St Ives-Cambridge guided busway: independent inquiry promised as further delay revealed

AN independent public inquiry is to be held into building of the St Ives-Cambridge guided busway, as the project continues to lurch between farce and fiasco.

AN independent public inquiry is to be held into building of the St Ives-Cambridge guided busway, as the project continues to lurch between farce and fiasco.

Cambridgeshire County Council, which is sponsoring what was supposed to cost �116million but is set end up with a �160m price-tag, announced the move on Tuesday (September 21).

But the cost of the project, which is already two years late, does not include the millions of pounds expected to be trousered by lawyers as the disputed cost-overrun moves to the High Court of Justice, in The Strand.

The public inquiry, which is expected to be chaired by an expert in contract law and practice, is years away. It cannot start until the legal proceedings are finished. And, unless contractor BAM Nuttall fails to press its claims for extra cash from the county – which is unlikely – the court case could be complex and lengthy.

The busway – the longest in the world by some margin – is in two parts. The northern section runs along the line of the disused St Ives-Cambridge railway. The southern section runs from Cambridge railway station to Trumpington and Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

The whole project should have been handed over in February 2009, opening a couple of months later after driver-training and route-familiarisation.

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It became clear early on that the southern section was delayed, particularly by work close to Cambridge railway station. But the county council hoped to get the northern section finished and open first.

However, six ‘defects’ identified by the council – BAM denies they are defects – have still not been rectified, and the county cannot accept what it claims is defective without prejudicing its position under the contract terms.

The southern section seemed to have developed a momentum, and was until recently expected to be completed by the end of this year. But it became clear a couple of weeks ago that that was not achievable. That meant that, with the council getting another company to do the remedial work if BAM did not complete it, it would be summer 2011 at the earliest before passengers could be carried on the busway.

Now, another dispute has arisen, which has proved the last straw for the council’s cabinet and prompted the announcement yesterday (Tuesday) that an inquiry would be held.

The latest issue involved the contractor seeking to delete from the project some lighting on a single-track section of the southern section – in spite of the council’s insistence that it was a safety issue.

After being told twice that the lighting is critical for safety, BAM Nuttall finally accepted that the lighting must be installed, CCC said.

Cabinet member Roy Pegram said: “I am shocked that an internationally-renowned contractor would even consider not installing lighting on a section of the route where it is needed for safety. To need to be told twice it is needed is even more worrying.

“The numerous delays and overspends by BAM Nuttall have angered everyone in Cambridgeshire, and I’m sure the contractor potentially putting safety at risk will also be the final straw for residents, as it has been for senior councillors.”

The council has said court action over the contractor’s overspend is inevitable. The independent review could be carried out only after the legal process has concluded to avoid prejudice of the legal outcome.

Although the review will not cost as much as a full public inquiry – the cost is still expected to run well into six figures – the decision is far from risk-free for the council.

BAM Nuttall has studiously said nothing as CCC’s officers and members have hurled flak at the contractor. When the contractor’s voice is also heard, who knows where the mud might stick?

The county has always insisted that the contract was watertight in its favour and the project would not cost Council Tax payers a bean. The courts and independent reviewer might take a different view.