Thursday, 25 August 2011
Riding The World's Longest Guided Busway!
With all the pomp and ceremony out of the way, the World’s longest busway (at 25km) is running normally and finally open for business.
I’m outside Cambridge Rail Station to see how easy it is to use and what the fuss is all about.
Buses are circling around the small roundabout outside the station, but there’s no sign of the distinctive Busway livery that stands out from the corporate Stagecoach swirls.
But there IS a sign, however. There’s quite a few. They’re directing me around 100m down the road through what to all intents and purposes is a building site. It all looks like it will be better days when complete, but for now I feel like I’m on the set of Auf Wiedersehen Pet.
A clear sign instructs me that this is the stop for The Busway. It even instructs me in bold font to buy my ticket from the driver, although there aren’t any prices forthcoming.
The stop opposite has a shelter and within 2 minutes, a brightly coloured Busway Stagecoach single decker has arrived.
Myself and 2 more sandwich-munching intending passengers look at each other, wondering if we’re on the right side of the road, even though the sign clearly says so. The driver eyeballs us and I walk across the road to ask.
“Yeah, you’re OK there mate”, he bellows through his cab window. “Busway, yeah?”. I’m obviously not the first one. “I’m going the other way, mate – the other one will be along in a minute”.
He’s not far out. Two minutes later, a smart single deck in two-tone green and blue sweeps into the stop. This is route “A” – and it goes on the Busway.
“Is there an all day ticket for the Busway?” I enquire of the smart driver. “yes, £5.40 please”, he replies. This is a Stagecoach DayRider Plus, but it’s only for Stagecoach buses – more anon.
The interior is gorgeous. Leather seats, tasteful colours, and even a socket to charge my always battery-hungry iPhone. A notice ominously warns “240 volts” (presumably to warn off persons who may be tempted to stick fingers or other apparatus in there) but it works! I don’t know why I thought it wouldn’t…..
I have less joy with the “free wi-fi”.
My phone finds it straight away, but I can’t get any Internet. I give up and put my phone in my pocket but check 5 minutes later only to find that it’s now asking me to register. I do, and the wi-fi works, although it’s patchy. I’ve tried various public transport wi-fi offerings in recent years, and most of them are patchy at best. This is no different.
The journey is nearly full and it’s clear that for many, this is still a novelty. Me included. Many are concessionary pass holders with grandchildren.
We turn left and enter the Busway. I’ve been intrigued to know how cheeky motorists are kept out of it. Now I can see. It’s nothing more sophisticated than deep trench, that a bus can straddle but a car cannot. Like the very best ideas, it’s simple but effective.
There’s a slight wobble as the guide wheel aligns the bus onto the busway, and then we’re off.
There aren’t too many stops to slow us down, and we make some impressive speed. The ride is comfortable, if not entirely as smooth as, say, a train or tram. Before we know it, we’re at the end of the guided section at St. Ives Park & Ride, where service A terminates.
Several people take pictures and then cross the road for the return journey.
It is a simple but functioning terminus. There are two ticket machines for intending passengers and a rather large queue is building up. The publicity for The Busway advises that, when actually on the busway, passengers should buy tickets from the machines at the stop. Not the driver. Although the driver issues tickets everywhere else when the bus isn’t actually on the track.
A young lad takes one look at the queue and ignores it, bounding onto the bus to ask if he can buy one on there. He is met by a pointy finger towards the machine and a shake of the head. But seconds later, the driver appears to contradict himself by visibly accepting cash and issuing a ticket to a family.
The real-time information has been telling us that route “B” – a double decker affair that comes in from further afield in Huntingdon – is “due”. It’s been “due” for over 4 minutes when it finally appears, and I conclude that the “real time” display is actually “real time”.
The masses have squeezed onto the “A” route just ahead of the double-decker, so I decide to hop on to this less busy journey.
Leg room is excellent on the upper deck, but the power socket doesn’t work, and the wi-fi won’t let me play again. Eventually, it asks me to log in again – a tad frustrating for regular users maybe?
I only ride for a short while and jump off at Longstanton Park & Ride – another seemingly unfinished building site.
It’s here I am party to an illuminating conversation between two gentlemen, both of whom have purchased “Whippet” tickets.
Whilst Stagecoach is the overwhelmingly senior operator on the Busway, with routes A & B, local operator Whippet also has a route – the C – which is only an hourly frequency.
It carries the same livery as the Stagecoach vehicles, and only us with slightly more interest in buses can identify that Whippet’s buses are different models. To most, I would suggest that Whippet’s buses look like any other on the Busway.
But this has got the two gentlemen mildly annoyed. Because when you touch the screen on the self service ticket machines, it asks which company you’d like to travel with. Then it lists prices for singles, day tickets, etc. Whippet’s are cheaper than Stagecoach’s tickets, but unless you’ve done your homework and worked out that Whippet’s services are only hourly, you’ll have a small shock if you board a much more frequent (and identically liveried) Stagecoach bus. It’s not readily understood that there’s no inter-operator day ticket for use on the Busway.
This is what has perturbed the gentlemen. “It’s a disgrace”, complains one, the other sighing in agreement. “I’ve done the same” he replies. They’ve both bought a Whippet day ticket, and then discovered the Whippet buses are few and far between. This may be competition in its purest sense, but it’s not made for a good experience for these 2 travellers.
Indeed, the Whippet bus is due – and it's me who has to pay again. My Stagecoach day ticket won’t be valid on here.
I follow the instructions on screen and feed the machine £2.50 for a Whippet single to Cambridge.
The Whippet vehicle arrives 5 minutes late. This I know, as it appears that only the Stagecoach journeys are displayed in real time. Whippet’s has disappeared off the display.
“HELLO!” the driver exclaims, and I expect him to shake my hand and declare that he’s an old school chum, such is his customer care. “Thank you very much” he replies after I brandish my ticket. The two gentlemen with Whippet-only day tickets follow on, less-enthusiastically.
The bus is heaving. It’s standing room only. There isn’t any free wi-fi on here, nor power points. But it looks mostly the same on the outside to all the other Busway vehicles.
We’re soon back in Cambridge City Centre and I decide on impulse to cross the road and jump on one of Stagecoach’s “B” services – the double decker to Huntingdon.
It’s busy again up top and I make my way to the upstairs rear, where the only free seats are left.
The bus is again immaculate, but the wi-fi is asking me to log in again and the power socket is defunct.
We again reach impressive speeds along the long, straight busway. For all its well-documented problems and delays in its build, the end result really is impressive.
We loose a load of passengers at St Ives again, and even more just beyond at the small St Ives bus station. I stay on as the bus becomes a conventional service again and ride all the way to Oliver Cromwell’s birthplace – and former Prime Minister John Major’s constituency – Huntingdon.
The bus station is small and looks like it’s seen better days. Several Whippet buses are here – in a very distinct livery from their cousins on the Busway.
After a brief spot of lunch, I hop on a “B” service back to St Ives. This section of route is rather more quiet than the Busway, but the bus is around half full.
We’re soon at St Ives Park & Ride, where I jump off to link up with an “A” service, which will take me all the way back to Cambridge railway Station.
It’s late afternoon and the numbers have died down a little, although there are still several waiting passengers. There is also a gaggle of Stagecoach drivers and Inspector (collective noun) who appear to be in good spirits. It’s possibly because the sun is out, and I notice a garden shed-like structure, which I assume is there to house the drivers in less agreeable conditions.
Some of the buses are in a not dissimilar green livery of “bio bus”, displaying their “100% bio fuel” credentials. Indeed, my final journey on a Stagecoach single deck “A” is such a “bio bus” – and the power socket works”! As does the wi-fi.
The Busway operation is impressive. Although still a novelty for parents, grandparents and children - riding en masse during the school holidays - it will be interesting to gauge the long-term use of this excellent facility.
One downside appears to be the ticketing. All the buses are branded virtually identically, but the two operators are very different. The two gentlemen who were annoyed at their purchase of Whippet day tickets won’t be the only ones to fall fowl of misunderstanding the system and plumping for the seemingly cheaper option.
There IS, however, a multi-operator ticket available for regular use on the busway. This appears on the Cambridgeshire Council website and is sold in smartcard form, which may be of use to regular users. But I didn’t see much evidence of awareness of this beforehand or on the day itself.
The “added bonus” of power sockets and free wi-fi are useful add-ons – but they need to work. Out of 5 Stagecoach journeys I made, only 2 had working power sockets. The wi-fi needs to work “out of the box” – I had to log in on 3 separate occasions through my iPhone – many will give up way before that.
But these are all relatively fixable issues. The truth is that The Cambridge Busway – touted as the World’s longest – is a real quality product, and can be held up as one of the best public transport offerings Britain has.