The Busway Special ~ Part One

On Sunday 7th August the long awaited and heavily criticised Cambridgeshire Guided Busway or The Busway as it has become know finally opened for business.

The day started at the new St Ives Park & Ride with a launch for local dignitaries and stakeholders followed by the departure of the first buses along the busway into Cambridge, unfortunatly by all accounts the first day didn't go very well with some heavy delays, very busy buses and some problems with the self service ticket machines and information screens (which have now been fixed)... the cause of this is that on Sundays the busway services frequency is significantly lower with just 13 buses in each direction PER DAY compared to a 7 bus PER HOUR frequency on Monday to Saturdays and with it being the first day of operation many passengers wanted to try the service out, however both Stagecoach and Go Whippet tried their best to serve all of the passengers with extra buses on top of what would usually be out on a Sunday in use with both operators.

busway queue
A large number of passengers also tested out the new services on Monday as demonstrated by this large queue at Trumpington Park & Ride on the southern tip of The Busway © Suzy Scott

Blog reader BB tried out the busway on the first day, this is what he had to say...

"Well... it's open! I'm not exactly a busway supporter, but it's what we've got so I hope it both works and is seen to work, and I hope the legal mess that will unfold over the coming years doesn't give public transport investment a bad name.

I arrived at Drummer St about 10 mins before the scheduled 0935 first departure from Cambridge to find a small group of people puzzling over the fact that the paper timetables and electronic displays didn't quite match up. The electronic display also referred to a departure for Cambridge, which is something that could probably do with some clarification!

I got the first bus to leave Cambridge, which left 15 minutes late at 0950 after arriving full of passengers, many of whom stayed on for the return trip straight back. Maybe about ten other people at most also joined at Drummer Street. A reasonable number of people joined at various stops, but the bus was never hideously crowded and traffic was light as you'd expect early on a Sunday morning.

Despite this the service lost more time over the course of the journey and arrived at Huntingdon at 1059, a 69 minute journey as against the timetabled 55 minutes, and slower than the timetabled journey for weekday rush hours.

The quality of the first stretch of un-guided busway through Arbury Park is very poor and the narrow lanes were driven very slowly and carefully, which adds to the dissatisfying feeling of knowing you're heading the exact wrong direction for where you want to go. Additionally the traffic lights don't seem to be set up quite right, which meant that even though there was no traffic, the bus had to stop at red lights at every single junction. It might be beneficial if the sensors were set to detect the buses a little earlier, so that the cycle of changing the lights could start in enough time to be finished by the time the bus arrives at the junction.

After Orchard Park the bus turns onto the guideway proper, which was much smoother. However even with the bus travelling slowly you really do feel every joint in the track, and I think CCCs emphasis on the smoothness of the guideway in publicity might lead to users being a little disappointed".

busway track
Busway track not as smooth as advertised? Photo © The Anonymous Widow blog.

"The bus was greeted by people waiting at Histon, (a few of whom even got on!) and then started to pick up speed on the faster and longer sections of track towards St Ives. Travelling at full speed the effect of the bumps from the joins in the track was a little like being in a plane that's being gently buffeted by very mild turbulence and didn't really lead to a very satisfying ride quality.

According to the GPS on my phone the bus was travelling at around 45-49 miles an hour. The traffic lights worked properly at all the "level crossings" and the bus didn't need to stop at any of these, however I did notice that one of the junctions was being controlled by someone with a laptop sitting on top of the control cabinet, so there might be some teething troubles still to deal with.

Problems with the electronic signs at "stations" seemed to be quite common, with a sign at one station apparently believing it was afternoon.

The cycle track looks lovely and smooth all the way to Swavesey, it looks like a surface that smooth the bike might almost pedal itself! After Swavesey the surface is gravel, and there are parts where the fine gravel has been washed away or deeply rutted by vehicles and would provide a very poor surface. I think it should also be concerning that on this stretch there are parts where about half the track has pooled water. This is August; what's it going to be like in the winter?!!! I also thought I'd read that this was one of the things the new contractor were supposed to be fixing; from appearances they definitely haven't.

The park and ride site at Longstanton and St Ives both look a little bit short of ready; but the building at Longstanton is clearly on it's way and at least half the car park at St Ives isn't fenced off. Access to St Ives bus station is a lot faster thanks to the new route along the old railway track.

After that the bus continued to Huntingdon along the roads, in a perhaps slightly spirited fashion, but arriving at the bus station almost a full half hour after the scheduled time.

My return journey was the 1130, driven by the same driver as should have arrived and left at 1030 with that service back to Cambridge, so one of the many extra buses that was in evidence must have stepped in to look after the earlier journey. This bus was very busy throughout, being full from St Ives and leaving passengers behind at St Ives Park and Ride.

On the return journey I noticed some (but less) problems with electronic signs, and also that there seemed to be issues with ticket machines, which were annoying people by taking them through the whole process but then returning the money, the machines apparently lacking the ability to notice that they were really out of service!

On the way back the previously laptop controlled traffic lights seemed to be looking after themselves, though under the supervision of the people from the contractor's van. However the traffic lights at Arbury Park were worse and there was very long wait for the bus to cross the main entrance to the development despite there not being a car in sight. I'm also sceptical about the long diagonal route buses heading towards Cambridge have to take across King's Hedges Road; if there was queuing traffic the bus would struggle to make it, even with assistance from the traffic lights.

The bus arrived in Cambridge a minute before one, and while it had been a very busy bus I'm worried that this couldn't have justified the full extent of the delay and that time is also being lost over the course of the journey.

Lasting impressions would be...
It's really quite slow.
It cost how much to build and all we have is that?
It's better than a non-guided bus lane because?
How will it deal with disruptions, like a broken down bus or a broken traffic light?
I wish it was a railway"

busway scania
Stagecoach AE09GYP at the St Ives Park & Ride, having come from Huntingdon it is awaiting departure for Central Cambridge © Suzy Scott

Many thanks to BB for sharing his first experience of The Busway.

Look out for part two of our busway special report looking into the first weekday operation on the busway & more opinions, photos and a look into the media coverage of the busway opening - coming soon!