All Aboard the MisGuided Bus at last!

All aboard the MisGuided Bus

Well, the expensive potential white elephant which is the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway is running at least six months late (and with additional contractors being called in, that may be optimistic), so this week must have been a great relief to the Council. At last they were able to get a section open to demonstrate the system to overexcited councillors and then – today – a few busloads of members of the public. I was amongst those lucky competition winners, and here are some of the photos I took of the new buses, as well as a video shot from the back seat on the upper deck (as there was already one out of the front available on YouTube).

All aboard the MisGuided Bus
All aboard the MisGuided Bus
All aboard the MisGuided Bus

The buses are pretty standard types, with lots of executive class extras which I’m sure the schoolkids coming in from St Ives every morning will enjoy, such as leather seats, wifi connectivity and power points, as you can see. I’m sure the Guided Busway’s publicists will focus heavily on these amenities, but they’re nothing to do with the busway – the operator could choose to make these available on any bus on any route, if it decided they made commercial sense. I’m not sure why the Guided Busway passengers need this added incentive to take the bus, but they certainly won’t be complaining.

All aboard the MisGuided Bus
All aboard the MisGuided Bus

The buses appear to have a biofuel option, which again is nothing to do with the Busway, although I’m sure it’ll be publicised heavily as part of the claims that the system has some sort of green credentials, despite covering Cambridgeshire with what I’ve read is over 100,000 tonnes of concrete. Other than that, the only outward difference between the vehicles and the normal Park + Ride buses is the little “guide wheel” poking out by the front wheel, which keeps the bus on the straight and narrow while the driver tries to remember not to use the steering wheel. There will be single-deckers running too.

Anyway, on to the trip itself, which was accompanied by one of the project managers, much to our relief, rather than some council PR vacuum. As I said, this demonstration was obviously organised as soon as it became possible, to show that at least some progress had been made (the whole system was scheduled to have been operating by now), but the thing is still a long way from completion. There are no finished bus stops (stations?) yet, and when we got to ask some questions, we got some intriguing answers. We were told that the chassis on the newly-delivered buses are not as straight as they ideally should be, and that it’s hoped they will “bed in” to meet the guideway’s requirements. Also, the guideway is to have some sort of surface put on it still, but the builders haven’t even been able to decide what that should be yet!

Here we go then, six minutes from Cambridge Regional College to the north-west of Histon:

Despite being as resolute in my opposition to the MisGuided Bus as I was when it was first suggested, I don’t want to let that colour my judgement of the efforts of the engineers who are bringing this giant experiment to life. They seem to have done a good job, and I’m sure they’ll see it through to a successful opening and eventual operation. But more than anyone, they’ll know that Cambridgeshire could have had so much more (i.e a railway), for a lot less money, if it hadn’t (yet again) been for the inadequacies of local democracy allowing one person’s misguided vanity project to somehow trample over public opinion and rational technical argument, and snowball into reality.

Note: We passed at least one cyclist balancing his way down the tracks (see below), using it as a shortcut. This won’t be necessary if and when the cycleway is completed, but with such easy access from the road, the prospect of herberts in stolen vehicles using the busway as a drag strip is quite frightening…
All aboard the MisGuided Bus

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Comments

  • John Grant

    How did the ride on the busway compare with (a) the ride on roads (b) a train? Was there much side-to-side hunting?

  • Chris

    You could detect the “hunting” but it won’t affect anyone. The ride wasn’t remarkably smooth, but when the bus went onto the normal roads you could really tell the difference, so I suppose you’d describe it as “unnoticeably smooth”. Any reduced vibration certainly didn’t overcome the swaying you get on a top deck. I imagine a single-decker would be a better experience.

    I still can’t imagine how it’s “going to get the BMW drivers out of their cars” though, as predicted. They don’t love their cars for the ride, they love them because they protect them from the great unwashed, simple as that.

  • Mike Page

    a) Could not see that much difference between the ride on the guided busway and a newly metalled road still in good condition. There was a drastic difference comparing the ride in the guided bus down the potholed and bumpy King’s Hedges Road and on the busway itself. On the busway one could feel the joints, though not unobtrusively, and there was some slight hunting at one point. Some people might find reading on the guided bus easier than on an ordinary road bus.
    b) A train, in as ‘new’ condition as the guided bus, and with the trackbed also recently fettled, would provide a much smoother ride. Some trains, such as the 170 diesel trains used on the Stansted – Birmingham run, are noticeably quieter.
    Let’s see how the guided busway is performing after a full year’s operation in all weathers.

  • John Connett

    I was a prize winner on the second bus at 15:00 on 17 April 2009. Managed to get the WiFi to work from my Nokia N800. Ride on the guideway was smoother than the local roads. Maximum speed is regulated to 56 mph and my GPS suggested that we reached 52 mph. Saw one tin can and other debris on the guideway but didn’t notice any bumps from them. Significant slowdowns at road crossings. The footpath crossing seemed to be taken at around 25 mph. Saw several youths walking on the guideway. Not sure how effective the “car traps” will be.

  • John Grant

    Re getting people out of their cars, I remember when I lived in Nottingham in 1969 they had some smart new Mercedes double deckers that were a lot comfier than my Hillman Imp (and, come to think of it, than most present-day buses). Might have been different if I’d had a BMW of course …

  • Tim Phillips

    The biggest issue, as far as I am concerned, is that none of the ‘benefits’ of the guided bus have anything to do with being guided, as compared with a high-quality bus lane on a (more direct) conventional road.

    Meanwhile, the rail route could have been reopened (with the money saved as a result of my first point) with resultinhg creation of new/better local, regional, long-distance and international journey opportunities.

    As CAST.IRON pointed out to the inquiry, the vast majority of the benefit/cost ratio benefits came from elements that were nothing to do with the construction or operation of the guideway itself at all, yet this element takes up the vast majority of the costs!

    But hey, that’s the politics of…well, politics; certainly not of good transport planning.

  • Bury_pilgrim

    Fascinating blog.
    A little bird tells me that during your trip, apart from a couple of very polite general questions, you said nothing about how this was a waste of money and that a train would be better etc,etc but, in fact, were a model happy passenger.
    Hypoctite. Happy to stab with a pen from a distance but too chicken to stand by your opinion in public when you can see the whites of your opposition’s eyes.

  • Chris

    Bury_pilgrim, that’s just silly. “Too chicken to stand by your opinion in public”? This was a ride on the busway, not a Council meeting. As I clearly wrote, we were accompanied by one of the project managers, an interesting and eloquent engineer. The point of telling him that I thought the busway is a waste of money would be what, precisely? It would have been as irrelevant to discuss the politics of the project with him as it would have been to discuss the chassis rigidity and guideway surfacing materials with Shona Johnstone.

  • Bury_pilgrim

    I disagree Chris. What could be better than debating your concerns and issues with someone who has a lot of knowledge of the project and the thinking behind it and bigger picture for the future development of it ? You lost a chance for a real-time debate/dialogue.
    Nice that you blurred everyone’s face but aforementioned Engineer.
    Interesting that you say you went straight from Uni’ to technical writing. Have you ever worked on a construction project ?
    B_P

  • David Gould

    Highways engineers and railway engineers are two completely different kettles of fish! Each is very competent in his or her own subject area, but when it comes to assessing which is the better option, their own bias will generally come into play.

    The problem generally gets worse at county council level because there’s one or two people on public transport, and about 10 or 20 engineers doing highways – being the smaller group they are generally suppressed or become biased.

    The other problem is as soon as you try to get Network Rail involved, you suddenly get hit by a brick wall. There are some very good people working there, but getting them to co-ordinate anything that’s not in their 5-year control period is nigh on impossible.

    I suspect the main reasoning behind making it a busway is not cost, but time scale. If you want to deliver a new public transport link within an electoral period (which would have been by 4th June!) then it has to be a busway; simple as.

    Like you say Chris, there’s probably little point discussing these things with the PM. He probably knows a lot about the problems facing the busway.

    Anyway if they do have bent chassis then they will no doubt wreck the busway, which could ruin the whole experiment. Fingers crossed?

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