18 Things You Didn't Know About London Buses

By Spencer Hart on at

Buses have a long and interesting history in the capital. Today the Mayor of London is launching the year of the bus, celebrating an iconic symbol of our transport network which carries 6.5 million people a day. Below are eighteen facts covering a selection of historical, contemporary and weird nuggets of info about the world-famous transport system.


1.) Why are the buses red?

Before 1907, buses were painted in different colours to signify their route. Due to fierce competition between bus companies, London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) – which became the biggest bus operator in the capital – painted their fleet of buses red in order to stand out from the competition. After encouragement from the Metropolitan Police they also introduced numbers on the buses to signify different routes.


2.) When was the first bus service?

On Saturday 4th July 1829 George Shillibeer began operating the city's first omnibus service, running from Paddington along the New Road to Bank. He imported the idea from Paris where the service was already popular. The omnibuses could carry 22 people and were pulled by three horses. The service ran four return journeys every day.

Image credit: Museum of London


3.) The Roundel logo

In 1912 LGOC became part of the Underground Group, uniting bus services and the underground railway. A roundel symbol which combined the LGOC’s ‘winged wheel’ and the Underground’s ‘bar and circle’ was introduced on maps and used as the company logo. This symbol was designed to help passengers distinguish travel information from commercial advertising.

Image credit: London Transport Museum


4.) Buses and pigeons helped the war effort

In 1902 LGOC implemented so-called motorbuses in order to compete with the newly opened Central London Railway; now known as the Central Line. The most successful and reliable motorbus was the B-Type Bus. Nine hundred were used to transport troops in World War I, some of which were converted to house carrier pigeons – as seen in the image above.

Image credit: London Transport Museum


5.) Two iconic Routemasters are still in use

The Routemaster bus is symbolic of London but this couldn’t save them from being withdrawn from service on 9th December 2005. They were replaced with easy access low-floor buses. However two Routemasters are still in use today on heritage routes. These are Route 9 from Kensington High Street to Aldwych and Route 15 from Trafalgar Square to Tower Hill.

Image credit: Ashfield Clutch Services


6.) The Knight Bus was commissioned in 1865

Well, at least that's what J.K. Rowling would have you believe. The bus seen in the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was constructed using three RT-Class AEC Regent III buses. It is summoned by sticking your wand in the air, as a muggle might hail a taxi. The service is generally used by wizards who are underage or infirm. Hot chocolate is available for the sum of thirteen sickles and there are many beds on which to rest a wizard's head.


7.) Three women have used almost every route

In March 2009 Linda, Mary and Jo began a monumental task: endeavouring to travel on every single bus route in London, in numerical order, using their Freedom Pass for those over 60 years old. As of 23rd January 2014 they only have two routes left. You can even follow their ventures though a regularly updated blog.

Image credit: The Times


8.) In the 1920s ‘Pirate Buses’ became a problem

After WWI there was a shortage of buses in London. An enterprising man by the name of A.G. Partridge realised he could profit from operating an independent service on some of the more popular routes. Dozens of similar companies started appearing and by 1924 there were 200 independent buses in London. These buses didn’t stick to a single route, often taking shortcuts to avoid traffic. Races between LGOC buses and ‘pirates’ became a common sight on the streets of London.

Image credit: BBC


9.) A single-decker is the fastest bus

In a 2008 episode of Top Gear Richard Hammond set out to discover which bus was best for London. He did this by racing a double-decker, bendy bus, hopper and single-decker around a race track. The single-decker won. He also proved it’s possible to drift a double decker. Watch the carnage here.


10.) How much did the first bus journey cost?

The fare for George Shillibeer’s omnibus was one shilling from Paddington to Bank and sixpence for a halfway journey. This is equal to 5p and 2.5p respectively in today's currency. The service wasn’t considered cheap but it cost less than a hackney carriage journey. Today a single journey costs £2.40 if paying by cash or £1.40 by Oyster.


11.) The bus in Cars 2 is named Topper Deckington III

The iconic Routemaster bus makes a cameo appearance in the Pixar film Cars 2. Named Topper Deckington III, his route around Killswitch goes via Carford Street, Shiftly Road and Petroldilly Circus. One bus features an advert for ‘Calahan’s Gastropub & Knittery’ which is a reference to the film's lighting director Sharon Calahan.


12.) How long does a bus driver train for?

Bus drivers must obtain a Driver Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC). This involves completing three tests: a theory and hazard perception, a case study and demonstration, and a practical driving. It takes around 55 hours of practical training for a bus driver to pass. For more detailed information on becoming a bus driver this blog is very informative.


13.) It is possible to track every bus in London

TfL currently uses GPS tracking to provide customers with real-time information of the next bus arrival. This information has been put into an accessible map which allows users to track every single bus in London. Before buses were equipped with GPS, Transport for London used a system called Bus Electronic Scanning Indicator (BESI). BESI scanned barcodes on buses, which let operators know where each bus was, giving an overall view of the route.


14.) What are bus spotters trying to spot?

The bus spotters, or bus nuts as they are affectionately known here in the UK, can be interested in many different aspects of the bus world. For example they look for fleet numbers, which are separate from route numbers and are used to differentiate individual buses. Other interest points are bus model evolution, attached advertising, service routines, bus life cycle, and changes in livery.

Image credit: Jason Borg


15.) Bendy Buses became known as ‘The Free Bus'

Fare evasion on articulated 'bendy' buses was almost double the amount of a conventional bus. This was due to the three-door design and long carriage meaning passengers could sneak on and off without paying. Bendy buses were taken out of service in 2009 because they blocked junctions and were a danger to cyclists.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons


16.) A competition found the new London bus design

In his 2008 election campaign, Boris Johnson vowed to bring the Routemaster back to London. The design of the bus was subject to a competition, with international design companies submitting entries. The winning designs were chosen, altered slightly, and in 2010 the final design was unveiled.

The final design was dubbed the New Bus for London (NB4L) or, informally, the Boris Bus. It has three entrances and exits, including an open rear platform (a design nod to the original Routemaster). The interior is climate-controlled and the bus is powered by a diesel-electric hybrid motor which produces around half the amount of carbon dioxide than a conventional bus would.

Image credit: Transport for London


17) London is haunted by a phantom double-decker

Last spotted in 1990, the phantom number seven bus appears in Cambridge Gardens (W10) at 1.15 am. People have reported the bus driving towards them in the middle of the road, with no lights and no one at the wheel. Convinced they are about to collide with the bus, drivers often swerve out of the way, only to look back and find the bus has vanished without a trace. The phantom bus has even claimed the lives of some, most notably in 1934 when a car burst into flames at the exact spot the bus is regularly sighted.


18.) What is the weirdest object found on a bus?

There is a long list of weird objects that turn up at Transport for London’s Lost Property Office. Whether it be stuffed puffer fish, breast implants, harpoon guns and prosthetic limbs – they've all turned up in the past. Perhaps the most unfortunate passenger is an elderly gentleman who claimed his false teeth, only to return an hour later grimacing while he explained they weren’t his after all. The most common items are books, umbrellas and bags.

Image credit: London Transport Museum