cambridge, uk: world’s longest guided busway opens

From our UK correspondent Peter Brown:

The Cambridgeshire Guided Busway finally opens [today], Sunday 7th August, and at 25km will overtake Adelaide's O-Bahn (on which it was partly based) as the world's longest guided busway.  It will be an 'open' BRT as services will not be restricted solely to the Busway.  The guideway consists of two sections.  The longest runs from the northern edge of Cambridge to St Ives, while the shorter southern section runs from Cambridge rail station to Trumpington.  There are three Park and Ride sites on the route.
The buses are standard UK designs (single and double deckers) fitted with guide wheels.  Guideway stops will feature off-bus ticketing.  Guideway stop (prior to opening):

Cambridge busway

Two bus companies (Stagecoach and local independant Whippet Coaches) have signed a partnership agreement with Cambridgeshire County Council for exclusive use of the Busway for 5  years.  Services will operate under a single brand – "the busway".
More info:

If this busway doesn't turn up significant benefits in customer experience, it will probably be the last, or at least the last to be done with guide-wheels.  Adelaide's pioneering O-Bahn is now 25 years old, so one hopes the state of the art has moved on.  (There's also a guided busway in Nagoya, Japan, dating from 2001, where the government classifies it as a railway.)  All of these, including Cambridge, are open busways, i.e. designed so that buses can run off the ends of the facility onto various street-running lines. 

So I'll be curious to see how this goes.

35 Responses to cambridge, uk: world’s longest guided busway opens

  1. Cap'n Transit August 7, 2011 at 8:40 am #

    To me, it’s very important to make a distinction between busways built on old rail rights-of-way, busways carved from previously shared roads, and busways built on greenfields or other non-transportation property.
    All the really successful “BRT” in the United States is built on old railroad rights-of-way: the Orange Line in LA and the Pittsburgh busways.
    The political cost of turning an abandoned railroad ROW into a busway is pretty small compared to condemning property or reallocating road space. The benefits of constructing a busway are also small compared to reinstating passsenger service in the same ROW. Any cheerleading for “guided busways” needs to take that into account.

  2. Cap'n Transit August 7, 2011 at 8:43 am #

    Given my comment on the previous post, I should add that the other successful busway in the US, the Lincoln Tunnel XBL, was created in the 1970s from previously shared roads. Considering the political will necessary to create and maintain it, I think it’s a much more impressive accomplishment than the Orange Line or the Pittsburgh busways.

  3. Jarrett at August 7, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    Cap'n.  The dominance of abandoned rail ROW in busway siting is of course partly a measure of the US sense of the possible. 
    By contrast, Brisbane's SE Busway is in spare bits of land along a freeway.  Its N Busway is on a mixture of viaduct and surface next to or over a major boulevard, with considerable land taking.  Its E Busway will likewise be a mixture of underground and surface running along and within a major boulevard.  Even Brisbane, to be fair, is reluctant to actually take traffic lanes.  In Australia that happens only in major city cores.

  4. zefwagner August 7, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    The US has been able to get by using railroad ROW because so much of it has been abandoned or underused for decades. It is an easy way to get ROW without ruffling feathers, but unfortunately it often does not go where the people live or want to go. It seems like we are running out of spare rail ROW and need to start using eminent domain again. It is too bad that careless and vindictive eminent domain projects decades ago are still haunting us today, preventing a lot of good projects. With the right oversight and controls the US could use eminent domain more effectively and humanely.

  5. Pete August 7, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    Capn, I think in this case the benefits of the busway will outway those reopened rail service would have brought as at best rail service would offer only a 30 minute frequency to a limited number of destinations without changing trains. The busway offers up to 10 minute frequencies and serves a wider area, yet still feeds into nstional rail at Huntingdon and Cambridge. Plans also exist for a branch to serve a planned new town near the guideway.

  6. Cap'n Transit August 7, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    Well, Pete, I think the problem then is why rail service would have been so limited. I live by a rail line that has service at less than five minute intervals.
    You may be right that about the “sense of the possible” in the US. But that sense of the possible is clearly warped, and should probably be fixed before anything else is attempted. Some guidance on that would probably be the best thing you could do for American bus transit.

  7. Danny August 7, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    This concept is really foreign to me. What is the point of a guided busway? So the bus driver doesn’t have to steer?

  8. Erik Weber August 7, 2011 at 3:11 pm #

    The British Isles has recently had somewhat of a fetish for guided busways. Edinburgh built a guided busway early in the new millenium (which it is now “upgrading” to a light rail line. Crawley, south of London opened its Fastway system a few years back providing higher quality bus service to Gatwick and some other destinations. Fastway features around a mile of guideway spread throughout its system.
    In Crawley the system has been successful in decreasing travel times and increasing ridership on the Fastway routes, but it has been to the detriment of other bus routes in the area, since several bus lanes were converted to guideway and can no longer be used by buses without the guide wheels.

  9. Rational Plan August 7, 2011 at 4:07 pm #

    The situation is not comparable to the US. In the UK, while there has been suburban sprawl, it has been planned. Most retail has been kept in town centres and they remain the focus for commerce and public services. Any abandoned rail lines in the UK will go through most towns. Though it’s mostly only rural lines that have been cut in the UK. This means a guided bus line will generally pass near the core of the villages.
    We are also not talking about a large city here, Cambridge has 130,000 people. A restored railway would only be able to support a 30 minute service and probably only stop at St Ives ignoring the villages closer to Cambridge. There is certainly not the market for a metro level of service.
    The reason for a guided wheel system rather than a bus only road, is space. If you read the Wikipedia link it states that a standard road, would need to be 30 foot wide, a guided one only 20 foot wide. British rail corridors are not wide, the guided system fit within the existing right of way.

  10. Miles Bader August 7, 2011 at 7:21 pm #

    How much of the fetish for these things (as opposed to equivalent rail lines) has to do with lobbying/ideology?
    The roads lobby is very powerful and well-monied, and at least past UK governments have been a bit too cozy with them…
    [I dunno the degree to which guided busway can be considered “road”, but it seems to use much of the same technology (and thus suppliers), and “at least it isn’t rail” (from the lobbyists’ point of view)…]

  11. Erik Weber August 7, 2011 at 8:08 pm #

    @Danny One of the primary benefits of the guided busway is the ability to build carriageways narrower and therefore reduce the transit ROW needed by 15-20%.

  12. Rational Plan August 8, 2011 at 2:31 am #

    Heres Cambridgeshire county web page for the system.
    It has lots of nice maps and timetables

  13. Anon256 August 8, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    Having lived in Cambridge, it seemed to me that the main problem with restoring rail service on the Cambridge-St Ives branch was that Cambridge railway station is about 2km from the city centre, an inconveniently long walk from most university buildings and other jobs and activities. This would require most passengers to transfer to bus at the end of their journey anyway, while the street-running of guideway buses can get them much closer to their destinations. Trams are theoretically a possibility, but would have difficulty negotiating some of the required turns, and of course the added infrastructure cost would be hard to justify in a city the size of Cambridge.
    It was also an issue that the old railway remained only from Cambridge to the edge of St Ives, beyond which parts of it had been built on. Running onward to Huntingdon, or even into the centre of St Ives, might have required more extensive and disruptive construction than was required along the busway route as built.
    I think I also heard it suggested that a rail line would be more attractive than a busway for people commuting to London and less for those commuting to Cambridge, with attendant changes to the character of communities on the route. I’m not sure how common such concerns were, or whether they had much impact on mode choice.
    The busway project, originally projected to take two years, ended up taking more than four, going far over budget and becoming widely perceived as a “boondoggle”. In 2009, just before the busway was originally intended to open, Stagecoach bought a number of new double-deckers painted with the slogan “I’ll be on the Busway soon, will you?” As the delays and problems stretched on, these were repainted to read “Will I be on the Busway soon?” These issues, combined with the incentives for the new national government to distance itself from anything endorsed by the old, probably mean that no further guided busways are likely to be constructed in the UK in the near future.

  14. Daniel Howard August 8, 2011 at 3:14 pm #

    I asked myself “what in the heck would be the advantage of a busway?” So, digging through Wikipedia discussion pages, I found a decent summary:
    “The principal argument for a guided bus over a regular busway is that like a tram, it doesn’t need to be steered. It can pass closer to an obstacle, or to an oncoming vehicle, than a steered bus could safely do, and so the right-of-way needn’t be as wide. It also has the feeling of greater permanence, though that gets very subjective.”
    “In many cases, construction costs are very similar to a tram, so the main argument for guided buses is their ability to leave the guideway and operate independently. In some cases, guideway is installed for only part of the route (as in Nancy); in others, they leave the guideway only when travelling to/from a bus depot (as in Caen) or when the regular route is blocked. Their rubber tyres also give them greater hill-climbing ability than trams.”
    –David Arthur, at

  15. EngineerScotty August 8, 2011 at 3:26 pm #

    To follow up on Daniel’s remarks–it’s interesting to compare the differences between a guided busway and a rubber-tyre metro (I’ll use the British spelling for tire as there are no such critters in North America….)
    * In a guided busway, busses often leave the busway and enter mixed traffic. In a RTM, vehicles remain in the guideway during normal operations.
    * Vehicles in RTMs are often entrained, and share many other attributes of railcars, such as sophisticated coupling interfaces (more capable than a tow hitch) which permit a lead car to control multiple EMUs, and the ability to run at speed in either directions.
    Given that–might it be plausible to construct a guided busway that features both RTM services, with long bus-trains (possibly including cabless busses) under the control of a single operator, which provide high-capacity service within the corridor, as well as “ordinary” street-legal busses which travel in the busway when its convenient, then venture into the public right of way?
    Or even more exotic solutions such as street-legal busses from different directions which join into trains at certain stations and run in the busway as a unit (presumably freeing up one or more drivers to operate a return trip), while splitting up (assuming waiting drivers) into multiple single busses in the other direction?

  16. Anon256 August 8, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    As an aside, I see the the Council’s website on the busway fails to provide any information on how much a single fare is, only various day and week passes. At least on the busway route passengers can figure this out at the ticket vending machine before boarding, but the issue is woefully common with bus services in the UK, and in many cases the only way to find out the single fare is by asking the driver. This can’t be good for encouraging new riders or for boarding dwell times.
    (I actually emailed the council before the busway opened asking the single fare and got a reply that they didn’t know, I should contact Stagecoach/Whippet! Apparently building a £180M piece of infrastructure for the bus companies isn’t sufficient to be let in on the secret of how much it costs to take the bus.)

  17. voony August 8, 2011 at 11:15 pm #

    from the page
    It looks it doesn’t use too much of the ability to ride the bus outside the Guideway, except in the town center where ironically it spends much of its time.
    Considering that it was a disused railway before, it looks a tram-train could have been a fair proposition in this case, it could have eventually shaved the access time to Cambridge center from where the bus leave the current guideway of something like 15mn to something like 5mn. May be they had good reason to think that to renounce definitely to a rail ROW was a good policy, but I notice that in Nantes, in a similar case, they have chosen otherwise.

  18. anonymouse August 9, 2011 at 7:48 am #

    @EngineerScotty: if you’re looking for rubber-tire metros, there’s one in Montreal and one in Mexico City. There are also various airport shuttle systems that use VAL or similar technology. Also, while I’ve never heard of multiple unit buses, the former USSR did have multiple unit trolleybuses, consisting of two permanently-coupled standard trolleybuses with a towbar between them and some kind of linkage to the steering assembly on the second trolley to make it all work. The key point is that the master controller in the trolleybus is electrically controlled, so it doesn’t matter whether the pedal that’s sending the control signal is in the same bus or not. It would be a bit harder to adapt a regular diesel bus to MU operation.

  19. David Arthur August 9, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    I was going to give my explanation of the argument for guided buses, but I see it’s already been quoted. 🙂
    The argument for bus over rail in Cambridge has some merit. The restoration of National Rail service that some were demanding was always a clear non-starter, because Cambridge station is so far from the city centre. (Apparently back in the 19th century, the university didn’t want students distracted from their studies by an easy link to London. Oxford station is almost as inconvenient.) And the underground lines that we might suggest in a money-is-no-object fantasy would probably be a bad idea in the Fens.
    The bus goes straight through the central area, though that means going on-street for what’s already its slowest section. But since they aren’t really using the busway’s ability to collect a number of routes together, I still think the best-case option would have been tram-train, for both transport benefits and the urban environment: Cambridge has bad traffic, and seems to require a large number of buses to meet existing demand. The narrow streets also mean that you’re very close to passing vehicles, so in some areas the roar of diesel buses becomes an inescapable part of the local character. Electric trams would at least fix this, and it would probably also be easier to give signal priority than with a constant flow of buses.
    If money is tight, the busway is a workable substitute (although the council’s insistence that it’s better gets wearing). I was sceptical about the case for guidewheels even at the original price tag; I suppose it makes it harder for someone to let cars in, and makes it feel less like the deserted motorways in That Man From Rio. Whether this was worth the cost is up to you. Is there anyone here who has ridden it and can say how ‘rail-like’ the ride really is?
    Anon256: By law, bus services outside London have to be open to free competition, both on services and fares (except under the special scheme whose use in Oxford this blog recently discussed). This wouldn’t apply to a tramway.

  20. Mikko August 10, 2011 at 12:45 am #

    David Arthur:
    “If money is tight, the busway is a workable substitute (although the council’s insistence that it’s better gets wearing). […] Whether this was worth the cost is up to you.”
    Was a tram-train system an option at the planning stage? I wonder if the busway actually ended up being cheaper after the cost escalation compared to projections for a tram-train. As I understood it, the existing tracks would have been usable, but electrification and the extensions onto the streets etc. would have been needed. Granted, tram projects in the UK seem to cost more than the ones in continental Europe for some reason.

  21. Rational Plan August 10, 2011 at 6:11 am #

    Well at the time the local government was bidding for central government cash, Trams had fallen out of favour at the Department of Transport and guided bus was the future. So it was guided bus or nothing really! They are still have not launched the Tram train demonstration project here yet. Tram construction would also prove controversial in Cambridge city centre with all the OHLE.

  22. Brent Palmer August 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    @anonymouse: There has been remote control of locomotives for many years, so it might be possible to develop a similar system for diesel (or natural gas) buses. There could be factors that differ from trains that I don’t know anything about, but gear changes would have to be triggered by the front unit, for instance.

  23. anonymouse August 10, 2011 at 4:45 pm #

    @Brent Palmer it’s certainly possible, the existence of diesel multiple unit trains proves it, but it might be difficult to retrofit onto existing bus designs where the controls are probably still very much mechanical or hydraulic, as opposed to trolleybuses where the controls are electric to begin with (and there’s only one gear).

  24. Rational Plan August 11, 2011 at 5:47 am #
    Great You tube video of route B

  25. RJS August 12, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

    It was also an issue that the old railway remained only from Cambridge to the edge of St Ives, beyond which parts of it had been built on.
    I’ve always been puzzled by this. In Britain, it seems like rail ROW is sold the minute trains stop running, and now you can’t even tell where the line was. In the US, that just doesn’t happen. Lines that haven’t seen traffic in 60 or 70 years are still basically intact, minus some old bridges and such.

  26. Rob August 12, 2011 at 11:02 pm #

    I haven’t ridden a guided busway, but here’s what I think makes sense:
    Guided buses take less right-of-way space than non-guided ones. They will have less lateral movement, so a more comfortable ride (and electric buses might be used at higher speeds). They can pull right up to platforms, so level loading is possible. From the rider’s point of view, they seem similar to rubber tired rail. The vehicles are a lot less expensive than rail vehicles.
    If full feeder buses arrive at stations, it’s not necessary to make every passenger transfer. From the system operator’s perspective that may not be a big deal, but if you’re focused on customers, it’s huge. If you need to work with a freight rail company to operate a rail line, you also need to cope with very high cost operation, and a tendency to put passengers on a siding if a freight train wants to get through.
    But buses can’t be trained, so if density and ridership are high enough to require higher capacity, trains are the only solution.

  27. Jarrett at August 13, 2011 at 12:03 am #

    Rob sums it up pretty well I think. 

  28. Julian August 14, 2011 at 4:03 am #

    Some of the thinking behind the Busway was to encourage modal shift. The Busway runs parallel to one of the busiest and most dangerous roads in the UK, the A14, and the Busway services provide an alternative to driving. This also goes some way to explaining why there are no less than three Park-and-Ride sites along the route.
    The route also serves directly two major traffic objectives to the North of Cambridge, the Regional College and the Science Park; the centre of Cambridge, and the major regional hospital to the south, Addenbroke’s.

  29. Pete August 14, 2011 at 1:20 pm #

    Another Youtube video, thia time route A from St Ives to Cambridge and then the southern busway from the rail station to Trumpington Park and Ride via Addenbrookes Hospital, including short single track section.
    (Best watched with sound muted due to irritating music)

  30. Dan August 15, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    I live in Adelaide, and am very familiar with the O-Bahn guided busway we have here.
    The Adelaide system has three stations along the length of the busway and is anchored by the CBD at one end and a major shopping centre at the other end.
    There are satellite bus routes to the three stations, and buses from the CBD can exit the busway at two of these three stations.
    The corridor it runs is is dedicated (it mostly follows the river and land previously set aside for a freeway); pedestrian access to the busway is restricted by fencing or grade separation.
    The ride is pretty good, however Adelaide Metro had problems sourcing replacement buses with the reelvant wheel width / clearance, especially articulated buses.
    We’ve only now replaced the last of the original fleet (old Mercedes buses) with Scania Arctic’s.
    The CBD end of the busway is still several kilometers from teh city, and the buses join normal traffic, so it gets very slow. eg 10KMs on the busway takes less time than the 2KM into the city during peak hour. The volume of buses in the city also cause a lot of congestion along the busway routes.
    The government has failed to utilise off-vechile validation / ticket purchasing or traffic signal prioritisation, however this may be coming soon. It may be a little half-hearted though.
    The other problem is with the occasonal confused driver that follows a bus into the busway, with predictable results once the driver gets a wheel in between the guideway rails. (one driver managed about 3KMs before they crashed.)
    There have been a couple of rear-end collisions, dogs on the track etc which usually causes havoc with the service for the rest of the day.
    Buses were previously able to travel at 110 Km/h however this has been reduced back to 80 Km/h in recent years.
    Generally though the service works very well; the track has held up reasonably well given the heavy uage it gets (about one bus per 2 minutes during peak hour.) As mentioned above, the main issues are congestion once the buses join normal peakhour traffic, and slow dwell times due to on-vehicle ticket validation.

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  33. Nathanael August 31, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

    So basically this should have been a tram. Hope it’s actually cheaper than a tram. Doubt it though.

  34. Pete Brown January 7, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    The Cambridgeshire guided busway is expected to carry its one millionth passenger this month.
    In October a new timetable was introduced and evenings now see hourly buses until 00:05: