Cambs guided busway could open in August

PAYING passengers could be travelling on the world’s longest guided busway as soon as August – only two-and-a-quarter years late.

Last Thursday, contractor BAM Nuttall suddenly handed over the 25km guideway that runs in two parts between St Ives at its northern end and Trumpington and Addenbrooke’s Hospital, south of Cambridge – something that was originally contracted to happen in February 2009.

Theoretically, the handover removes the last obstacle to predicting an opening day for the still-flawed (according to Cambridgeshire County Council) guideway.

The contractor has four weeks to fix what the council claims – and BAM denies – are defects, including raising the level of an oft-flooded stretch of the parallel maintenance track-cum-bridleway/cycle route, installing missing expansion joints in the viaduct over the River Great Ouse between St Ives and Fenstanton, and correcting guideway beam gaps and the drainage fall on the park-and-ride car park in Meadow Lane, St Ives.

Any work BAM fails to complete by May 19 – and a county council spokesman expects that to be all of it – will be carried out by CCC’s contractor, Jackson Civil Engineering, over the following three months. That would take us to mid-August. Then the operators need around four weeks for driver training and route learning.

But the council is now saying that driver training could happen at the same time as the repairs are being carried out, meaning the guideway could open to passengers sooner than previously thought.

The Hunts Post reckons that, given a fair wind, paying punters could be on the guideway in August or even late July if the repairs proved simpler or quicker than forecast.

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But, given the history of this hugely-over-budget project – the �116million budget has already become a projected outturn cost of �180m – no one connected with it believes in fair winds.

As it is, the guideway will open without the terminal buildings planned for the St Ives and Longstanton park-and-ride sites and a kiss-and-ride facility at Swavesey that were deleted from the contract when the budget overshoot became obvious more than two years ago. A council spokesman said it would consider reinstating those facilities when the full cost to the authority became clear – ie not for years, until the High Court has ruled on the council’s �45m ‘overpayment’ to BAM, or, more likely, never.

One facility that is likely to be built is a showcase at Longstanton park-and-ride for the new 9,500-home eco-town planned as Northstowe, on the site of the former Oakington airfield – a project even more heavily delayed than the guideway itself.

Fair-wind sceptic Peter Lee, director of bus operator Whippet, says he will believe the opening when he sees it.

“You begin to wonder whether anything else can give,” he told The Hunts Post yesterday Tuesday. “It’s a bit premature to start thinking about when we could start driver training.

“Until the contractors actually get on site they are not going to know exactly what they need to do. I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t open until September or October. You never get a fair wind with this, but we’re looking forward to it when it does happen.”

The other operator, Stagecoach, will be dusting off the guide-wheels that it took off its 20-strong fleet of leather-seated air-conditioned buses shortly after they were delivered more than two years ago.

Managing director Andy Campbell confirmed that his drivers would need around four weeks to get the hang of using the guide-wheels, engaging and disengaging from the guideway and learning the route and its stops.

Whether that process could happen in parallel with work on or adjacent to the guideway would depend on the nature of the work. “We’d rather have end-to-end access in one go,” he said. “And our drivers need to get used to the guide-wheels again off the guideway, for example for docking at stops and for some tight turns.”

At last Thursday’s handover, Steve Fox, BAM Nuttall’s chief executive, said: “BAM Nuttall is very proud to have built the longest guided busway in the world, which, once open, will provide a world-beating service.

“I am glad both the council and BAM Nuttall have taken a positive step forward today. I, like everyone at BAM Nuttall, look forward to seeing buses running along this high quality scheme as soon as possible.”

The county council is expected to announce the opening date at around the time the two operators lodge their proposed timetables with the Traffic Commissioner - eight weeks before they come into effect.