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Regular news: Issue 577 12 Aug 2011

Waiting is finally over for the longest busway in the world

Jeremy Clarkson rarely misses the chance to lob a few uncomplimentary remarks in the direction of buses. But even he may have to make an exception for the Cambridgeshire guided busway. Within seconds of entering the track, the driver presses down the accelerator and we’re hurtling through the countryside at a top speed of 56mph. And the ride over the concrete track is impressively smooth too.

Passengers should have been enjoying this experience more than two-and-a-half years ago but a series of disputes between Cambridgeshire County Council and contractor BAM Nuttall have meant that it was only last weekend that passenger services began. The parties are still at loggerheads over who is liable for about £30m of cost overruns but, for now, Cambridgeshire is keen to put the problems to one side and focus on the benefits that the busway brings.

“It’s as smooth as we said it would be and it’s as quick as we said it would be,” says Bob Menzies, the county’s head of delivery for the busway, who has led the project full-time since 2004.

This isn’t the first guided busway to be built in the UK: Ipswich, Leeds, Bradford and Crawley all have the technology and other places have purpose-built busways without guidance – for instance, Swansea and Kent.

But the Cambridgeshire guided busway goes straight to number one as the longest – not just in the UK, but in the world.

There are two sections of the busway. The 12 mile (19km) northern section links the market town of St Ives with Cambridge using an old railway alignment that closed to passengers in 1970 and freight in the 1990s. Buses are scheduled to take 20 minutes to cover this section of the route, which has ten stops, including at park-and-ride sites at St Ives (500 spaces) and Longstanton (350 spaces).

Buses run on-street through Cambridge city centre and some then continue on the four mile (6.4km) southern section beginning at a new interchange under construction at the city’s railway station and serving Addenbrooke’s hospital (in seven minutes) and Trumpington’s 1,340-space park-and-ride site (in 13 minutes) on the city’s southern fringe. Bridge heights mean the southern route can only be used by single deck vehicles.

19 September 2011: Cambridgeshire Guided Busway Study Tour

Service patterns

The council owns the busway and controls access via an access agreement that specifies, among other things, that vehicles must be Euro IV and low floor. Two operators – Stagecoach and local independent Whippet Coaches – have signed contracts with the council giving them exclusive access to the busway for five years. Stagecoach’s vehicles have been fitted out with leather seats, free WiFi, plug points and air conditioning.

Three routes will operate:

  • Route A is a new service operated by Stagecoach using single deckers, which runs the whole length of the route, from St Ives to Addenbrooke’s and Trumpington, with an end-to-end journey time of 54 minutes.
  • Route B, also operated by Stagecoach, is a double deck service running from Huntingdon to Cambridge, making use of the northern busway from St Ives. This replaces an existing route – service 55 – that operated between Huntingdon and Cambridge via the A14 trunk road.
  • Route C is a new service operated by Whippet Coaches using single deck vehicles and running over the northern route from St Ives, with some services starting back from Somersham.

Interestingly, the timetable for route B indicates that the busway delivers a negligible journey time saving between St Ives and Cambridge city centre. Service 55 via the A14 was timed to take 37/38 minutes, whereas route B will complete the journey in 36 minutes. Menzies says the major benefit will be that the busway will provide a more reliable service, avoiding disruption that can affect the trunk road.


The Stagecoach routes each operate to 20-minute daytime frequencies on Mondays to Saturdays, providing a ten-minute interval over the northern section of busway. Route B operates in the evenings and Sundays but only to an hourly frequency. 

The Whippet service operates hourly Mondays-Saturdays, with no evening service and just four services on Sundays. Whippet director Peter Lee is taking a ‘suck it and see’ approach to the busway but points out that, as a small operator, he can’t compete with Stagecoach on frequency. “If I’d registered six services an hour, Stagecoach would have registered 12.” Where he can compete is on fares. Whippet offers unlimited travel over the busway for £4 a day compared with £5.40 on Stagecoach (albeit the latter includes the southern section).

Cambridgeshire has pushed a joint smartcard ticketing scheme. Menzies says it’s been complex to deliver a card that allows revenue to be apportioned between operators according to use. In the end, the council found the most practical way to do this was by selling carnet-based smartcards, offering ten trips, which can be purchased online and topped up by the driver.

Each stop on the guideway has real-time information displays and ticket machines and, to speed up boarding, drivers won’t sell tickets at stops on the guideway. Traffic signals at intersections between the busway and roads give buses priority irrespective of whether the bus is running on time, early or late.

Access charges

Operators pay the council an access charge to use the busway between 7am and 7pm Mondays to Saturdays. The charge doesn’t apply at other times because Cambridgeshire wants to encourage operators to run services at less busy times of day. None of the busway services receive any subsidy from the council.

The charge comprises two components, a flat entry fee and a mileage fee, and covers costs such as staff (eight council staff are assigned to the busway) and maintenance. Menzies says the level of charges are confidential but adds: “We can only charge what it costs us to run.” The charging regime is ‘open book’, so operators can see exactly what they’re paying for. In theory, the access charge could be increased to fund measures such as expanding the park-and-ride sites served by the busway. But, in practice, Menzies says this would be unlikely to command the support of operators.

The most recent demand forecast for the busway, produced by consultant Atkins in 2004, envisaged 11,000 passengers a day – about 3.5 million a year – in year one. Menzies says that after ten years the forecast is for 24,000 passengers a day. He thinks the ten-year figure is probably conservative, however, because the amount of new development planned along the route has increased. The number of homes envisaged in the proposed Northstowe new town, located alongside the northern route, has risen from 8,000 to about 10,000. The busway passes the northern perimeter of Northstowe but a branch will be built to run through the town.

Disputed costs

The busway has cost £180m to build (including land and project management costs), far more than the £116m budgeted. The DfT has provided £92.5m and Section 106 developer contributions have generated considerable sums: £14m from Northstowe, £7m from the Cambridge Southern Fringe, £3m from the development around the railway station and £2m from the Orchard Park housing development.

When the design and build contract with BAM Nuttall was signed in 2006, the project had a target price of £87m. A council spokesman says the contractor has actually spent £151m to build the scheme.

Under the terms of the construction contract, Cambridgeshire is obliged to pay reasonable costs and the two parties then use a formula at the end to apportion overspend. Cambridgeshire hasn’t paid BAM the full £151m because deductions have been made for matters such as delayed delivery.

In all, the council believes that its liability is capped at £4.5m of the overrun but BAM disputes this. The two parties are in mediation and councillors have also authorised legal proceedings to begin. Cambridgeshire believes it is owed about £30m.

A number of transport and engineering consultants have worked on the project. Arup conducted the original design work and consultant Steer Davies Gleave project managed the scheme up to and through the Public Inquiry stage. BAM Nuttall employed an Arup/Parsons Brinckerhoff joint venture to design the scheme. Cambridgeshire’s term consultant Atkins served as the council’s project manager.

The only current expansion plan for the busway is a half-mile extension to a proposed new railway station at Chesterton on the northern edge of Cambridge, close to Cambridge science park. Cambridgeshire has the power to build the route and is currently lobbying the Government to include the station as a rail franchise commitment.

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Your Comments:

12 Aug 2011

Should still be a railway - what a expense for buses! What happens if one breaks down and how is it removed from the 'tracks'?

"At Longstanton, I'll stand well-clear of the doors no more" from the "The Slow Train" Flanders and Swann

19 Aug 2011

£180m to provide a service with seven buses an hour (only three in parts) and with virtually no journey time savings? A monstrous waste of money. Surely there are cheaper ways of delivering improved reliability.