The Cambourne–Cambridge busway project has had a chequered history. The initial cost estimate was under £100m and the first phase was meant to open in 2020. The latest estimates are £160m and opening in 2024. It has been widely opposed and twice halted by the mayor of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. It is unclear what has caused Mayor James Palmer suddenly to lose all confidence in the Greater Cambridge Partnership, whose project this is.
The cause is not the decision by East West Rail to align its railway via a new station at Cambourne. The Combined Authority confirmed at the time this would not affect plans for its Cambridgeshire “trackless metro”, of which the Cambourne busway is the first phase.
Is it perhaps that growing political pressure has spooked the mayor, who needs this first stage of his “metro” to be a success story? Residents of Coton and Hardwick have lobbied long and hard against the busway being built through their villages, strongly supported by their MP, Anthony Browne and his predecessor Heidi Allen and, until October 2018, Mayor Palmer. More recently, city residents and the local cycling campaign group, Camcycle, have been lobbying against having the busway emerge onto Adams Road, a quiet residential street, carrying 6,000 cycle trips per day to and from the University of Cambridge’s growing campus on the west side of the city.
What should be giving everyone pause for thought is the shockingly poor benefit-cost ratio (BCR): 0.48, i.e. a loss-making investment for HM Treasury through the City Deal. Mott MacDonald’s cost-benefit analysis miraculously transforms this into a “local BCR” of 3.48. This is based on the claim that all new homes built at Cambourne and Bourn Airfield are “fully dependent” on the busway being built, and hence 1,700 new jobs or £102.8 million/year of new economic activity (GVA) may be counted as part of the busway’s wider economic impact. This is economically illiterate. It is also patently untrue: Bovis Homes is already starting to build new homes at Cambourne West with no guarantee the busway will be built. The inclusion of half a billion pounds of land-value uplift further compounds double-counting errors.
The already weak conventional economic case for the Cambourne–Cambridge busway rests largely on journey time savings for commuters. East West Rail could open just five years after the busway, offering faster journey times to the Cambridge Biomedical Campus and many city centre employment sites. The abstraction of passengers from the busway must now be accounted for in the scheme benefits.
Cambourne is sited on what will almost certainly become a continuous dual carriageway between the M1 at Milton Keynes and Felixstowe. With the arrival of East West Rail, the “metro” will be competing for patronage from a catchment population of around 20,000. Does that make a robust business case for spending £160 million?
Will politics or economics sink the busway project, or will it re-emerge Phoenix-like from the ashes as a new form of affordable mass transport?
Smarter Cambridge Transport has, since 2015, argued for a package of smaller infrastructure interventions to improve bus services, including active traffic flow management, short bus lanes and a bus station at Cambourne. It further recommends that money available for big infrastructure should go towards upgrading the Girton Interchange to provide direct connections between the A428, M11 and A1307, an airport-style park-and-ride and coach station, and a rapid transit link into the city centre, railway station and Biomedical Campus.
This article was first published in Local Transport Today on 21 February 2020.