Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Quality bus services provided by guided busway proving a big hit

Photos Wikimedia Commons

After a long and painful birth, with lots of over-runs, delays and legal issues (some still due to go Court) the Cambridge guided busway  has reached its first birthday  and is proving very successful.   

According to a Cambridge County member, Ian Bates;  

"The busway has been a magnificent success. In the spring we saw the number of trips had already gone past the two million mark putting the system well ahead of its business case. From the very start new services had to be put on to meet demand and the government has funded expansion to St Ives park-and-ride along the route as part of the overall strategy to reduce congestion along the A14.  The main operator, Stagecoach, has carried around 2.35 million people, double the number carried on the conventional services in the year before the busway opened.

Now the longest guided busway in the world, the 40 kilometre long system links the English university city of Cambridge with a scattered string of villages experiencing rapid growth in new subdivisions.  The track - the 25km guided section of which is surprising rural - follows a former railway track alignment and allows bus users to avoid the peak hour congestion on the motorway.  Usage is not confined to one operator, but the primary service provider Stagecoach offers single and double decker buses with leather seats and wi-fi access that travel of speeds up to 80km an hour in a journey described by many passengers (and drivers) as very smooth or smoother than rail journeys.

A unique opportunity to ride a double decker the entire length of one of the routes along this busway, at fast forward speed, is offered by You Tube makers, NCC

The You Tube opens with a bold message "Trams would have been better" and them precedes to show a speeded up journey through the narrow streets of Cambridge, an on-road section which at a rough guess cover at least 8 km [with a large number of  red lights  -  signals where buses do not appear to get a priority]. This lengthy on-road section tends to weaken the claim for trams - a hugely more expensive system than a busway that can run on and off tracks.

I would imagine the financial cost and inconvenience to locals of laying tram tracks just to get to the edge of town, let alone restate the former rail lines, woul be phenomenal, and possibly fail to offer such direct service to the various areas where busway buses can leave the guided section and run through the actual streets of various settlements, off the track, voiding the need for thousands of people to even bother using a car or bus to the station.

In a sense there are already three different main routes entwined with the core busway corridor has evident from this official map.  This is the strength of busways (whether guided or not) - there can be a fast corridor service but but the same buses can also travel right into immediate neighbourhoods or carry passengers directly to multiple different areas in the city centres.

Another aspect, seems to be the curiously peaceful quality of a guided busway, instead of "heavy" rail's dirt and grime, visual noise and clatter, and enormous intrusion into any environment, the grassed corridor and the buses gliding has the potential to create a corridor of greenspace (of course, exaggerated in this particular rural setting). It is also a corridor that is unlikely to threatening to limb and life in so far as even in the case of an intruding pedestrian or a car stalled on a crossing, the gentle curves and relative ease of stopping a bus compared to a heavy train, would seem to preclude most serious accidents. This compares to the very regular delays in commuter rail, for instance in Wellington or Auckland, cause by fatal accidents and/or suicides and by whole system failures and derailments. Unlike rail which needs fairly constant monitoring, measurement, re-calibration and maintenance, the concrete guidance rails are expected to give 40 years service without need for any significant maintenance or major upgrade.

Considering this whole subsequent kerb guided section of the route - 25 km of the total 40 km - costed
UK Pounds180 million**- about $NZ360 million at present rates - this is a far more cost-effective combination for this particular type of area than light rail. Consider here in Christchurch the Mayor was keen to see the city spend $400 million on a mere 7.5 km of light rail, less than a third of the length of the guided busway section.

England is full of disused rail corridors so there is great interest in the potential, the cost-benefit ratio and the success of guided busways, despite the somewhat patchy start to the concept in the last two decades. 

Two other larger guided bus-ways are currently being built in the United Kingdom, the 20 kilometre Leigh Guided Busway into Manchester (essentially bus lanes and Bus rapid transit with a 6km section of former rail line converted to guided busway) and the Luton-Barnstable Busway (7.4 kilometres of kerb guided route).

As with all forms of public transport different technologies will work better in different situations. 

In Christchurch building a (partly guided) busway from Belfast via Redwood (Grimseys Road) and Highfield feeding under QEII Drive and then across to and under or over Cranford Street, across to Grassmere then Rutland Street, cutting through to Caledonia Road, could cut up to 15 minutes off the journey from Rangiora or Belfast and link the whole northern area directly to the city centre, a huge economic and social gain in the post-earthquake city rebuild. 

**This said, there was a huge over-run, the original cost was meant to be UK Pounds 116!

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