Cambridge busway debacle

It seemed a good idea at the time. Well, at least to some people. Instead of reinstating a railway line through the rapidly expanding hinterland of Cambridge, Cambridgeshire County Council pushed for a guided busway. The narrow old rail track between the city and St Ives could then accommodate a twin track for buses which would then be able to leave the old track bed to serve the growing dormitory towns being built around the city.

 More flexible and cheaper than a train, it won over ministers who decided to fund most of the £116m cost, partly as a trial for the whole concept. They thought it would be a cheap way of bringing efficient public transport to suburban areas and the Cambridge scheme was seen as the ideal.

 It has not turned out like that. The scheme is in chaos with writs flying, no opening date and recriminations all round. The ministers, of course, are no longer around but Cambridgeshire has long regretted ever being involved with the busway concept. The whole project should have been handed over in February 2009, opening a couple of months later after driver-training and route-familiarisation but now, more than 18 months later, there is no opening date for any of the route. Meanwhile, the cost has soared to at least £160m, £44m more than the original estimate, and a dispute between the contractor and the council is heading for the High Court. The exasperated council has just announced that there will be a public enquiry into the scheme but that can only start once legal proceedings, expected to be lengthy, are out of the way.

 The project was controversial right from the start because local campaigners, supported by a majority of the public, wanted to see the rail line reinstated rather than the guided busway. The busway scheme is ambitious, the longest in the world as it includes two sections totalling 25 kms of guided way and a total route length of 40 kms. The northern section runs along the line of the disused St Ives-Cambridge railway while the southern section runs from Cambridge railway station to Trumpington and Addenbrooke’s Hospital but in between the buses will be no different from conventional vehicles.

 The root of the problem seems to be that laying concrete slabs over the wet  terrain of the Fens has proved troublesome. No other busway in the world operate on such demanding conditions. Tim Phillips, the chairman of Cast.Iron which wanted the railway reinstated, suggests that it is the lack of understanding of the limitations of the technology which are at the root of the problem: ‘Installing a concrete guideway along the route of a railway and over a fen is different from any previous busway. Laying long, stiff and heavy concrete beams on what amounts to a bog to very tight tolerances has never been done in the world.’ It is ironic that the opening of the world’s first major railway, the Liverpool & Manchester, was also delayed by difficulties in dealing with the marshy land of the notorious Chat Moss.

 Mr Phillips points out that  buses will have to travel further by using the old railway trackbed in order not to add to the congestion on the A14 and this means that trips along the busway between St Ives and Cambridge will be longer, both in terms of distance and of time than the current conventional service. Supporters argue that it will still attract people out of their cars because it will be more reliable.

 There have, too, been problems with a bridge built over the River Ouse and a dispute over lighting on a guided section, which the contractors, who are already having to pay £14,000 per day in compensation, were reluctant to install.

 The strangest aspect of this tale, which has attracted little widespread attention despite the continued mishaps and overspend, is that the Labour government, just before leaving office, agreed to fund a similar £89m scheme between Luton airport and Houghton Regis, using the track bed of the long closed Dunstable branch line. Again, local opponents lobbied to reinstate the line with light rail but to no avail.

 The blunders of the busway project highlight yet again the risks of using untried technology rather than simply reinstating the railway. Of course one of the barriers of doing so was the likely cost of the involvement of Network Rail which, in any case, was not enthusiastic about rail reinstatement. There is no doubt that NR would have insisted on providing everything on the line to the highest modern standard rather than making do with cheap materials that might have made the scheme viable. Ironically, a preliminary estimate of the cost of reinstatement was £105m, less than the original cost of the busway but thought to be too expensive at the time. The lessons from this procurement process are the old ones: don’t be a pioneer and if possible stick to tried and tested methods. Unfortunately for Cambridgeshire council taxpayers, this advice was not heeded.

  • Well said Christian.

    No mention though of the man who approved the Dunstable Disaster.

    Step forward Lord Adonis – for it was he.

  • @Al__S

    There’s another fundamental problem (that you almost touch on) with the Cambridge guideway- whilst it does avoid the chaos of the A14, it deposits the buses at the outer end of Milton Road- a narrow, congested road forming part of the A10, the main route from Ely, with no bus lanes (and no possibility of them) for most of its length. It doesn’t get round the inevitable hold ups of the city centre. The Southern busway does, at least, bypass Hills Road and Trumpington Road- indeed, even if the northern guideway had been instead (re)built as rail, the southern stretch would perhaps still have been worth it in the absence of four-tracking to Shelford junction and a station at Addenbrookes.

  • Mark Parker

    I don’t know much about the proposed Cambridge scheme but what bothers me is the half baked plan to proceed with a Super Bus Route in Belfast. As a regular user of Translink services in Northern Ireland, both bus and rail based, it seems very odd to me that a tram route apparently cannot be installed at least to Dundonald, using the former B&CDR corridor, still very much in existence despite its closure more than 50 years ago. I appreciate that the capital costs are higher with a tram line but looking at examples from Europe, and Dublin, I am convinced more than ever how much this is needed here. Regrettably it seems the Department for Regional Development have ruled the idea of trams out of favour and are wedded to their wheels despite the daily struggle that Metro buses face in Belfast, now recognised as being one of the most congested cities in the UK.

  • RapidAssistant

    Similar story is happening up in my neck of the woods in Glasgow – the Clyde Fastlink scheme which is supposed to link all the new housing that has been built in the former dockland areas with the city centre – Again – in the interests of cheapness – the idea is to build a guided busway along the banks of the Clyde with a view to making it “futureproof” so that it can be upgraded to a light rail scheme later on. It’s currently (and quite rightly) on a slippery slope due to the same dubious economics and false economies of the Cambridge scheme – in the meantime, miles of abandoned tunnels under the city designed for heavy rail have remained mothballed since Beeching. It could only be in this country.

  • Dan

    The Cambridge bus way is staggering – Cast Iron estimated 54m cost for Rail – even if they had been 100% wrong it would still have been cheaper – and obviously better / faster since people could have driven to P&R sites and easily gone into Cambridge locally or of course as many will want to, direct to London or other rail destinations.

    If you wanted a trial route this was not the place to do it – clearly.

    Ministers would have got far more kudos by re-opening a rial line in the SE too, so why they were not atrracted to that who knows.

    Of course the contractors should pay – they quoted for a job presumably and if they could not do it for the money why does the taxpayer foot the bill?

    Shame it was not in London or the eyes of the media would have been on this full focus.

  • John

    One of the few functioning O-bahns (guided busways) operates here in Adelaide, South Australia on a 12 kilometre route. After 20 odd years of operation the supports under the ends of long 1 metre concrete beams forming the running surfaces have settled a little unevenly. Meaning that buses bounce significantly over each joint between adjoining suspended beams.

    This has made the operation of ‘bendy’ buses especially problematic as the bounce is amplified by the hinge joint between the two ‘bendy’ bus sections. Adjustments to smooth the inter-beam transition is apparently difficult.

    The Cambridge Busway could expect to suffer similar problems in soft ground conditions.

  • Chris Packham

    Thanks Christian for this lucid account-the first time I’ve seen a coherent explanation of the Cambridge problems despite following the story. Surely the villains of the piece are the civil engineers and consultants who will, as always, have made a fortune from the planning, contracting and construction process but didn’t realize, or ignored, the risks involved with the Fenland environment. Busways are a good concept for much of England-low density suburbs and small towns close to cities. Buses would funnel onto the busway from towns and villages in a wide catchment, providing a one-ride trip to the city centre. A railway would serve a narrower corridor, or require users to use other transport to reach the station, which offers no time benefit on short journeys. In Cambridge, the station isn’t in the city centre, another disadvantage of the rail option there. I hope the busway can be made to work-it will be very interesting to see if the concept succeeds. People exaggerate the benefits of trains, and look down on buses too much. A good bus service can offer most of the benefits of trains, and better frequency and coverage. People are prepared to use good bus services, such as park and ride. The challenge is to get them to take the bus from where they live rather than driving to the edge of cities, and busways, or hard shoulders open to buses, are a solution.
    Rail enthusiasts often think that because there’s a disused line, it should reopen as a railway (one reason I stopped my Railfuture membership years ago). Rapid’s view shows this-where are the Glasgow tunnels, weren’t the useful ones reopened for the Argyle line, and wouldn’t it cost a fortune to reopen them? The Dunstable rail line had a major flaw-it joined the mainline south of Luton station, so couldn’t serve it. If it did, and if it could have been extended to join the West Coast mainline, then it could have been a useful addition to Thameslink. But as things are the Dunstable busway looks useful public transport provision for a small conurbation. The Cambridge problems are salutary, but don’t prove that busways are wrong. Don’t forget that all types of transport scheme can get into similar trouble – dare I mention the Edinburgh tram?

  • Paul Holt

    John above mentions the Adelaide O-Bahn (see What hasn’t been mentioned is that busways are eyesores. The Adelaide O-Bahn certainly is.

  • Michael Weinberg

    “The Dunstable rail line had a major flaw-it joined the mainline south of Luton station, so couldn’t serve it.”
    The line from Dunstable actually ran into Luton Bute Street which was adjacent to the main station (Luton Midland Road) so interchange was easy, but i think there was then a connection to the main line south of the station so running direct Dunstable to London trains would have been quite feasable. The branch line then did carry on to the ECML but of course has now been built on. But I can remember catching a train at Luton get to Hatfield. (I am quite ancient!)
    However I believe Chris Packham takes a far too sanguinary view of busways.
    People will NOT desert their cars for a bus to any great extent. (park and rides are a different thing entirely) Their main attraction to our Govts was their perceived low cost and even this has now proved ephemeral. I doubt if many more will be built. Let us see how successful the Cambridge scheme becomes, if it ever opens.

  • SteveB

    Guided Busways have been promoted on a false premise – that they are less expensive than equivalent light-rail lines. However, a bus lasts at most 12 years in front-line service and then needs to be replaced. A tram or train lasts up to 50 years assuming one or two mid-life refurbishments. If we compared like for like, and factored-in the superior experience of riding in a steel-wheel, steel-rail vehicle, we’d find that light rail is a better overall investment.

    I experienced the Leeds guided busway when it was new, and noticed the jolt and uncomfortable ride when transferring from road to guideway (by the way, doesn’t the guideway make the guided buses equivalent to Pacers?). I’m not surprised that the Adelaide O-Bahn’s surface has deteriorated so much.

    Most continental light-rail systems have really efficient interchanges between buses and rail vehicles; I believe that we should use the optimal means of transport on each route rather than compromising with guidewheel-equipped rural buses. City centres are much more pleasant places when the duplication of all the merged bus routes are removed. Didn’t someone mention the bus-clogged diesel-fumed city streets of Glasgow in an earlier post?

  • Morcanby Dunn

    From the 1980s, the Cambridge MP campaigned for the rail line to reopen, then the 1991 tramway plan would have used what became the southern section and the St Ives line as far as Oakington. These plans were dropped as too expensive. Attempts in the late 1990s to implement the tramway plans were opposed by the local bus companies and subsequenty the developers of the new town of Nortstowe suggested a French-style guided bus with centre rail and double articulated vehicles. This, again said to be too expansive, was downgraded to a kerb-guided bus line, but intended to be operated end-to-end like a railway with dedicated buses, rather than using sections of the guideway as parts of local bus routes. The new, over-weight (half a tonne heavier than their counterparts without aircon, wi-fi and leather seats, are running now on the A14 and on the only section of busway in use, a rising-bollard section of road near Huntingdon.

  • Morcanby Dunn

    Typo: the new town is to be called Northstowe. The guided busway runs past the site and the buses will have to leave it to run through the centre. The developers have built another housing estate now called Orchard Park in north Cambridge which has an unopened part of the busway, partly guided, partly concrete track without guidance kerbs, partly bus-only road. This section would not have existed if the line was tramway or railway.

  • John Collins

    Some very interesting posts here. I have followed the ‘progress’ of the Cambridge scheme, and also the Dunstable plan because it’s not far from where I live.
    What I’ve never understood though, is why the bus needs to be ‘guided’ anyway. It has a driver, so why not just build a road?

  • Christian Wolmar

    The answer, John, is that the track bed of the old railway is very narrow, so they have to ensure the buses stick to a very precise path – but it does seem an expensive way of doing it. They could have had passing points or something like that, or is that daft?

  • John Collins

    Thank you Christian. Fair enough.

  • Malcolm Bulpitt


    I was interested to read your comprehensive review of the the controversial Cambridgeshire Guided Busway. Only in the UK could so much money be spent on providing for a second-rate form of transport. In Mainland Europe it would have regained its rail service (if it had ever lost it), or become a Tram-Train operation.

    Reference to my July 1938 edition of Bradshaw’s Railway Timetable indicates that at that time the LNER’s Victorian-era steam engines and superannuated rolling-stock that provided the service could manage the 14¾ mile rail trip to St Ives in 29 minutes. This was from the station to the south of the city following the circuitous route around the eastern side of Cambridge and included four intermediate station stops. Seventy-two years later, the buses, using some nine miles of fabulously expensive concrete trackbed if it is ever completed, are apparenty scheduled to take 33 minutes to do the shorter trip – providing that they are not held-up as they traverse Cambridge’s regular traffic chaos (see comment by @AI) to reach the start of the actual Busway.

    As I said at the start only in this country could this be called progress.

  • Greg Tingey

    Guided Pus-ways always were a complete con.
    Any hope, at all, that the Cambridge one couild still go light-rail?

    And remeber everyone, any time at all, someone proposes this really stupid idea again, tell everyone just what a stupid, ignorant w**ker they are!

  • The Thin Controller

    Greg (#17) – two words: Edinburgh Trams. That has probably killed off the chance of any new light rail in GB for a very long time to come.

    Steve B – you forget the time value of money; money spent in the future is worth a lot less in today’s terms than money spent today.

    Also, google, “Auckland busway” for what an excellent busway project looks like (unguided, for the record). It’s more than doubled the bus patronage in that area.

  • @Chris Packham: What Chris misses in this argument is that a bus-based scheme could have been installed in a much better location or other methods of bus priority could have been used to make bus services better and more appropriate. As Christian rightly points out, the Cambridgeshire scheme falls between two stools because buses have to go a couple of miles along a congested road – in the wrong direection – to start using the guideway. Whilst I wouldn’t argue with the generality of Chris’s observations, the fact remains that the Cambridgeshire scheme fails in the objective. CAST.IRON always advocated rail PLUS bus, not rail INSTEAD OF bus.

  • @@Al__S: Saddo anorak reply to Al_S – I think you mean Shepreth Branch Junction, where the Liverpool Street and King’s Cross lines diverge just north of Shelford.

    If there ever was a Shelford Junction, I suspect it was for the Haverhill Branch, now long gone, which diverged from the Liverpool Street line just south of Shelford.

    ATOC said the Haverhill branch could have been rebuilt from scratch for £120 million!

  • Ben Oldfield

    I have trawled the internet looking for who was responsible for the decision for the guided busway to Cambridge. The closest I got was where the council was told that the government would only provide money for a guided busway. There was some excuse that this would be a test case to prove the concept. Yes there were many studies by consultants but none of them recommenced a busway. One point that interested me was that the project manager for the busway was appointed at least a year before the council approved it.

  • Peter

    This scheme is truly dreadful, made all the worse by the fact that it destroyed a perfectly viable railway. The whole history of it reads like a plot from Yes Minister, with a final outcome that will provide bus level comfort and speed, but without bus convenience, all at costs that exceed rail; the worst of all worlds in fact.

    None of the organisations involved emerges with any credit: politicians and officials were reckless with public money; the rail companies seemed quite happy to see a piece of the network torn up for no good reason.

    Incredibly it looks as though we are set to repeat the same mistakes in Luton, for despite the spending cuts, £90m of public money has been found for another white elephant busway – built by the very same contractor!

    What I want to know is how these schemes have managed to get funding while many promising English rail schemes like Lewes – Uckfield or reopening the Woodhead line continue to languish.

  • Chiltern User

    In answer to Ben Oldfield:

    Shona Johnstone, a Conservative County Councillor, is generally regarded as the politician responsible for the Cambs Busway, for the negotiations with the Government to obtain funding for it, and for ignoring the wish of the people of Cambridgeshire to reopen the Cambridge-St Ives railway (whose track was then in situ).

    Shona Johnstone is an extreme example of the regrettable practice of much of Tory local government during the Labour Government of 1997-2010 to do Labour’s bidding and act in a subservient way.

    This compares poorly with the strong opposition that many Labour local authorities offered to the Tory Governments of Mrs Thatcher between 1979 and 1990. The independent and pro-rail spirit of that time brought us the most extensive rail development of the British Rail era, the PTEs’ service expansion and new station programmes of the 1980s. This Mrs Thatcher’s Transport Ministers could not be seen to resist, and so supported. The political leadership of this was a Labour success.

    Mrs Johnstone is still on Cambridgeshire County Council (see Councillors’ list on its website). But she is no longer portfolio holder for transport & access, having handed the poisoned chalice of the Busway to others.

  • Stuart Shurlock

    I’m a bus fan, a tram fan and a rail fan. Each mode should be used where the environment suits it and then the whole lot operated as an integrated network. That system is the norm in all German cities and they probably think that the Brits are utterly bonkers for making public transport journeys so disconnected and complicated. I really cannot see why buses have to have a guideway; exclusive lanes – yes, engineered tracks – no. Light rail is the obvious missed opportuniy in Cambridgeshire (integrated with buses and heavy rail). In defence of civil engineering contractors – They operate on miniscule profit margins, and don’t have the financial muscle to absorb the costly mistakes of the designers and clients like Cambridgeshire. They always have to compete on price, so have no room for error (especially errors created by the designers or clients). Clients who know nothing about modern transportation should never go near untried dreams like this one. Finally, Edinburgh is in trouble, but don’t use that as a reason to diss all light rail. There are plenty of very successful ones both in the UK & worldwide. Once it’s finished, Edinburgh will wonder how it ever managed without.

  • Chris Packham

    @Stuart: I agree with you about choosing the best mode for the location and integrating them. I wasn’t dissing the Edinburgh tram-it’s a great scheme, suited to a high density capital city. I was just warning against thinking the Cambridge busway cost overruns were a consequence of it being a busway rather than another mode, or of the Cambridge problems suggesting all busways are a bad idea, wherever they are. Ideally a tram-train network would be great for Cambridge, linking rail routes such as Huntingdon and Newmarket with a north-south tramway from Chesterton to Addenbrookes. But how much would the central tram section alone cost? In my home city of Birmingham the thankfully just approved central Metro tram extension is costed at £127m, similar to the original cost of the entire Cambridge busway project. Despite several good points and valid misgivings posted here, I think bus rapid transit offers an acceptable compromise between quality and value for money where rail or light rail is not practical, too expensive or both.

  • morcanby dunn

    A letter in last week’s Cambridge ‘News and Crier’ points out that the politicians insisted that the busway be used like a tramway or railway. The writer pointed out he travelled on part of the line in a bus on test in April 2009 and sections of it had been ready for operation since 2008. But because it was thought to be an end-to-end line, operated like a rilway, the use of sections of it by buses on various routes was either vetoed or not thought of. Special buses were bought just to muse on the busway when any and all buses could have been fitted with guidewheels. It was the Conservative government in 1992 who refused to fund the reconstruction of the St Ives rail line as either railway or tramway. Aesthetic objections to overhead wires in the street from the rail station past the Catholic church and down King Street was a factor – the surface-contact system now used in Bordeaux tramways would obviate this. But it is too late now. The busway must be got into operation now, as it is ready to run. A park and ride carpark at St Ives with the wrong slope is no reason not to run buses. If it was safe for passengers on test in April 2009, it should be opened at once. The arguments over it which are causing the delays are political and legalistic, not a matter of safety.

  • Greg Tingey

    Thin controller @ 18
    Manchester has got the go-ahaed to expand their system, as have Notingham and Brum …
    And, it is STILL not too late to kill the busway, write the money off, make sure it never happens again, and go to “light rail”.
    It merely (!) requires political will.

  • morcanbydunn

    There is no chance of tramways in Cambridge. The University authorities would not like rails in the street even if they could have the Bordeaux system of electrification or even diesel like Camden- Trenton, New Jersey. They campaigned to get rid of the last tram system – horse drawn – and succeeded in 1914. They are still living in the Victorian era behind their college doors and still pull the strings in city politics. Political will is a concept unknown to Cambridge.

  • I seem to remember that both Stevenage and Runcorn were once in the news for building dedicated busways. Does anyone know what happened to them?
    In general fully-fledged tram or tram-train schemes are obviously best, but where the traffic is insufficient to justify the cost, a bus in its own segregated space is surely better than a bus sharing the ordinary road with other traffic. As for the “guided” bit, it sounds like a nonsense to me.

  • The Thin Controller

    #27 I said “new” light rail, as distinct from extensions to current schemes. Have you been to Edinburgh recently?

    #29 Having just completed a big literature review, I increasingly concur. The ‘guided’ technology (various ways proposed) just come with too many headaches.

    #24 If it /ever/ gets finished – the locals aren’t too optimistic, especially as they are going to foot the bill for the overruns.

    #25 Agreed – too much of the debate in this profession is ‘steel wheels good rubber wheels bad’ or vice versa, and we really need to do better.

  • morcanby dunn

    Another reason why guided buses are preferred to unguided bus-only roads is that one can keep cars off the track with car traps on guided busways. There are two at St Ives at the end of “Station Road” (where the train station used to be). Unguided busways can’t have car traps.
    One of the reasons why the busway is not open is the County Council say the park and ride car park at St Ives will flood sometimes. If you go to the Queen’s Drive park and ride at Nottingham you will see signs warning motorists that the car park there floods sometimes. It doesn’t stop it from being used. Someone should tell Cambs County Council its OK in Nottingham but not St Ives. We still don’t have joinedp-up government.

  • Pete Brown

    #29 – The Runcorn busway was built in the early 1970s as an integral part of that new town’s design. This video show’s the driver’s eye view of the entire route:

    This paper describes the project:

    Brisbane has a very high-end busway system – more about that here:

  • Rutland fox

    having spent time watching the line when it was still intact with sand trains and numerous train worked LCs and following its demise and subsequent corporate vandalism i couldnt help fealling what a waste it was to loose this line. It was not beyond the bounds of modern technology with remorte monitored crossings to have reinstated the line all the way to the ECML at Huntingdon, and woudl have allowed staright through trains form Peterborough to Cambridge knocking 20 minutes of the curent trip via Ely. It would have also made an alternative route into london in times of closure on the ECML south of Huntingdon.

    The guided bus will never work for the simple fact that it will be too slow. What happens if a bus breaks down (as they do unlike train with 2 or 3 engines) The whole route will be stopped not like a road where you can drive around it, or what about vandalsim. Yes trains get obstructed but tend to smash through. Not going to take much to stop a bus in a channel is it and what happens when the track fills up with snow?
    Just glad i dont pay tax in cambs but then maybe we all do thanks to the crazy previous goverment

  • morcanby dunn

    Cheapo is the watchword for everything done in the UK. Initial cheapness, undercultting, cutting corners, inferior workmanship, lack of forethought, too little and too late. It’s been like that for decades, as we can see from the crumbling infrastructure built like that in the 1960s and 70s. British business wants a quick profit and the long-term cost doesn’t matter as someone else will be paying. An inferior system doomed to collapse, as indeed the banks already have. No civilisation has a right to exist, better ones than ours have fallen into decline and annihilation.

  • Frank Adam

    The concrete slabs ought to be sent to the North Sea to protect the coastline from inundation, that would be more sensible. 

  • Paul Holt

    Supplemental: Cambridge Busway now open

  • Mike

    first seven days, a total of 55,895 trips were made,  Over the first four weeks the average was 52,227 journeys (224,054 total)
    The bus company has also had to put on EVEN MORE services at peak times!!! so maybe NOT afterall

  • Paul Holt

    The link has rotted.   Now it’s

  • Paul Holt