Guided busway is the right way for the location
As a supporter of ‘horses for courses’ in public transport, I am often entertained how ‘rival’ modes are covered in transport publications… and the article on the Cambridge Busway ( RAIL 855) didn’t disappoint!
Are there really people out there still pushing for the railway to be reinstated between Cambridge and St Ives? I will try to give you a few reasons why such ideology can work against the public interest.
Firstly, Howard Johnston deserves credit for acknowledging that the Busway is undoubtedly popular with the travelling public, and that 20 million people have travelled on it since it opened - this is not surprising, given that it provides much of the benefit of a segregated track with the flexibility of the bus. He also correctly mentions that the buses are equipped with air-conditioning and WiFi, luxuries not yet afforded to me on my Greater Anglia local line!
But in the new timetable change, nine buses an hour off-peak will operate on the St Ives to Cambridge section. Can a rail service on what would be a rural branch line ever expect to match this ‘turn up and go’ frequency? I suspect two or three trains an hour in each direction would be more likely.
Of course, in terms of seats per hour you need fewer trains than buses, but frequency of service is highly-prized.
Then there is the inescapable geographical fact that St Ives is north of Cambridge, and the latter’s main rail station is located one mile southeast of the city centre. A rail line may indeed open up opportunities for travel to London (assuming there is the capacity), but anyone living in St Ives and working in Cambridge city centre is faced with a long walk or a bus ‘back on themselves’ to get to the centre once they reach Cambridge station. If you are going to get a bus anyway (and cycling’s not for everyone, even if they are allowed on these peak-hour trains) then why not get one for the full journey?
Where there is justifiable criticism of the busway, it is in the cost in delivering the scheme, but this is the cost (both financially and reputationally) of being a pioneer, and techniques have changed on subsequent busway projects.
We live in a time where a new single station in Warwickshire (Kenilworth) costs around £13 million to construct, and yet £91m buys you 13-or-so miles of busway between Luton and Dunstable, together with associated infrastructure.
Fundamentally, however, cost comparisons between modes are fraught with danger. Both rail and guided bus have not inconsiderable infrastructure costs, but to my knowledge buses operate on the Cambridge to St Ives busway without recourse to the public purse. Would a replacement rail service achieve this?