What are the contingency plans if the busways fail and the proposed bus service improvements don’t materialise?

That’s not to say “I want them to fail and have the proponents of them to fall flat on their faces covered in mud and have to make grovelling public apologies for being wrong before we all get to throw rotten tomatoes at them”(I’m part of CABU!), but rather to ask what contingency plans are in place.

Because similar to the point I made at the end of my moan about Reach PLC and the Cambridge News, Cambridge needs these new public transport proposals to succeed. Which also means that:

  1. All of the projects that have received funding must be evaluated *against the success criteria stated at the outset*
  2. Those evaluations must be published and publicised so that more of the general public become aware of the lessons learnt – good and bad
  3. Politicians and officers past and present need to be honest about what decisions they got wrong, what decisions they got right, what information they would have sought earlier on, and what they might have done differently in hindsight – making specific recommendations for any future generations of politicians and officers charged with delivering similar projects.
The Cambridge Guided Busway (Trumpington – Cambridge – St Ives)

There’s a lot of history behind this controversial project. The proposals pre-date Tony Blair’s Government, as this front page from the Cambridge Evening News in 1996 from the Cambridgeshire Collection demonstrate. I had just started sixth form college and was trying to get my head around the incredibly long commutes that many of my classmates had to do to get to college every day.

Above – from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

The British Newspaper Archive, having now digitised a number of newspapers from Cambridge in the 1990s (have a browse here) picked out this letter in 1999.

Mr R.L. Baldry called for:

  1. Re-opening the old Cambridge-St Ives Railway line as proposed by CAST IRON
  2. Building a new railway station at the Chesterton Sidings – now complete as Cambridge North Station
  3. Build a railway station for Addenbrooke’s – work in progress.

It’s also important to note what had gone on before 1999 – the starving of funds for public transport by Margaret Thatcher’s government and the privatisation of railways by John Major’s. The late Simon Norton of Transport 2000, now the Campaign for Better Transport, held them both to account in this letter from 1992.

A regular contributor to local newspapers at a time when the Cambridge Evening News sold over 40,000 copies a day, Mr Norton was a regular letter writer, his name coming up over 200 times in the British Newspaper Archive in the 1980s & 1990s.

You can read Mr Norton’s obituary in The Guardian from 2019 here.

A change of national government, but not the renaissance in public transport that John Prescott promised. The problem was that much was made of new buses, more bus lanes, and more park and rides – it’s how we ended up with the ones we’ve got today.

Above – from October 1997 showing Parker Street, then one of the most polluted roads in the country (only because it was one of the few that had pollution monitors on it but it reflected badly on the buses with it being the main road into and out of Drummer Street bus station from South Cambridge.)

Cambridge Futures

Then came along a series of proposals under the title Cambridge Futures – In 2003 the Cambridge Futures 2 proposals were published.

Above – an iteration with a short underground bus tunnel

In 2004, still wanting to make the case for re-opening the Cambridge-St Ives Railway, CAST IRON submitted their case to the Public Inquiry.

Above – you can read CAST.IRON’s case here

“Passenger journey levels by rail are now over 20% higher than they were when the Cambridge – St Ives railway was last operational. The population along the A14 corridor has risen dramatically during this time and adequate demand now exists to support a railway.”

CAST.IRON (2004) para 9.1.33

Cambridge’s population would have been just over 100,000 in 2001. Fast forward to 2021 and The Census had Cambridge’s population at over 145,000. With Cambourne and Northstowe continually building new homes, this has also put more demand on local transport infrastructure. At the same time, the growth in trade levels – in particular imports of manufactured goods into ports like Felixstowe have placed a huge strain on the A14 from freight.

Above – graph from UK in a changing Europe

Note this pre-dates Brexit but it’s a useful historic comparator that reflects the failure of successive governments to make rail freight infrastructure improvements to take the strain from freight off of the roads.

The case for the guided busway vs what actually happened

What Cambridgeshire County Council officers told civil servants in their submission to the Development Consent Order for the Cambridge – Huntingdon A14 upgrade (that got approved and is nearly complete) in 2015 makes for interesting reading.

“The guided busway links to Cambridge Science Park adjacent to the A14 at Milton, Orchard Park adjacent to the A14 at Histon, and Cambridge Station. It was however always a complementary to the A14 not a replacement, and has had little effect on traffic volumes on the A14 despite significant users on the Guided Busway. It satisfied suppressed demand for public transport, rather than providing mode transfer from the A14, although that has occurred.”

Cambridgeshire County Council 15 June 2015, p13 para 2.2.6

Yet three years earlier, Atkins for the Department for Transport stated that modal shift was one of the main aims.

Above – Atkins for the Department for Transport May 2012 p8 Table 1

If we go back further to July 2007, we find Atkins again working on all things transport – this time for Cambridge City Council on North West Cambridge. You can read their report here. (All 320 pages of it).

“Was there any evaluation done? If so, what did it say?”

There was – and it has some interesting things to say as well. You can read the slides here. It’s by Atkins. Again.

The conclusions at the end also note that *continuous improvement of services is essential* But we’ve not seen that with bus services – we’ve seen the opposite with austerity, followed by the panicked responses from ministers across many policy areas following the EU Referendum, a symptom of how much policy capacity has been diverted towards an utterly avoidable catastrophe. How does the busway look today, a decade after its launch and in the face of a very large population rise going by the census? (Including the growth of the new towns).

In 2016 Atkins (again) came up with the Strategic Outline Business Case for a Cambourne – Cambridge busway – in the face of huge local opposition.

You can read the proposals here.

The problem was that at the same time, Mayor James Palmer had just been elected the Mayor of the new Combined Authority which Chancellor George Osborne had invented – and Mayor Palmer publicly stated he would not work with Cambridgeshire County Council transport officers on developing his proposals. Mindful of the protests that were happening against the Cambourne-Cambridge busway plans that were put together by said officers for the Greater Cambridge Partnership until they got round to employing senior officers of their own, I could understand Mayor Palmer’s hostility. But it also meant three different transport organisations overlapping each other at various times, to say nothing of the party political splits between the institutions – especially after the Liberal Democrats turfed out the Conservatives from South Cambridgeshire District Council in 2018.

The dropped CAM Metro promoted by Steer Davies Gleave

In the end a lot of money was spent on not very much but you can read their January 2018 report here. In the end their political master, former Mayor James Palmer lost the Mayoral Election in 2021 quite unexpectedly.

It was Labour’s Dr Nik Johnson who won the mandate with his proposal to focus on short-term bus service improvements instead. The reason for his buses first policy platform was that he only had four years to deliver improvements before the next election, and the Combined Authority has a very, very limited independent budget. You can read their business plan 2022/23 here.

As an institution, the Combined Authority has struggled and was fortunate not to be put into special measures. Not surprisingly, the Department for Transport chose to withhold funding for a bus strategy improvement plan in April 2022. We were expecting a new one to be published this month but the Demise of the Crown has put back to either October or November 2022.

“What if ministers don’t provide the funding? What if the Greater Cambridge Partnership plans fail?”

This comes back to the recommendation of the need for continual improvement in transport infrastructure – in particular as we move away from fossil fuels in the longer term. Because we’ll have to.

This is why I think the options put together by the Cambridge Connect proposals need to be worked up through a grant from Cambridgeshire’s transport authorities.

There remain a host of external risks to the existing plans – not least staff shortages and inflation now running at around 10%, alongside a now collapsing £Pound vs US$. With oil traded in dollars, the impact this will have on construction costs could be significant. Where will the extra funding come from? As a public sector budget manager that’s a risk that is outside of your scope. You cannot reasonably mitigate for that other than to say this is a political issue that needs to be escalated to councillors and MPs, to ministers. And it might be that ministers in an extreme case simply pull the funding. (I’ve seen it done).

The other big external risk is a general election due by the end of 2024. Who knows what a future government of any political colour is going to come up with in the face of a climate emergency that is now here. For all of the announcements that have been made by the Prime Minister’s new Chancellor, events may well force their hands in implementing policies they would rather avoid – similar to how CV19 made Boris Johnson’s Government have to take decisions unthinkable for a government full of ‘small state’ types.

Given the unpopularity of the proposed congestion charge – which councillors and senior officials at the Greater Cambridge Partnership have stated cannot come in unless/until the bus services have been radically improved, they would be well advised to start working up the light rail alternative (Even if it’s just the Cambourne – Cambridge – Haverhill line) and then make the case to future ministers for the funding – and being honest with them and the public about why their original proposals failed. Because while this may not be a good look in the short term, it will provide a huge number of lessons learnt that can be applied to future transport schemes across the rest of the UK – ones that could save even more time and money in the longer term for far more towns and cities.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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