04 March 2012

My First Busway Experience

I'll have to start with an apology. Anyone expecting photos of a Busway-liveried vehicle travelling along the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway will be sorely disappointed, for Wednesday 22 February 2012 was one of those rare days when it rained continuously for hours on end and photography from within a misted-up Scania/Enviro400 was, at best, demonstrated by the photo below:

However, a number of photos either end of the Busway route were captured as well as a couple of videos of high-speed trains flying through John Major's home town railway station, so not all is lost. Talking of which, this is as good a place as any from which to start:

First things first and the proximity of the bus from Huntingdon station was very straightforward, being outside, beneath the huge viaduct carrying the A14 dual carriageway.

This was to be the bus on which I made my first Busway journey, Stagecoach in Huntingdonshire 15659 (AE10 HFC)

I've travelled on the leather-seated Enviro400-bodied Scania N230UDs before. Owing to the delay in the Busway's opening, Stagecoach operated these vehicles along the route of Service 55 which was the Busway Route B's predecessor. They boast 'air chill' and the timetable denotes this with a snowflake symbol. Their specification is no different from that specified by Transport for London in the Capital. On a hot day the interior of these buses will still become very unpleasant as the system is inadequate to cope with hot days and besides which all windows can be opened, preventing the air from being regulated. The Volvo B7RLEs with Wrightbus Eclipse Urban bodies are the ones to head for in the summer as they appear to have proper climate control fitted. More on that later.

There are three routes that use the Busway. Stagecoach operates the A & B, while Whippet operates the C (and very infrequent D). During the main bulk of the day, there are three buses an hour on both the A & B, offering a 10-minute frequency along the Busway, while the C runs every hour. Route B is the lengthiest, commencing from Huntingdon rail station and heading into the town centre before taking a circuitous route out via the Oxmoor Estate.

Huntingdon Bus Station

A decision must have been taken to route buses this way and increase the end-to-end journey time as more patronage would be carried than omitting the Oxmoor, heading direct to the next main point, St. Ives.

The heavens opened here and this was the view of the small bus station in the town centre. A hive of activity and we had to await a bay to come available, which delayed us by five minutes. Whippet's Route C commences from St. Ives (Hill Rise, thence the bus station, with peak time journeys extending to/from Somersham) and so there are four buses per hour from here to the St. Ives Park & Ride, which heralds the start of the world's longest section of guided busway (also the most controversial!).

St. Ives Bus Station doesn't seem fit for purpose. Whippet's Busway livery is virtually identical to Stagecoach's except the swoop towards the rear is replaced by the light blue dots.

Special guide rails either side of the lane ensure nothing as wide or wider than a specially-equipped Busway vehicle can enter, while a diagonal trench has been dug in the concrete base to ensure nothing narrower than a bus can enter, such as a car. Sadly, this is not effective in keeping bikes out. Stagecoach Route A commences here (though peak time journeys operate a direct route to/from Huntingdon and some to/from Somersham), so there are a total of 7 buses per hour from the St. Ives Park & Ride to Cambridge city centre.

Routes A & C operate the full length of this section of Busway, to the outskirts of Cambridge and along Milton Road into the city, while Route B turns off the Busway at the Orchard Park Estate and after passing through operates semi-fast along Histon Road and Castle Street to the city. Route A calls at New Square rather than Drummer Street bus station as it continues to Cambridge rail station and then on via the second section of Busway to Addenbrooke's Hospital and Trumpington Park & Ride; Route C also omits Drummer Street on most journeys in favour of New Square as it too extends beyond the city centre, though only to the rail station. Route B terminates at Drummer Street.

Route B's terminus is Drummer Street in Cambridge

Journey times on Route B, which is the Busway equivalent of Service 55, have actually increased following the Busway being used, by five minutes. However, the regularity with which Stagecoach in Huntingdon is able to operate the service is likely to be the main improvement. Route B is also the service that has the double-deck Scania/E400s allocated; Routes A & C have single-deck buses.

240V sockets are offered on Stagecoach's fleet of Busway vehicles. A nice touch (as well as the leather trim)

The timetable is a bit of a mess. Ray Stenning's Best Impressions may well have cornered the market with bus livery design, but they most certainly haven't done so with timetables. I can see they've tried to make things straightforward, but this hasn't happened. Whether this is the fault of Cambs CC or the operators is unclear, but there are a number of areas where confusion rules.

Where Best Impressions excels is with livery design and route maps. A very easy-to-understand diagram of the three Busway services, though variations are not shown, nor is reference made to the fact that operators' tickets are not inter-available

Firstly, the non-acceptance of tickets between Whippet (Route C) and Stagecoach (Routes A & B) is not actually spelled out at all. Both operators run their vehicles in an identical Busway livery, so unless you know where to look, the average passenger (who, let's face it, couldn't care less who's running) won't know who is running which service. The main Busway map shows a key that identifies Whippet as running Route C and Stagecoach everything else, but, again, it is not stated clearly that inter-acceptance of operators' tickets is not valid.

The last page of the Busway timetable states what all-day tickets each operator provides, but doesn't go far enough to state that key phrase: "Stagecoach tickets are NOT valid on Whippet services and vice versa". The timetable producer could cite that they have separated Whippet's and Stagecoach's timetables, which they have, yet they go and lump Stagecoach's and Whippet's Somersham services in the main Whippet Route C timetable, mixing things up completely.

It's a mess and I know I could do better in boring black and white.

Back to the Busway, though, and it is clearly a rip-roaring success. Using GPS we clocked all our buses operating at their top speeds along the fast sections. 56mph was the maximum speed we recorded. Even in the rain, patronage was very impressive at all times. The spectacle of having your own, dedicated linear route, devoid of any congestion whatsoever and being able to fly along at top speed is an incredible tool in encouraging modal shift. Small wonder, then, that the one millionth passenger was recorded last month, being reached in half the time estimated.

Leather trim as standard with Stagecoach's fleet, which are considerably older than the Busway itself

In the scheme of things, the buses being powered by a special bio fuel is low down in commuters' minds. Sure, it's perhaps higher than 30 years ago, but I often see schemes such as this as more a box-ticking exercise by local authorities. However, it is one less area with which opponents can criticise the Busway!

After spending some time in central Cambridge, the small contingent that had amassed for the day headed to Trumpington Park & Ride using one of the city's dedicated park-and-ride services. Cambridge has five orbital sites, with four linked through cross-city routes, while the one for which we were bound is the lone service that operates to the city and back.

We had one of the spare Enviro-400-bodied Dennis Trident 2s as it bore a two-tone grey livery, not one of the dedicated park-and-ride liveries. Stagecoach opted for dual doors on its park-and-ride buses in order to aid loadings when it upgraded all routes in 2007, ; hitherto they'd been using ex London dual-doored buses and not closed the centre door off upon their acquisition. This ro-ro flow of passengers must lend itself well to the city, whose buses have seen some of the fastest growth anywhere in the country over recent years.

The traffic congestion south along Trumpington Road was truly awful - worse than London. Annoyingly, the bus lane appeared to be causing much of it as 50% of the route has been given up to buses, but, as a result, the queue was back so far that our bus had to sit stationary for ages before we then creeped slowly forward and able to make use of the bus lane. We arrived at Trumpington P&R to see a Stagecoach Route A bus depart, so made use of the terminal building before the next arrived 20 minutes later.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the Volvo B7RLE with Wrightbus Eclipse Urban made my Busway experience. Coach seats with leather trim and full, operational climate control made for a genuinely upper-end experience. The route from Trumpington passes under a couple of low bridges, hence the use of single deckers on Route A, and the Busway starts pretty much immediately. A single-track section of Busway starts the route off, up to the first stop at Foster Road and then it becomes two-way, following the route of the former railway line to the railway station, although a spur has been built over the existing railway line to Addenbrooke's Hospital, where an anti-clockwise circuit is negotiated in both ways.

They are the jewel in the Busway crown for Stagecoach, in my opinion: the Volvo B7RLE. Stagecoach does not purchase such a quality chassis for their bus fleet anymore.

We were fully loaded by here and had a standing load into the city centre. As many alighted in the city centre as boarded (Route A stops at both Parkside and New Square) and then we headed non-stop north east along Milton Road. Only Whippet Route C makes a stop here, at a mid-way stop located at Union Lane/Arbury Road. The left turn at the Science Park onto the Busway was a very innocuous affair. Yet more were loaded and we departed the Regional College stop bursting at the seams.

Unlike other Wrightbus Eclipse Urban bodies, the ten Stagecoach purchased for the Busway only seat 41 (other seat up to 44)

To cater for demand during the evening peak, Stagecoach provides additional journeys on Route A, starting from Drummer Street and operating as normal to St. Ives P&R, then into the town centre before heading direct to Huntingdon. A number of standard departure timed Route As also extend to Somersham, though this is unhelpfully not shown in the Route A timetable! You have to look to Whippet's Route C timetable to see them.

Actual climate control. Note also that the windows do not open. The only problem here is if the system fails. These vehicles are worthy of a snowflake symbol in the timetable, but not their dual-deck sisters!

We were around 10 minutes late as we reached St. Ives Park & Ride, where our Route A bus terminated. The beauty of the Busway is that you can't be overtaken by a following bus, so we knew our Route B that should have been 10 minutes behind us, wouldn't have somehow snuck past. Sure enough, we waited only a couple of minutes before a Scania/Enviro400 arrived and took us the remainder of the way to Huntingdon station.

The Cambridgeshire Guided Busway is effectively on the doorstep of the LEYTR area. It is very accessible by train from Peterborough, taking just 16 minutes to the northern terminus at Huntingdon. Why it had taken me so long to sample the route is a mystery. I actually felt guilty! I won't be leaving it another six months before I return. As we all knew what we were doing, we didn't have any issues with the buses or the timetable today, but many others will have. This needs addressing.

I'd always assumed the main problem with overcrowding would be between St. Ives and Cambridge, but judging by the traffic hell along Trumpington Road in the evening peak, the non-stop parallel service offered by Route A (admittedly with the Addenbrooke's diversion) was the most overcrowded. Little can be done, however, other than increasing the number of journeys as double deckers cannot run here owing to the low bridges.

And talking of single deckers, I can't emphasise enough what a truly executive experience Stagecoach's Volvo B7RLEs offered, with their Wrightbus Eclipse Urban bodies, fully equipped with climate control. There must be a reason why this cannot be offered on the Enviro400; hopefully the sticking point isn't cost grounds, because the leather seating in the summer will become a sticking point of its own - quite literally.

To end, in the interests of balance:


G. Tingey said...

WHat a vast waste of money
The buses are SLOWER than the trains of 1922 .....
And it COULD have run Huntingdon - St Ives - Cambridge.

But the grossly incompetent money-wasters at DafT wanted buses - they still hate trains, even now ...
So we got this crock of s**t

Anonymous said...

I believe the issue over aircon on the deckers is axle weight, a full aircon system is too heavy to be fitted to a 2-axle double-decker it would require a 3-axle vehicle.

The route between Huntingdon & St Ives is down to history I suspect. Stagecoach (and its predecesors)operated the route that ran via Oxmoor, Whippet ran the more direct route between the two towns, though then took a slower route via Fenstanton between St Ives & Cambridge. To not loop through Oxmoor would lead to a worsening of the service to this location as it is probably the fact that the Huntingdon to Cambridge route passes through that allows the higher frequency it receives.

LEYTR said...

Many thanks for your explanation of the air con. I reckon that if you're boarding in Huntingdon town centre you're not going to be too bothered about journey time (the Oxmoor diversion); if you were, you'd use the train.