IT will be a year next week since the longest guided busway in the world opened more than two years late and around 50 per cent over budget.

But the project has proved extremely popular with passengers - so much so that the main operator, Stagecoach, has already greatly expanded its fleet of buses and the network they serve.

The busway linking St Ives to Cambridge Science Park along the route of the disused railway line and Cambridge railway station with Addenbrooke's Hospital and the park-and-ride site at Trumpington is, as 25 km, the longest in the work.

The £116.7million project ended up costing around £180m, and the difference is set to be the subject of a prolonged legal case in the High Court in two years' time, with Cambridgeshire claiming it has overpaid contractor BAM Nuttall to the tune of more than £50m and the contractor counter-claiming nearly as much.

Joined in the county's claim are BAM's Dutch parent company, which guaranteed its subsidiary, and insurers Zürich. The contractor blames Atkins, which project-managed the development.

The scheme was originally supposed to have been handed over in February 2009, with revenue-earning services starting two months later after driver training and route familiarisation.

In the end, the public did not get to ride the busway until last August - and only then after a second contractor had been called in to fix what the county council said were faults and BAM claimed was extra work.

The county council promised Council Tax payers would not have to contribute a penny, and remains confident of its legal position. That will be for the court to decide, though one thing is certain - the lawyers will do nicely from the skirmish.

Nonetheless, the public loved it, and the busway had carried its one-millionth passenger within just six months of the opening.

Now destinations for guided buses have been extended from the original Cambridge, St Ives, Somersham and Huntingdon to include Peterborough, Sawtry, Stukeley, Ramsey, Chatteris, RAF Wyton, Needingworth and Earith.

CAMBRIDGESHIRE County Council, which commissioned the conversion of the disused St Ives-Cambridge railway into the busway, said usage had been considerably ahead of what was predicted to justify going ahead with the project.

The council's business case was based on year one passenger volumes of 1.75million - an aspiration many commentators predicted was 'heroic' after the years of delays in completing and opening the busway.

But now CCC looks well set to hit the 3,000,000 passengers in year three - which is regarded the first year of established operation - that are needed to demonstrate that the decision to go ahead with the project was financially justifiable.

Many people predicted that the early surge of interest, with Stagecoach having to put on relief services and massively strengthen its service on Sundays - a day it previously ran not a single bus between Huntingdonshire and Cambridge - would subside, and the sceptics would be proved correct. But that has not happened.

Councillor Ian Bates, cabinet member for growth and planning, told The Hunts Post yesterday (Tuesday): "The busway has been a magnificent success. In the spring, we saw the number of trips had already gone past the two million mark, putting the system well ahead of its business case.

"From the very start new services had to be put on to meet demand, and the Government has funded expansion to St Ives park-and-ride along the route as part of the overall strategy to reduce congestion along the A14.

"The busway is part of a three pronged attack to improve that route, which also includes changing the A14 road layout and putting more freight onto rail," he added.

"We hope to build on the success of the busway and see it extended to destinations such as the proposed Cambridge Science Park station as well as how services can link into the enterprise zone at Alconbury to help create even more jobs and economic prosperity."

STAGECOACH, the principal operator on the route expects the busway to have carried more than 2.5million passengers by the time it first anniversary comes round on Tuesday.

The overwhelming majority will be on the company's 30-strong fleet of leather-seated luxury bio-buses, estimated at 2,350,000 by managing director Andy Campbell yesterday (Tuesday).

When Stagecoach bought its original fleet of 10 single-deckers and 10 double-deckers that were delivered in 2009, just in time for the scheduled completion of the busway, the plan was to put them immediately into driver training in readiness for the project's opening.

But, when the initial delay from April to September that year was announced by the county council, Mr Campbell decided to use them on what was then the 55 Huntingdon-Cambridge services and the Trumpington-Addenbrooke's shuttle, with the slogan 'We'll be on the Busway soon'.

With further delays that amounted to almost two further years, the slogan changed to 'When will we be on the Busway?'

The council was eventually able to answer the vehicles' question, announcing the start of service on August 7 last year.

"We were particularly pleased that it took off from day one," he told The Hunts Post. "We had expected it to take time to grow.

"We have invested heavily in vehicles and staff training, which seems to have delivered results. We have put additional vehicles on since July 22 as a trial, hoping to get further growth.

"The big question for us is when we get the return on the investment we have put in. we see that happening when Northstowe gets developed and also the opportunities from Chesterton railway station.

"But generally it has been a good year of operation and reliability, compared to the A14, and it has been well received. We estimate that we will carry 2,350,000 people in the first year, so the total on the busway, including Whippet, will be over 2.5million."

WHIPPET Coaches, the smaller of the busway operators that is now based in Swavesey, said the busway's first year had proved better than expected.

Director Peter Lee told The Hunts Post: "It has certainly been an eventful and challenging year, and on the whole we are pleased with how it has been received. It has gone much better than we dared hope.

"As we prepared for the opening, I have to admit to having felt very daunted by the enormity of the project. It was very difficult to feel positive when there had been so many setbacks and squabbles with contractors etc.

"The opening day was manic, and it was pleasing to see so many people eager to try out the new concept," he added.

"With the first year behind us, we know there is still a lot to do and we hope that another 12 months will see us able to grow and develop this side of our business. We have plenty of ideas: however, as a small private family business, we have to find ways to secure the funding to grow this side of the operation - not an easy task in these difficult times.

"We thank all the passengers who have supported our services on the busway these past 12 months and look forward to building up our passenger base further over the coming years.

"Our mission is to ensure that we offer a service that we know is reliable, friendly, helpful, good value and supportive of the local community."