London's red RFs – 60 years 1952-2012


The old and the new, 1952 style.  'Scooter' LT1093 represents the pre-war generation at Clapton Pond on 13 October 1952, on route 208.  RF303 is the new order, in the fifth day of RF operation of the second red RF route, the 208A.  In three months time, there would be no more Scooters operating in London.
Photo © Alan Cross


After the second world war, London Transport’s red bus fleet needed major renewal.  First in line were the double-deckers, always by far the largest part of the fleet, as it had long been LT policy to operate double-deckers wherever physically possible.  From 1947 to 1954, LT rapidly built up the largest fleet of standardised double-deckers in the world, the RT family.  Between 1946 and 1948, as a stop-gap measure, it also purchased 181 new red single-deckers (the TDs and post-war Ts) of pre-war design.  Meanwhile, it continued to run a large number of elderly single-deckers, including Ts dating from 1929-32, LT Scooters from 1931 and 5Q5s from 1936.  In 1951, there was a service requirement for 385 single-deckers, mainly on routes where low bridges made double-deck operation impossible.


New design ideas were applied to the 1949 prototype AEC Regal IV, UMP227, trialled by London Transport in 1950-1 and now under restoration at the London Bus Museum.  This high-floored bus had a centrally mounted underfloor engine, laid on its side.  The flat front and front entrance (as previously seen on the Q-class) gave maximum internal space (as well as the potential for future one-man operation).  The trial was a success and the RF was born.


The RF's AEC chassis carried a 9.6 litre diesel engine under the floor, with access via detachable panels on the offside.  Apart from changes arising from being laid on its side, this engine was essentially similar to that carried by the RT.  Bodywork was provided by Metro-Cammell of Birmingham, previously a supplier of trolleybus bodies but not buses.  Metro-Cammell bodywork had an excellent reputation for durability and the RF has proved to be one of the most robust buses ever built.  700 were built in four variants, Private Hire coach, Green Line coach, red bus and green Country bus.  The Metropolitan Police would not permit doors on red buses, as they were considered to slow down boarding and therefore impede traffic, so the red buses were built without doors and ran with a crew of two.  Many red RFs were later converted for one-man operation and doors were fitted, but the London Bus Museum's RF395 retains its original format.


The Belmont statnd was on the west side of the road in 1953Belmont, 2 August 1953. Merton's RT2958 and Norbiton's RF293 await departure on the 88 and 213 respectively.  Both the RT and the RF are less than a year old, illustrating the renewal of the bus fleet after the war that enabled the withdrawal of buses such as the ST, which dates from 1930.  By 1953 a mobile canteen, the former Tilling ST922 is now restored and resides at the London Bus Museum.

Photo © Alan Cross


The red RFs carried 41 passengers, a significant increase on the 35 seats of the Q and LT types.  Given the high volume of bus traffic in the period immediately after the war, this extra capacity was urgently needed and 225 red RFs were delivered between September 1952 and March 1953.  The first entered service on 11 September 1952 on route 210, running across Hampstead Heath between Golders Green and Finsbury Park and operated by Muswell Hill garage.  Ironically, this was one of the few single-deck routes that had no physical restriction requiring single-deck operation, but local residents refused to accept double-deck buses.  The same was true on route 200 in Wimbledon – did residents not want passengers seeing over the shrubbery?


The deliveries allowed the conversion of thirteen routes to the new buses.  North London also saw conversion of the 212 between Finsbury Park and Muswell Hill, the 233 between Finsbury Park and Northumberland Park, the 208A between Clapton Pond and Stratford and the 208 between Clapton Pond and Bromley-by-Bow.  Closest to the centre of London was Surrey Docks route 202 between New Cross and Old Kent Road.  Also south of the river, Wimbledon local route 200 and the busy Kingston to Sutton route 213 were converted along with semi-rural route 237 between Hounslow and Chertsey.  Further east, Bromley and Sidcup saw conversion of the 227 Crystal Palace to Chislehurst, 228 Chislehurst to Well Hall and 241 Sidcup to Welling, and RFs replaced the last scheduled LT Scooters on Purley to Hackbridge route 234A.


The buses were immediately successful and were in high demand.  Their greater capacity and faster running allowed enough buses to be squeezed out of the schedules to permit conversion of Loughton to Woodford route 254 later in 1953.  They had allowed the withdrawal of the pre-war single-deck fleet from the Central Area, including a fascinating variety of ex-Green Line and Country buses whose lives had been extended to help out, but leaving in service the post-war Ts and TDs.  The RFs stayed on the same routes for five years, until a programme of bridge works allowed a series of routes to be double-decked.  First were the 228 and 241 at Sidcup in 1958, whose RFs were used to convert the 211, 222 and 236, then the 208A in 1959, 212 at Muswell Hill in 1960, the Uxbridge routes in 1962 and the 213 in 1963.  It was the conversion of the 212, by the strengthening of the weak bridge on Muswell Hill, that brought RFs to the garage later synonymous with red RFs - Kingston.  21 buses moved overnight to replace TDs on the 218/219, the routes which nineteen years later would be the last operators of the type.


1960s contrastA new use for the red RF fleet came with the introduction of one-man operation.  Route 291 was one of the first new routes, formed in 1965 from a section of RT route 129.  RF495 is seen in Linton Road, Barking, the massive 1960s block of flats known as The Lintons contrasting with the terraced houses. 

Photo © Alan Cross


Although ideally laid out for one-man operation ('OMO', there were no women bus drivers in London until the 1980s), this was not the plan initially as one-man operation was limited to buses with up to 26 seats.  Conversion of red RFs for one-man operation started in 1959, once the country bus fleet was done.  This involved fitting doors and reducing the number of seats by two to 39.  However, union agreement to Central Area driver-only operation had lapsed with the last of the Cubs in 1949 and renewal of the agreement was not forthcoming.  It took five years before agreement was reached, with the conversion to OMO on 18 Nov 64 of four less busy routes - 201, 206, 216 and 250 (the first three in the Kingston area, the fourth in rural Essex).  Conversion to OMO continued, with the last crew single-deck route, the 236, losing its conductors on 16 Apr 71.  However, by now RFs were being replaced by new Swifts; not all of the crew red RFs were converted and surplus buses were sold.


As the reduction in passenger numbers that started in the 1950s gathered pace and the attractions of cost reduction by double-decking continued, the inevitable contraction in the single-deck fleet continued in the 1960s.  Staff shortages and the arguments about Central Area OMO led in 1963 to the Phelps-Brown Committee of Inquiry.  One-man operation gave a new lease of life to the RF in 1964, but LT's response went further, leading to the infamous Reshaping Plan which brought wholesale change in 1968.  Until then, OMO conversion meant using the RF, providing work for surplus buses in replacing crew RTs in a reversal of the previous trend towards double-decking where possible.  This process started in October 1965 with the 20B at Loughton and continued in some cases to use RFs after the introduction of more modern types, with the North Circular route 212 in September 1971 as the last new red RF route.


Through the upheavals of the Swift era, the RFs quietly kept running.  There were no mass withdrawals until after the Country Area had been transferred to the National Bus Company as London Country on 1 Jan 70, taking with it 413 RFs.  In the Central Area, LT retained 233 red RFs at the start of 1970, eight more than originally delivered (by virtue of transfers from the Country Area).  The one-person buses continued in service in diminishing numbers through the 1970s, outlasting some of their successors.  The last RFs were planned to finish by 1976, but although RFs were withdrawn from 16 routes in 1976, six routes survived into 1977 - Kingston's 218 and 219, Hounslow's 202 (the second RF route to bear that number) and 237, the 234A at Croydon and Edgware's 251.  The latter two were converted to Bristol BL operation in January, with Hounslow following in April - the 237 having been in continuous RF operation since December 1952, a period of over 24 years.


But London Transport had a problem.  They had planned to convert routes 218 and 219 (which together needed 19 buses) to Swift operation, but these buses were too long for the pits at Kingston garage and the unions would not accept them.  There were no more BLs available, so a batch of RFs were reconditioned and certified for a further three years' service, the work being carried out at Hanwell and Stonebridge garages.  The 218 and 219 therefore continued as the sole operators of RFs in LT, until finally a solution was found to the Kingston problem - by transferring the routes to Norbiton garage.  So with due ceremony (and a week before the end of the RTs on the 62), the last RFs ran in London service on Friday 30 Mar 79, the last one home being RF507 in the early hours of 31 March. 


Read the full story of London Transport's RF fleet.


Former RF401 working Blue Triangle's route 612 past Chappell Viaduct in Essex's Colne Valley, on a wet day in August 1990.

Photo © John Parkin


Since 1979, and indeed since LT started to dispose of its RFs, these tough buses have found all sorts of alternative uses.  In addition to use by independent operators, they have been used by a variety of clubs and societies, and many have, directly or indirectly, entered preservation.  It is suggested that at least 100 of the original 700 are still in existence, with a handful still earning a living on regular service and private hires.  28 came together in 2009 at Sandown Park to mark the 30th anniversary of the last LT service - all surviving RFs have now more than doubled their LT life.


The 60th anniversary of the red RFs in 2012 is marked by a display at London Bus Museum's Spring Gathering, and later in the year by a number of route-based events.  Details here.