Bus trials promise lost views

IT is almost 40 years since the hangars and war-time circular pill-boxes of Oakington Airfield were visible to passengers on regular public transport services. That is set to change. Passenger services on the St Ives-Cambridge branch railway line, which r

IT is almost 40 years since the hangars and war-time circular pill-boxes of Oakington Airfield were visible to passengers on regular public transport services. That is set to change.

Passenger services on the St Ives-Cambridge branch railway line, which ran along the perimeter of the airfield, ceased in 1970.

But the trackbed is being developed as a guided busway for the express phase of new services between Huntingdon, St Ives and Cambridge.

Last week, guided buses began test running along the first newly-completed four-kilometre section of guideway, and The Hunts Post was on one of them.


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Millions of tonnes of concrete are being poured into moulds to create sections of the 25-km guideway, along which buses will be able to travel at up to 60mph when services begin in spring next year.

Shot-blasting the running surface of the guideway provides a very smooth ride on the test bed between the Station Road, Longstanton depot of contractor, Edmund Nuttall, where the concrete sections are pre-fabricated, and Oakington. The technique will be applied to the whole length of the guideway before it opens, said Bob Menzies, Cambridgeshire County Council's man charged with delivering the £116.2million project.

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"It's on budget - we've already spent about one-third of the money - though we're a couple of months behind schedule, because of the very wet weather in the winter. But we still expect to open on schedule next spring."

But those views of Oakington Airfield will be short-lived. Most of it will be turned into the 9,500-home new town of Northstowe over the coming couple of decades.

Four bus manufacturers are testing their vehicles in the hope of persuading the three operators who will be licensed to use the guideway to spend their millions of pounds of investment with them.

Volvo, Optaire, Scania and Alexander Dennis will be pitching for orders from Huntingdon & District, Whippet, of Fenstanton, and Stagecoach's Cambridge operation.

The county council, which is in negotiation with the operators over vehicle specification, insists that all buses using the guideway will be newly-built low-emission vehicles, aimed at attracting up to 20,000 journeys a day away from the A14.

There will be a bus every 10 minutes or less between 7am and 9am and 4pm and 6pm, and several every hour between the peaks and into the evening. The journey from St Ives to Cambridge city centre will be scheduled at around 32 minutes, which should be attractive to those who currently drive there in the morning peak.

The Huntingdon-Cambridge journey time is less attractive because, at 54 minutes, it assumes the round-the-houses route Huntingdon & District currently uses to make the service economically viable.

But county council chiefs hope the new services will be so popular that operators will want to run express buses from Huntingdon by way of Godmanchester and the A14 or the A1123, potentially cutting 10 or 15 minutes from the journey times currently predicted.

Experience of the test track is quite encouraging, if not necessarily typical. The four-km journey from what will be the Longstanton park-and-ride when Nuttalls have moved off-site to Oakington takes around three minutes. Driving between the same two points could take 15 minutes.

Eventually, there will be 25-km of guideway in each direction, linking Meadow Lane in St Ives with Cambridge Science Park and a new railway station at Chesterton junction on the Fen Line. There will also be guideway south of Cambridge city centre, providing a link to Trumpington and Addenbrooke's Hospital.

On the guideway buses use small guidewheels in contact with the concrete side walls. Drivers do not need to touch the steering wheel. They simply control the speed.

Off the guideway the buses will travel on ordinary roads, though the county council is planning additional bus lanes in St Ives, Huntingdon and Cambridge.

Fares have not yet been set, but there will be an "inter-available" ticket that can be used on any bus and operator-specific fares that are likely to be cheaper but more restrictive. They are likely to be a bit higher than current fare levels to pay the operators' access charges to the guideway.

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