysterical venom that the Routemaster has drawn from its detractors. Although Mr Livingstone and his allies contrast it with its "modern" German competitor as an inefficient and costly relic of the past, the 1950s-designed hop-on and hop-off Routemaster has survived all previous attempts to replace it precisely because it is so superbly matched to its role in moving passengers round crowded central London. As one of its countless admirers, Colette Hiller, recently put it in a letter to The Guardian "anyone who knows about RM buses can tell you why they are the world's most ergonomically-designed city bus, with a suspension system superior to all others and an engine separate to the bodywork, which can be repaired in half the time; and how they run roughly one-third faster than buses without conductors".

The battle to eradicate the traditional British double-decker was one of the longest-running Brussels sagas of the 1990s. Year after year EC officials were locked in successive drafts of what was then known as "the bus and coach directive", supported by German bus manufacturers who saw a directive to harmonise EU bus design round the "continental model" as their way of breaking into the lucrative British market. There was the famous moment when the committee accepted a Dutch compromise, allowing manufacture of double-decker buses to continue so long as, for safety reasons, they had one-and-a-half staircases and nine doors.

The real turning point came when lobbyists for the Continental model moved on from the original emphasis on safety to ensuring that buses were made "fully accessible to the disabled", including an insistence that every bus must be fitted with lifts for wheelchairs. Now rechristened as a directive making "provisions for vehicles used for the carriage of passengers comprising more than eight seats in addition to the driver's seat", the result in 2000 was one of the greatest legislative masterpieces Brussels has ever produced. It prescribes exactly how a bus must be designed down to the tiniest detail, including the dimensions of seat cushions, the height of handrails and the size of the lettering on signs setting out permissible baggage weights.

"The height of the uncompressed seat cushion relative to the floor," rules one article, "shall be such that the distance from the floor to a horizontal plane tangent to the upper front surface of the seat cushion is between 400 and 500 millimetres." "At least one escape hatch," states another, "shall be located such that a four-sided truncated pyramid having a side angle of 20 degrees and a height of 1,600mm touches part of a seat or equivalent support." "The free space between the gangway and the emergency door aperture," says a third, "shall permit the free passage of a vertical cylinder 300mm in diameter and 700mm high from the floor and supporting a second vertical cylinder 550mm in diameter, the aggregate height of the assembly being 1400mm."

So it continues for 55 pages, like something out of Swift's Lagado. The result was all that the lobbyists could have wanted, ensuring that every bus made in the EU will eventually look like every other, and no sooner was the directive agreed than shadowy groups such as the "European Disabled Forum" were wheeled on to acclaim it as a "great victory".

All that was left was to ensure that any unreconstructed relics of past ages, such as the Routemaster, were cleared from the road as soon as possible, to make way for the brave new world of the Euro-bus - which was where Ken Livingstone came in, to proclaim his "vision" of a truly "modern" bus service, allowing London at last to step out of the Dark Ages and to take its place alongside Paris and Berlin. Except that Berlin has belatedly discovered that the most efficient way to move passengers round city centres is the double-decker.

Meanwhile many genuinely infirm people (as opposed to Brussels-sponsored lobby groups) point out that the type of bus they actually find most user-friendly is the Routemaster: not least because, when you are unsteady on your feet or weighed down with luggage, it has a conductor to give you a helping hand onto the platform.

Politicians waffle as EU onslaught continues

Friday morning's Today programme offered yet another example of how, as the EU makes its final moves towards full political integration, Britain's politicians and media seem to inhabit a different planet from everyone else in Europe. Our Minister for Europe, Peter Hain, yet again praised his boss, Jack Straw, for coming up with the brilliantly novel idea that the EU should have its own constitution, without pointing out that this is precisely what the 105 delegates to the EU's "constitutional convention" in Brussels have been discussing since March.

Michael Ancram, the Tory spokesman, then came on to rehearse his weary plea that the EU must become "more flexible", giving more power to its member states, without pointing out that this is so far from anything that anyone other than Britain's Tories have in mind that it is like a man confronted by an elephant plaintively wishing it was a sheep. John Humphrys sat pettishly in the middle, allowing them both to get away with this twaddle.

So far removed from the reality of what is going on in Brussels were these "Little Englanders" that once again one is left utterly baffled. Do they actually hope to fool us with this vacuous wishful thinking? Or can it be possible that they really have so little grasp of what is happening in front of their noses that they genuinely know no better?

Standards without an ounce of sense

In Gosport, Hampshire, a trading standards official recently came up to the greengrocery stall run by Wayne Porrino Carriella to threaten him with prosecution for the crime of selling his wares in pounds and ounces. When a crowd of angry customers rounded on him, demanding their right to buy fruit and veg under the system they prefer, the hapless official was forced to beat such a hasty retreat he left his briefcase behind.

Meanwhile in Worcester, hundreds of customers are flocking into the restaurant run by Andrea Schutz at the Cardinal's Hat pub, to sign a petition supporting her right to sell beer from her native Austria in traditional one-litre steins. This follows a threat of criminal prosecution by a Worcester trading standards official, John Dell, on the grounds that, under EU metrication directives, draught beer in Britain may be sold only by the pint. Mrs Schutz is happy to sell beer by the pint if her customers wish, but points out that they enjoy drinking it from the earthenware mugs that add to her establishment's gemutlichkeit.

In Covent Garden, however, where a bar is offering Londoners a version of Munich's Oktoberfest, giving customers the chance to drink by the litre from traditional German steins, trading standards officials apparently have no objection to such criminal flouting of EU law. How wonderfully rational this metrication process is turning out to be.

UK in the dock over non-existent rail service

Britain has been threatened with a hefty fine by the European Court of Justice unless it fully implements EU directive 96/48 on the "inter-operability of the trans-European high-speed rail system". According to the European Commission, the Government had failed to issue regulations applying the directive to Northern Ireland. The Government's defence was that no high-speed trains operate in Northern Ireland. Not good enough, ruled the Court. The important thing is not that the directive is irrelevant but that it must be obeyed to the letter. British taxpayers must therefore foot a legal bill amounting to tens of thousands of pounds, for failing to regulate a high-speed train service that does not exist.