Smarter Cambridge Transport

When is a bus not a bus?

When is a bus not a bus? When it’s an indeterminate technology referred to as a ‘metro’. This is the brave new world of transport that the Mayor and the Greater Cambridge Partnership are promoting for Cambridge, with County Council officers behind the wheel. But does anyone know exactly what the ‘metro’ is?

A picture of a stylish vehicle, looking like a tram, was released a few weeks ago, and was lapped up by the press. Look carefully though: you won’t see any rails. And we’ve been here before. Turn to the website of the transport consultants behind the idea, and you’ll see how they worked for Cambridgeshire County Council in the past, developing a certain guided busway, ‘from conception through to scheme design.’ Alongside the article are illustrations from 15 years ago, promising a futuristic tram-like vehicle. It looks very familiar.

The guided busway didn’t get that non-existent vehicle, of course. It got a bus.

The Mayor has maintained that buses aren’t the answer for the Cambridge area, so the consultants have wheeled out something vaguely called a ‘metro’. But it’ll be a bus. The schedule for this ‘bespoke system’ says it will go into service in 2020-21. Whatever vehicles are employed, they won’t be long, articulated ones, because there’ll be few roads around here that they could traverse. They won’t be some sort of driverless vehicle that could be ‘platooned’ into a train, because the technology won’t be available.

They’ll be buses.

I’m not saying buses are the wrong approach. But let’s at least admit they’re what’s being proposed. The brief for the report which came up with this unspecific ‘metro’ system asked for a fair debate between competing technologies. The report did not meet the brief in comparing bus-based and light rail (tram) systems, and mixed up designing the network with debate about what kind of vehicles to run. It was accepted anyway, in a rush by the authorities to be ‘seen to be doing something’.

Now up to £600,000 has been put aside to work up a business case for the proposed bus ‘metro’ system. Maybe it’s the best technology for the area. We just don’t know. The report needs to be of a lot higher standard than the previous one. Its brief must demand stronger confirmatory evidence that buses are the way ahead, however they are dressed up in artists’ impressions.

This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 7 February 2018.

Chris Rand

Chris Rand is a blogger and campaigner from the Queen Edith’s area of Cambridge, with a keen interest in improving the communication between local government and residents. He believes that a key element in successful local governance is generating ideas from the people who live in and around the city.

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