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Cambridge Huntingdon Rapid Transit - the misguided bus?

September 1, 2004 12:00 AM
By Julian Huppert in Online Exclusive

Julian HuppertWhat is the history?

The need for rapid transport between Huntingdon and Cambridge has been acknowledged by residents, Councils and governments for years. In 2001 the Cambridge-Huntingdon Multi-Modal Study (CHUMMS) recommended widening the A14, and revitalising the old St. Ives-Huntingdon rail corridor for public transport, with Guided Buses running along it. The County Council (CC) was charged with advancing the proposals for the Guided Bus, and integrating it with the development of Northstowe, the new town along its route.

What is a Guided Bus anyway?

A guided bus is simply a bus with an attached guidance system, so that it can be driven without manual steering - this allows it go faster than otherwise possible, using less space. Currently operating in several cities, such as Leeds and Adelaide, they are also used in specialist environments, including Gatwick airport.

Where will it operate?

It will run from Hinchinbrooke Hospital in Huntingdon along the road until St Ives, where it will join the old railway line through Northstowe up to the Science Park. It will them run unguided down either Histon or Milton Roads, and on to the bus and railway stations. It can then continue on a guided route to Trumpington and Addenbrookes. One of the largest problems is the access through Cambridge - no-one needs reminding of the existing problems with congestion on Histon and Milton Roads, the city centre and Regent Street / Hills Road.

What will it cost and who will pay?

The currently anticipated cost is £86 million. Of this money; £65 million has been promised by the government - half in cash and half via an arrangement whereby the County borrows the money, and the Government pays our interest and capital repayments. The rest of the money will have to be found within the County, from s106 developer contributions. Yes, there is enough money flowing from new developments around the County to pay all of this, but developer contributions can only be spent once - spending £21 million on the Guided Bus means there is £21 million less to spend on schools, youth services, the environment, or other transport facilities. We have been promised Council Taxpayers' money will be not be used for construction or maintenance.

Who will use the busway?

So far it is unclear. The bus companies are all commercial operations, and will be able to decide for themselves whether to use this route - for which they will have to pay a premium for access - or use an alternative, such as the new A14. So far, no-one has committed to use the new route, and as is clear from Stagecoach's recent changes to bus services, a long-term commitment cannot be guaranteed. Currently a bus frequency of three minutes at peak times is assumed.

What are the pros and cons?

Pros:

  • High Quality public transport is needed to take cars off the A14
  • When Northstowe is built, a transport system needs be in place
  • The government - not the County taxpayer - will pay for most of it
  • It we don't go ahead with it, Government backing for the A14 improvements may be withdrawn

Cons:

  • £86 million is a lot to spend to save two minutes on a trip from Huntingdon to Cambridge
  • Extra buses in Cambridge are likely to severely affect congestion
  • A guided bus is inflexible, and unlike rail could not carry freight
  • The busway may cause environmental damage, especially in the St Ives Lakes area.
  • Should the bus companies not use it, who will pay for maintenance?
  • It is guided where it doesn't need to be and unguided where it needs to be, such as the City Centre.

Who are CAST.IRON?

They are campaigning for the St Ives - Cambridge route to be reopened to rail. Initially running from Swavesey, to the Science Park, it would then be expanded and linked to the east coast main line enabling freight to be transported. Trains would run every 15-20 minutes and CAST.IRON claim that the cost would be significantly lower than the Guided Bus.

What are the political stances?

Put simply: somewhat confused. On the County Council Conservatives support it (in votes if not words), and are responsible for pushing it forwards; Labour were originally against it, but now back it; we have grave reservations, both general and in detail, and have formally objected to it. Despite their support on the CC, Conservatives in Hunts have claimed to he against it. In the City, Labour claim to be against it - but having seconded the CC motion proposing the scheme, one of their candidates in May's elections stood an a platform opposing it! We are the only party with a consistent policy across both Councils. If it is pushed through by the County and Government, we will try to make it work as well as possible.

What happens now?

Public consultation produced thousands of responses - of which only four were in favour. In September there will be a Public Inquiry to decide whether the scheme should progress. A decision is expected early 2005, and if favourable, construction could start in late 2005, with the service starting in 2007.