Saturday, November 21, 2009

Reviewing the case for the Guided Bus

I have always supported the County Council’s decision to build the Guided Bus – by applying some very simple principles. The Guided Bus is conceptually much simpler than rail, therefore it has always seemed clear to me that it would cost significantly less to build than rail, and will require significantly less ongoing operating subsidy (in fact, it is expected to make a surplus), whilst being more flexible as buses could use both the Guideway and normal roads. All the huffing and puffing from CAST IRON never really came up with a reason why this high level assessment of the options was fundamentally wrong.

CAST IRON supporters are currently letting off steam on Richard Normington’s blog (for some reason, I think the suggestion that they are akin to a flat earth society might have riled). But one commentator said the following:

“so, beware the people of Ebbw Vale, Bathgate and all the other non-successful rail reopening schemes that have otherwise exceeded expectations. You'll be closed down soon, no doubt. But, hang on a moment, none of these succesful schemes are in England. Is that the problem?”

Yes the fact we are in England probably is a factor against rail - Wales and Scotland do get more taxpayers cash lavished on them, often in the name of economic regeneration, and therefore they are more likely to be able to afford the extra costs of rail. That said, I thought I would take a look into one of these schemes, the Airdrie to Bathgate link in Scotland, to see how the numbers stack up against the Cambridgeshire Guided Bus (CGB). Both seem to involve about the same length of new, two-way running track (23km reopened rail line vs 25km new Guideway).

First point is - I’m not sure how this can be described as a ‘rail reopening scheme that has otherwise exceeded expectations’ - the new railway in Bathgate isn’t open yet (due the end of 2010, subject to all the same risks of late opening as the Guided Bus…) - you get used to this kind of 'economy with the actualité' from rail supporters. But lets do a comparison on the basic figures:

Time taken to build
CGB: Construction started: March 2007
Almost complete – say opening mid-2010, it will have taken just over 3 years from start of construction to opening.

Airdrie-Bathgate Rail line: Start of construction: June 2007 (
End of construction: ‘End of 2010’ (

Total time 3.5 years, but remember that like the CGB, there is significant political pressure not to reveal any delays or cost overruns and always present the most optimistic picture (see press report - including tales of woe of Scottish railway cost overruns)

So the initial estimate for the railway is that it will take longer to build than the likely actual time for Guided Bus construction.

Approximate Construction costs
CGB – approx £120m

Rail approximately twice as expensive to build as Guided Bus – as expected. The Bathgate project costs, again just the initial estimate liable to increases later in the project, are broadly similar to what the real experts thought it would cost for CAST IRON's rail proposals on the Cambridge-St Ives line.

Cost benefits ratio
Initial estimates in both cases to compare like with like – higher the better.

Guided Bus – 2.26

Bathgate Railway – 1.62 to 1.92 depending on options used.

Bear in mind that the Bathgate Railway is in an area with considerably more economic deprivation to start with, so it is much easier to build a case around the number of extra jobs created, but Guided Bus still gives a better ratio, thanks to its lower costs.

Operating costs
Guided Bus – “operating costs are estimated as £2.2 million in 2006, increasing to £3.1 million in 2016” – however these are just the costs – “on the basis of the forecast patronage and expected operational costs, operations are estimated to move into surplus at an operating level after the first few years of operation.”
(Reference as above).
I.e. the Guided Bus is designed to not require an ongoing operating subsidy.

Airdrie-Bathgate railway – net costs of £9m per annum

And this is the real killer to the rail argument - they will need to find a taxpayer funded public body prepared to stump up huge amounts of cash every year in ongoing operating subsidy - the same problem that caused small branch lines to close in the first place. There was no body prepared to stump up that cash, and therefore no-one prepared to fund the capital costs - so the real choice faced by decision makers was not Guided Bus or Rail, it was Guided Bus or nothing.

I would love to have seen a better case made for rail on the St Ives line - that encompasses the widely held view that rail is qualitatively better than a Guided Bus. Unfortunately the great weakness of CAST IRON is that almost every claim they make is literally incredible – starting with their suggestion that a railway could be reopened for £2m by a few volunteers with pick axes, but at every point their story changed, the message to decision makers was that their analysis was all wrong, CAST IRON was right, and only a fool could believe otherwise - not very helpful.

The delays in opening the Guided Bus have been regrettable – but the case behind the decision still stacks up far better than rail. The County Council should be congratulated for having the courage to make this scheme happen – it will bring long term benefits to Cambridgeshire.


Brynley said...


I think the problem with Guided Bus is that it is slow and that people with a choice will see it, accurately, as a low status bus.

The journey time comparisons are interesting, Huntingdon to Cambridge in 1 hr 12 mins compares with 38 mins in 1957.

The costs are also of interest, the Cambridgeshire scheme, by common consent is not going to come in under £150m and your idea that it willmake a profit is, I would suggest, strictly for the birds.

We will end up with a glorified Park and Ride Scheme, but without the attractive times that rail can offer in congested areas.


John Grant said...

If you're going to run buses, why not just build a tarmac road?

There are many ways rail could be improved, and the St Ives route could have been an opportunity to show what can be done with 21st century technology -- because 19th century technology and 19th century attitudes to business are what make rail expensive. Instead, we've got an 18th century technology.

Stephen Lawrence said...

Well, you conveniently ignored the Ebbw Vale example. My point was that in these cases the so-called "transport models" came up with the wrong numbers for the likely rail patronage. The time for the Ebbw Vale scheme to move its millionth passenger occured in less than half the time that the model predicted. Therefore, the case against the St.Ives-Cambridge rail scheme, and the "low" numbers of passengers the models presumably predicted, is weakened. As for GB passenger numbers, time only will tell.

Richard J said...

The cost benefit ratio was based on a cost of £86 million (2002 prices). I wonder what the cost benefit ratio is with the real cost of £150 million or so (2010 prices)?

I fail to see why it was a good design decision to build a guideway rather than a standard road, perhaps with a steel rail embedded in it to provide electronic guiding. That's modern technology. Vast quantities of concrete (with a very high carbon footprint) are not the way forward.

Anonymous said...

So the guided bus is conceptually easier than Rail. That doesn't explain the delays and technical difficulties that the contractor have encountered - and surely a road is even more conceptually easier than a guided bus? Why didn't they build one which would also allow taxis and emergency vehicles access.