A bus that runs at 60mph in a concrete tube might sound the stuff of science fiction, but this unconventional mode of public transport will be opening in Cambridgeshire in a few weeks' time. The world's longest guided busway reveals a new weapon for planners in the battle to persuade drivers out of their cars and onto public transport.
Forecasts suggest that 11,000 trips a day will be made initially, equivalent to 3.5 million passengers a year. The figure is expected to rise to six million once planned developments along the route are completed. The system is set to launch in late October or early November. It has been delayed since the summer for reasons disputed by owner Cambridgeshire County Council and construction contractor BAM Nuttall.
Three factors and one opportunity are driving the £116 million project. First, Cambridgeshire's economy and population are growing and this will speed up in any upturn. Secondly, the county council has opted to accommodate part of this growth in a 10,000-home new town at Northstowe, a former RAF base remote from most transport links.
Thirdly, the only key transport link near Northstowe and through the west of the county is the overcrowded A14, which funnels traffic from the East Anglian ports to the Midlands and north. No-one would put more traffic on that route without thinking it through.
Fortunately for Cambridgeshire planners, the opportunity for a radical solution was at hand in the shape of the former Cambridge to St Ives railway line. This has been converted into 25km of busway. Buses will drive onto it from conventional roads and will then be guided by two small front wheels that engage with raised kerbs laid alongside the track surface. At the end of the busway, vehicles can drive off and resume their journey on normal roads. Two large ditches at each end prevent motorists using the busway.
Two park-and-ride sites along the main route are designed to entice drivers from northern Cambridgeshire to leave their cars and take the bus. Driving in Cambridge's historic centre is already heavily restricted and the county council does not want extra traffic to put pressure on the road space that is available. A further short section of busway to the south of Cambridge is set to open next year, taking buses to the Addenbrooke's Hospital medical complex and a park-and-ride site at Trumpington.
The system makes for a curious public transport hybrid, combining the flexibility of conventional buses on roads in Cambridge, St Ives and Northstowe with the reliability of light rail on the busway itself. Project director Bob Menzies explains that the first step in making the case for the busway was to dissuade those who wanted the line either reopened as a railway or turned into a conventional road.
"The old railway corridor was too narrow for proper road construction and the western end is in the flood plain of the River Ouse on an embankment," Menzies explains. "This cannot be widened without affecting flood management. By using the same size of embankment we can go through the flood plain without altering flood storage volumes. This is a big issue locally with the Environment Agency as the area is designed to flood because of the way that the Fens are managed. We expect to see water either side of the busway for a few weeks in February and March."
The argument against restoration of the railway was both economic and utilitarian. The last freight trains used the line in 1992 and it had become badly dilapidated. "Some people say we could have run trains but it would have cost a vast amount of money. As a commuter railway it would need new track and electrification and even then it would only have served stations rather than going round the towns in the way that guided buses can. The big advantage over a railway is that buses can fan off from the trunk route and offer a door-to-door service," says Menzies.
The guide wheels do not retract when vehicles are off the busway. Menzies expects this arrangement to provide a much smoother ride. "You are going to be on it for at least 20 minutes, so that is an important consideration," he says. "Two little wheels on the side of the buses run against a kerb linked to the front wheels by a big steel rod. There are no fancy computers or anything. They just steer the bus along."
The cost of the project is being met by a £92.5 million DfT grant, with the balance being made up from section 106 payments from Northstowe and other developments along the route. Cambridgeshire has not been immune to the recession. The first homes in Northstowe were to be completed early this year but so far none have been built and just £2.5 million of section 106 funds has been paid. "The county council knew that there was a risk of delay," acknowledges Menzies. "We had to fall back on borrowing powers to fill the gap until the section 106 money is paid. But the aim is that the scheme will not cost the local taxpayer anything."
Northstowe is being built by developer Gallagher with support from the Homes and Communities Agency. The busway is regarded as essential to its success. Although some residents will work in the town, many will commute. In an area where two-car households are the norm, the resulting traffic could have placed an intolerable strain on local roads.
Despite the recession, the growth pressures in Cambridgeshire are such that there is confidence that development and section 106 payments will soon start flowing. "There is a huge growth agenda. There are science and business parks and a huge amount of IT, medical and biomedical work that has been driving some of the fastest growth in the country," says Menzies. Apart from expansion of medical research at Addenbrooke's, there are at least three housing developments at the southern end of the busway, all of which are further along the pipeline than Northstowe.
Park-and-ride is integral to the busway's planning. A facility at St Ives has capacity for 1,000 vehicles. Another at Longstanton, midway along the route, will hold another 750. In other circumstances, they might encourage car commuting. But Menzies says: "The busway crosses the path of a huge number of people driving down from north of the A14 towards Cambridge and it can pick up a lot of those. Other park-and-rides in Cambridge have been hugely successful and that gives us a lot of confidence here."
Not everyone is convinced. "We know that there is a lot of local opposition because people wanted the line reopened as a railway and felt that would be a better option," Campaign for Better Transport public transport campaigner Cat Hobbs explains. "If it does stop people travelling by car that would be good, but we will have to wait and see."
Local authorities in other areas are watching the Cambridgeshire prototype with interest. Luton Borough Council has powers under the Transport and Works Act 1992 to build a guided busway from Luton Airport to Dunstable, as has the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive for the Leigh area of Wigan. Bristol City Council is expected to apply for powers to build a route from the city centre to Ashton Vale. "All the evidence from other busways around the world such as Adelaide and Essen is that patronage exceeds forecasts by quite a long way," Menzies reports.
The combination of development pressures and a redundant railway makes guided busways a solution for Cambridgeshire. They are clearly not suitable everywhere, but the county's experience will allow planners elsewhere to judge their potential. "Ours will be the only off-highway busway in the UK as the others are essentially bus priority lanes down the side of roads. They work well in their contexts, but this is inter-urban and something different," says Menzies.
One problem that could have hampered Cambridgeshire's guided busway project is the deregulated bus system that operates across the country outside London.
It would be impractical to have a free-for-all on the busway. However, the county council needed to avoid arbitrarily excluding operators and the risk that they might retaliate by running slower but cheaper services on the A14. It has tackled the threat by inviting operators to sign agreements that would give them exclusive access to the busway in return for meeting prescribed service standards.
Stagecoach and local firm Go Whippet will use the busway. Initially Stagecoach will run a service every ten minutes and Go Whippet will operate an hourly service, increasing to every 30 minutes at peak times. Some buses will provide local services in Northstowe, while express services will bypass the new town.
"We agreed that if operators signed up for a minimum level of service for five years they would get exclusive use," project director Bob Menzies explains. "It is a unique arrangement. The county council owns the busway and the revenue risk is taken by the bus operators. They pay us access charges out of their fare revenue, which pays for the running costs."