During lockdown, Stagecoach has found journey times could be 15% quicker than before. If sustained, that would lead to 15% lower operating costs. In other words, congestion costs bus users twice over: longer journey times and higher fares. This is an example of what economists call an “external cost”: those who contribute to congestion by driving impose a cost on those who travel by bus.
A 15% saving in operating costs would be more than Stagecoach makes in profit in a good year (much of which is reinvested rather than paid out in dividends). Solving congestion would release considerably more money to invest in bus services than franchising (though both may be desirable).
The Greater Cambridge Partnership is right to prioritise relieving congestion for bus services. However, the answer is not to build hugely expensive busways that will provide peak-time relief to the edge of Cambridge for only a few services.
Part of the solution may be found in Stagecoach’s recently-announced reorganisation of Busway services into trunk and feeder routes. Trunk routes will not extend beyond the Busway, but will instead connect with new village ‘feeder’ services at Trumpington P&R and St Ives. Trunk services will run at a high frequency, with additional buses on standby to ensure users do not experience delays when there is congestion or buses fill up (as demand recovers over the coming months). Transfer-inclusive tickets will cost the same as single tickets today.
Another big change is to the X5 service which, this side of Bedford, will be replaced by the 905. It will avoid congestion on Madingley Hill by continuing along the A428 to Histon, then into Cambridge via the Cambridge Regional College and Science Park. It will now stop in Cambourne, significantly enhancing travel options for residents there.
Inevitably, these changes will inconvenience some people. Stagecoach and local authorities must work together to minimise the pain of interchanging. For instance, interchange stops need to be upgraded to have good lighting, toilets, CCTV, accurate information and free WiFi. Guaranteed connections on outbound services, backed by a free taxi in some circumstances would also build confidence.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 26 August 2020.