A Visit to Cambridge and its Transit
After getting back from Asia at the end of November I was able to take a couple of days off, and on Thanksgiving I traveled up to Cambridge to visit Astrid for lunch and see her office.
It was great to see what her commute is like – surely it must be one of the highest-quality commutes in terms of speed and space, with a non-stop train every 30 minutes all day from King’s Cross station just a five-minute walk from home…(if also one of the most expensive commutes in the world)! I couldn’t even make out the names of the local stations as we zoomed northward at 100mph on the East Coast Main Line, which is one of the premier long-distance lines in the UK from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh. About halfway to Cambridge we slowed down, near the funny-named Hitchin Station (32 miles out from King’s Cross), and turned off onto the Cambridge Line.
After a nice lunch near Astrid’s office, I had a few hours to kill before meeting her again for the train back to London on our way to a great Thanksgiving Dinner with some ex-pat friends. So what was I to do? Visit museums of historic sites in Cambridge, which is undoubtedly one of the quaintest towns in the UK? NO! I’m went to ride the busway!
I know that sounds crazy – and it is – but let me assure you that the line in Cambridge (well, really outside of Cambridge) is no ordinary busway. The Cambridgeshire Guided Busway is the world’s longest guided busway at 16 miles. Every day Astrid walks along part of the busway, the southern section near the railway station; I rode the longer northern section that starts on the outskirts of Cambridge.
Each bus that uses the busway has been specially modified with wheels on both sides, which are literally guided by the concrete curbs (kerbs in the UK!), which effectively does the steering the driver doesn’t have to. This allows two things: the right-of-way to be narrower than would be required by codes for a normal roadway (20 feet instead of 31 feet), and the buses can go faster than they otherwise could (55mph). However, it does mean that other buses can’t be substituted, and other vehicles (e.g. police/fire/ambulance) can’t use the right-of-way either. Of course, one of the concerns about bus-only roadways in some places is the temptation to convert them to car use later on – that can never happen here!
There are three services simply labeled A, B, and C that operate on the busway (A and C with single-decker buses and B with double-deckers). During weekday peak hours there is a bus every 4 minutes, and every 7.5 minutes all day. You could ask yourself, where are the riders if the busway goes through nothing? But they seem to generate enough demand with the park-and-ride lots and the small villages around Cambridge, and four buses each hour all day continue to Huntingdon, a bigger town that is more than an hour from Cambridge.
I got off at the end of the dedicated busway at St Ives. That’s St. Ives, Huntingdonshire, not St. Ives Cornwall. The two villages are about 350 miles apart, and while there was some nice river-front areas, I can confirm that the Huntingdonshire one is far inferior to the Cornish one! Apparently it is not clear which St. Ives the famous nursery rhyme refers to, but I’ll put my money on Cornwall – although this one is apparently a long-time market town, so who knows (for the record there is also a St. Ives in Dorset, which conveniently enough is roughly halfway between the others).
So, I hopped on the busway back to Cambridge to meet Astrid at the station. That’s it – I won’t bore you with any more busway stuff – but if you are interested you can read about it on Wikipedia. Although this sort of thing has been a sort of transit fad, I don’t see much more of it happening. Guided busways are kind of like monorails – always thought of as being a method of the future…we just never get there.