Some transport projects don't run to time or to budget. Edinburgh's doomed tram network is a case in point. But yesterday one such ill-fated project finally crawled its way off the drawing board and into publicservice. I'm talking about the Cambridge Guided Busway, a concrete track linking Cambridge to St Ives along the route of a former railway. The idea is to take vehicle traffic off the busy A14 by encouraging would-be passengers to park and ride. The busway has taken years to agree, years to build, and most recently years to repair. Tracks cracked, car parks were inadequate and one entire section proved over-susceptible to flooding. The council are currently locked in a legal battle with the contractors for delivering substandard infrastructure, and could face a multi-million pound budget overspend if that challenge is unsuccessful. The entire project risked becoming a moneypit fiasco, delivering far fewer benefits than first promised, but somehow finally carried its first passengers on Sunday morning. And I was one of them.
Sunday's not the best day to try to use the Cambridge Guided Busway. There are only twelve buses in each direction, running approximately hourly, which seems a massive underuse of such an expensive new roadway. But that's provincial Sunday services for you, nothing like the massively subsidised routes we Londoners take for granted, because out here in Cambridgeshire the car is still king. The Busway's services are shared by two different bus operators, that's Stagecoach (routes A and B) and local boys Go Whippet (route C). They both run along the central speedy section from Cambridge to St Ives, but have different twiddly bits at each end. To add to the confusion each refuses to take the other operator's tickets, so if you buy a return you can only come back with the same people you went with. There's a smartcard you can buy in advance to get round that, but turn up and go and it's one or the other. Sorry, this isn't going to be at all straight-forward.
When I turned up at Cambridge station on Sunday morning, there were no obvious Busway signs. Ah, hang on, a handful of cheap laminated arrows pointed off down a side-road where workmen were still battling to seal off one lane of traffic with plastic barriers. They'd quarantined the bus shelter so I had to walk further - a luggage-unfriendly distance - to the temporary stop beside a building site. One day this will be Cambridge's new (desirable) residential quarter, but for now the entire area's a bit of a mess. I was early, so I had time to wander down to the fresh stretch of busway to the south. Two parallel concrete tracks, laid so long ago that there are already poppies blooming in the gaps, stretching off for two miles towards Addenbrookes Hopsital. No buses go this far on Sundays, which seems a dreadful waste, but it did mean I could stand in the road in relative safety. Bicycles are directed off down a parallel cycleway, also newly opened yesterday, and while I was here a convoy from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign rode by to test it out. Other vehicles are prevented from gaining access to the Busway thanks to a "car trap", which sounds scary, but is nothing more than a shallow chassis-width pit filled with gravel. But the official buses have little wheels, like stabilisers, which allow them to speed down these tracks with a minimum of steering. Sometime before 7am this morning, this southern stretch will finally get christened.
Back I went to the station bus stop to catch my Route C single decker north. This was one of the Go Whippet services (good because they're doing introductory weekend tickets for only £1, bad because they're only running three times a day). There weren't many of us waiting to board - I counted six Freedom Passes, two kids and only three paying passengers. This is going to be nice and quiet, I thought, as we trundled round the houses into the town centre. But the bus station was rather busier, not least with scores of people piling onto a double decker route B, and various media folk out taking proper photos and recording vox pops. A group of four bus enthusiasts boarded, representing the great and good of the Cambridge Omnibus Society. They chose to spread out and not quite sit next to each other, but one sat next to me, and so I was surrounded by animated conversation as we headed for the suburbs. "Momentous day." "Good loadings on that B." "They're even running a duplicate." "He's only got one reverse light working." If you're local and interested, Tony's promised to do a write up of today's event (with photos) for the next issue of the society's magazine.
There is no guided busway for the first part of the journey. Instead the buses follow normal streets, occasionally with bus lanes, more usually not. On Sundays that's fine, but those who know Cambridge will realise that weekday rush hours will be rather more clogged. The old railway didn't come this way, it branched off the mainline further north, so there's no separate trackway any express bus could follow. It's network imperfections like this which have left some to suggest that a light railway would have been a much better solution, and quite possibly cheaper too. A train could zip from Cambridge station out to the Science Park in four minutes flat, whereas the bus takes up to 20. But the council have stuck with their Guided Busway solution, and there's no chance of the tracks switching back from concrete to iron.