Guided buses prove so popular that Stagecoach may buy more vehicles

PUBLISHED: 12:00 24 August 2011

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GUIDED bus services are proving so popular that after just two weeks of operation one of the bus companies is thinking of ordering more new vehicles.

Stagecoach, the principal operator, originally ordered a fleet of 10 double-deck vehicles for use between Huntingdon and Cambridge and three single-deckers, which can use the limited-height southern extension to Addenbrooke’s Hospital and Trumpington in Cambridge.

When the busway was previously scheduled to open, in late November 2009, the company ordered three more buses for the fleet.

But the popularity of the venture – which eventually opened on August 7 this year, well over two years after the originally scheduled opening of April 2009 – has led to discussions between Stagecoach in Cambridge managing director Andy Campbell and his chairman Sir Brian Souter that could lead a further six air-conditioned wifi-equipped buses being added to the dedicated fleet of guided buses.

The operators have already had to put on more buses on Sundays and know that they will need extra peak-hour services when the schools and colleges return after the summer holidays.

So popular are the services proving that Stagecoach has moved from an hourly Sunday service to half-hourly on the core route between St Ives and Cambridge, and smaller operator Whippet is considering changing from two-hourly to every 30 minutes, offering passengers four buses an hour on the Sabbath.

Daytime services are coping in the school holidays, but will be stretched, particularly in the morning peak, when the academic year starts next month.

The operators do not yet know the extent of the impact of the busway’s novelty factor on passenger numbers. But, if patronage holds up, Stagecoach at least will be able to justify buying more of its top-end environmentally-friendly bio-buses.

“We are full at the moment,” Mr Campbell told The Hunts Post this week. “We would not be able to cope next month without additional journeys. We’re looking at adding 20 additional journeys to the timetable because we’re carrying more people than we would have expected at this stage.”

What has particularly surprised Stagecoach is the demand for through journeys on the A services between St Ives park-and-ride in Meadow Lane and Addenbrooke’s Hospital from patients and hospital workers.

“We shall be looking at possible new routes and, because buses are often full when they leave St Ives, at starting dedicated services from Longstanton park-and-ride,” Mr Campbell said. “We have to respond to demand, but it needs a few weeks to settle down before we make any decisions.”

Unlike the railways, where timetable changes take at least six months to implement, extra bus services can be introduced quite quickly. The traffic commissioner has already agreed to provisional service increases from September 4, waiving the normal 42-day public consultation period.

Mr Campbell also promised to look at better publicity for the dedicated new half-hourly feeder service, number 20, between Fenstanton and St Ives park-and-ride that is currently little-known and hardly used. It could be included in the revised edition of the pocket timetable for the 25-km world’s longest busway when changes are made in September.

Although operating on a much smaller scale, with a fleet of just three buses, Whippet Coaches director Peter Lee is also considering adding to his fleet.

“So far, we’ve been concentrating on reliability, and we’ve been getting much more positive reaction than negative,” he told The Hunts Post. “The novelty will wear off and we shall then see the reality of the true level of demand.”

In the meantime, he is calling for a multi-operator ticket so passengers can catch the first bus that arrives, and for the county council to introduce ‘red routes’ into Cambridge city centre and improve the response of traffic lights to buses.

He, too, has moved to an hourly Sunday and Bank Holiday service, on top of his weekend anywhere for £1 August promotion.

In the meantime, Cambridgeshire County Council has warned cyclists that they will lose their new track between St Ives and Swavesey while civil engineers improve the profile of the flood-prone maintenance track and provide a black-top surface.

The work is due to start on Tuesday next week, August 30, with cyclists diverted through the villages on national cycle routes. The council was unable to say how long the work would take to reduce the likelihood of flooding from six months of the year to an average of one month.

Anyone who thinks walking or cycling on the guideway is a safe option to the closed maintenance track during the work is being warned to think again – buses are already running at the rate of six an hour in each direction.

Councillor Ian Bates, cabinet member for growth and planning, urged: “Please use your common sense while the work is being carried out, as it is very unwise to walk or cycle on the guideway.”

The council’s cabinet last week discussed in closed session how to proceed with reclaiming the overspend on the project – estimated at around £45million – from contractor BAM Nuttall.

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