Thursday, 3 June 2010

Misguided bus

I am someone who is generally in favour of technological advance. You would expect that to be the case, considering I worked for years in embedded software, and that my wife is a designer of silicon chips.

Technological advances have changed our lives beyond recognition over the last couple of centuries; whilst there are downsides, these are firmly put in the shade by the positives. Think of medical advances, or the way we can now travel around the world in less than a day.

Strangely, I am not one of the early adopters. These are the technologists who absolutely *have* to get the latest gizmo or gadget from the hot firms (e.g. Apple, Google) the moment it comes onto the market. Think of those chaotic scenes outside shops when Apple released their iPad a few weeks ago. These are people who worship at the bleeding edge of technology, and frequently get cut.

It is fine for an individual to take the risk of purchasing new technology. It is different when a council spends millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on an ill-considered scheme.

Not all technological advances are positive. When I left Cambridge a couple of years ago work was starting on the Cambridge Guided Bus scheme. This was an ambitious scheme to replace the disused St Ives to Cambridge railway line with a bus route.

A developer wanted to build a new town called Northstowe on the old Oakington Barracks site to the northwest of Cambridge. This would be similar to several other developments; the 4,000 population Bar Hill, which was built a few decades ago, and Cambourne which is still under development but is expected to have about 10,000 people. Northstowe will be even larger.

Unfortunately the vast majority of people who will live there will work in Cambridge, and will want to travel in and out of the city during the rush hours. This would be along the A14 and other roads that are already well over capacity. Clearly, that is not a good idea. Therefore the council and the developer got together to think of a solution.

So what did they come up with? The obvious answer was to reopen the train line that passed by the new village, but that option was rejected. So was a tram line. Instead, they came up with the idea of a guided bus, which has only ever been used in a handful of places throughout the world. Central Government would provide most of the funding, with the developers providing the rest.

There were many problems with the scheme. Amongst the biggest of these was that the St Ives to Cambridge line did not actually enter the city, and instead ended at a junction with the Cambridge to Ely line at Chesterton on the northern outskirts. Therefore those same buses would have to join one of the busiest roads in the city for the last few miles.

Unfortunately railway trackbeds are too narrow to take two lanes of traffic. For this reason, the council opted for a guided bus scheme. Under this, specially-adapted buses are guided by concrete guiderails. At the end and start of the route, the buses join normal roads. A maintenance track was also required, which has been built alongside the original trackbed, widening the footprint of the route (I shall come back to that later).

Despite the objections of various campaign groups, the guided bus got the go-ahead (soon gaining the nickname of 'misguided bus'). Work was just starting when I left Cambridge in mid-2007, and it was expected to be open by April 2009.

Needles to say, it is still not open, and no opening date has been set. For details of just one of the problems they have yet to tackle, see this blog.

The costs are already out of control. It had originally been priced at £116.2 million, with £92.5 million coming from central government. This was my first problem with the scheme - even that initial price tag was extortionate. The latest figures are that BAM Nuttall's costs for the engineering works has increased from £88 million to £120 to £140 million. The total budget is going to be at least £161 million, or £10 million a mile.

So how does this compare?

Firstly, trams. The only tram system being built in the UK at the moment is the Edinburgh tram system. This will cost £512 million for a little over 11 miles of route, or £46 million a mile. Yet the Edinburgh tram system runs right through the middle of the city, and has complexities of traffic management and relocation of services (e.g. gas, electric and sewers) an order of magnitude greater than those of the Cambridge scheme. There would, however, be the problem of getting the trams into the centre of Cambridge from Chesterton; this could be done by on-road running or even, perhaps, by a new dedicated line alongside the railway.

Secondly, reopening the existing train line. This is the most obvious approach, but was widely ignored by the council. Reopening the 12 miles of the Claydon to Bletchley line will cost £134 million. This scheme is, on the face of it, roughly comparable to the St Ives to Cambridge line, both in terms of complexity and cost. The Edinburgh to Galashiels 'Waverley' line that is being reopened in Scotland will cost between £235 and £295 million for 35 miles - at about £8 million a mile, far cheaper than the Cambridge guided bus. According to Cast-Iron, the reopening of the St Ives to Cambridge railway line would have cost £50 million.

This is important, as other towns are planning similar schemes. There are plans for a buided busway between Luton and Dunstable using an old railway line. Given the experience of Cambridge, I wonder how much the cost estimates of £83 million will be exceeded.

So what will happen? I have always suspected that, with time, the guided busway would become a proper road, as has happened in the case of some other closed busways. The maintenance road has widened the route, removing one of the main reasons for building the guided bus. A simple question can therefore be asked: how long before they decide to spend another few million pounds converting the busway into a road?

The project should be seen as a case-study in how not to plan and implement a transport system. Yet all sides are too involved to either back out or think again, leaving Cambridgeshire and national taxpayers picking up the bill.

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