It has been 8 Months since the guided bus was opened for business. We take a ride on the regions' most controversial transport system to see how it is getting on.
The phrase ‘mis-guided bus’ seems to have stuck with many people, an expression created by those in opposition to the scheme, those who wanted the disused railway between St Ives and Cambridge to be reconstructed rather than concreted over for ‘The Busway’. I was in that camp – why build something new when you could use what’s already there? I was therefore wary of the Busway, the over-budget, much-delayed 24-mile track between Trumpington and Huntingdon, 16 miles of which are ‘guided’, that only the specially-adapted buses can use.
We originally wanted to drive out into the countryside, but getting the car out didn’t seem to be the best option. We needed to fill up, but with the panic-buying of petrol due to the government’s reaction to strike threats from haulage drivers (‘fill up your tank and a jerry can, just in case’) petrol prices had increased overnight, and long queues were forming outside petrol stations. The stations were running out of fuel and closing. Suddenly going out for a drive seemed more hassle than it was worth.
So we decided to take a trip out on the guided bus, the longest guided bus way in the world. It seemed the easiest and cheapest way to get out of town - much cheaper than train travel. A Stagecoach Dayrider costs £3.70 and goes as far as Oakington, and a Dayrider plus at £5.70 includes all stops on the Busway. Having said that, it's not quite that simple - it's not just Stagecoach that runs guided buses; Whippet does too. Routes A and B are run by Stagecoach, and route C by Whippet, and they both cover the main guided section. And Whippet tickets are different prices: £3.50 for Zone 1 to Longstanton, £4.50 for Zone 2 to St Ives, and £5.50 for Zone 3 which goes to Somersham. Confused? You will be. Because you can’t use a bus from one company and a different one when you return; the tickets aren't interchangeable, so you have to decide which company you want to use before boarding. If you get hold of a 10-ride Smartcard you can use any company, but you have to order it. They haven't made it very simple for the user.
After perusing the map and timetable, we decided to go with Stagecoach as the buses were more frequent, and two minutes later the green and blue plush-looking bus pulled up. We boarded, bought two Dayrider Plus tickets, and headed upstairs to the front for a panoramic view.
I was impressed. The bus had large leather seats, plug sockets by the seats, and free Wi-Fi access. It was clean, spacious, and runs on 100% bio diesel. We set off, heading through the city centre, up Bridge Street and Castle Hill using normal roads, and then we entered the Busway at Orchard Park – a long, straight concrete track with grass growing in the middle.
The buses have guide wheels in front of the main wheels, so when they enter the Busway they are guided along the track, making the journey faster and smoother - and it was certainly fast; I was surprised about how much speed we picked up. We followed the course of the old railway track, running parallel to the A14, and we stopped at former railway stations; Histon and Impington with the Railway Vue pub, Longstanton with the Park & Ride, then Swavesey with its MG garage. We were out in the country, zooming alongside fields, meadows and woodland. We passed cyclists careering along the smooth tarmac track adjacent to the Busway, along with joggers and walkers.
We rang the bell to alight at the request stop - Fen Drayton Lakes. I never previously knew that this place existed; it’s an RSPB nature reserve on the site of a former gravel works next to the River Great Ouse, with a 10-mile network of pathways and trails around lakes as well as bird hides to discreetly watch our feathered friends. It was the perfect place to escape to from the city.
The bus disappeared into the distance and we were alone. Nothing but lakes, picnic tables, and information boards. And then from out of nowhere a large group of walkers appeared. This was one of the Ramblers destinations, it seemed. Nice spot to choose.
We walked past the main car park and the RSPB stand, and we headed towards the river. We strolled along the riverside path, boats occasionally passing us by, and we found ourselves on the opposite bank to the Old Ferry Boat Inn in Holywell which looked very inviting. We stared across the river longingly - alas, there is no longer a ferryboat to transport thirsty travellers across. Neither is there a bridge. Drat.
We walked around pretty tree-lined Drayton Lagoon, passing swans and coots, then crossed the bus track to walk the trail between Moore Lake and Elney Lake to reach the bird hide. There were birdwatchers inside staring through binoculars; we took a seat next to them and spotted a buzzard circling above the trees and tufted ducks on the lake. We sat in the quiet for a while, gazing across at the reeds blowing in the breeze.
We eventually headed back to the guided bus stop, and 5 minutes later the bus arrived. We decided to stop off at Histon and Impington for drink in the Railway Vue before continuing to Cambridge - the guided bus stop is conveniently located two steps from the pub. It would’ve been rude not to.
All in all, I enjoyed my guided bus trip. I can’t pretend that I wouldn’t have preferred the railway instead, but the Busway does speed up the journey between Cambridge and St Ives, and it’s an easy and cheap way for people to escape from the city if they don’t want to get stuck in traffic on the A14. I understand there are proposals to extend the Busway even further - time will tell. In the meantime, I’d recommend giving the guided bus a go and see what you think. You might be pleasantly surprised.