Stations galore and electrification, oh my!

February 22nd, 2015

It’s almost certainly because there’s an election coming, but a lot of announcements have appeared in the local media about rail improvements in the Cambridge area. Some are vague promises or very early stage investigations, and some are a bit more concrete.

Let’s start with stuff that’s actually happening right now.

Cambridge station area redevelopment (aka CB1): this is now in full swing. The old police station, the Swiss Laundry, the various buildings in the carpark (the CityRoomz Hotel and Station Cycles) and quite a lot of the old carpark have now been knocked down and torn up. Work has started on the hotel/cycle park building, (which is adjacent to platform 5, occupying what was partly carpark and partly the police station, and the new office/retail building One Station Square is being built where the old short term carpark was. In the mean time, we have a hodgepodge of pedestrian and cycle routes through the remaining carpark and through part of what will become the new access road. I’ve got to say that I’m very disappointed by the way that Brookgate, the developers, have totally failed to engage local people or rail users with what’s going on. Their website is mostly marketing material, and there’s no project timeline or progress blog anywhere. Even worse, big changes have been made to road layouts, cycle parking, car park and pedestrian and cycle routes at very short notice with only quite perfunctory laminated signage. Other works are going on inside the station, but Abellio Greater Anglia and Network Rail are giving out little or no information either. There is supposed to be a larger ticket hall and various changes to the passenger flow through the building, but nothing appears to be published about exactly what will be changed and when.

Cambridge Science Park station: the access road and busway works are due to wrap up pretty soon. The County Council’s project page gives a few details about the project, though mostly concentrates on the access issues. They seem to be very slow to publish the minutes of their liaison meetings, and again there’s no project progress website. The latest news comes from the local paper, with a story saying that the project has been put back by six months, with completion now ready for the December 2016 timetable change. The actual details of rail services to the new station are still “to be decided”, though the “probable service” included the London-King’s Lynn trains, the Stansted-Birmingham, Cambridge-Norwich and the Liverpool St stopping services. I note that the Melbourn, Shepreth & Foxton Rail User Group have been told that “from 2018 our stopping service will terminate at the new station”. 2018 is the year that the stopping service becomes a Thameslink service to Tattenham Corner in Surrey (via central and south London), so it seems likely that the new station’s bay platform will be used for terminating at least one of the two Thameslink train services. Nothing has yet been said about the other Thameslink service from Cambridge to Brighton via Gatwick – that may yet remain at the main station.

East West Rail: the Oxford to Bicester section is nearly finished, with trains due to start running to Oxford Parkway in September. Following a rejig of the trackwork and signalling north of Oxford station, trains will run through to Oxford from the May 2016 timetable change. The construction website is rather poor on progress reporting, but it does make an effort to keep local residents informed about road and path closures and the like. The Bicester-Bletchley section is still at the stage of investigating the state of the existing infrastructure and ecology, but there are now site compounds set up and much more of the trackbed has been cleared. Trains are due to run on this section from March 2019, though only the Oxford-Bletchley section will be electrified at this stage. This might mean an Oxford-MK electric service connecting with the existing Marston Vale Line service to Bedford until the electrification reaches Bedford.

Several new-ish ideas have been firmed up somewhat by an announcement by David Cameron in Cambridge last week. These are:

  • exploring the case to electrify the Felixstowe to Birmingham railway line, launching a new competition for the new East Anglia franchise, considering reviving the Wisbech-March-Ely line and welcoming £260m new private investment at Felixstowe Port
  • government will also extend the study already underway of the East-West Rail (Bedford to Cambridge) to explore the options for the Eastern section of the line and consider the possibility of a new station south of Cambridge at the new Addenbrookes campus. Specifically the study will consider how East West Rail could connect Oxford with Ipswich and Norwich.
  • a “task force” to look into ways of improving the Cambridge-Liverpool Street line, which is currently at capacity.

So, all this points in the direction of improvements in infrastructure and services. Electrification of freight routes to the major ports has been on the agenda for a while, but there are lots of potential passenger benefits from the Felixstowe-Birmingham upgrade. First and foremost it would mean that the line from Cambridge to Peterborough via March is electrified, and that almost certainly will allow for a better passenger service on that route. If completed, it would give Cambridge an all-electric route to the ECML northbound, and also to the soon-to-be electrified Midland Main Line at Leicester and West Coast Main Line at Nuneaton. This gives the potential for electric inter-regional services.

The Wisbech reopening campaign gets useful endorsement here, which is encouraging – and given it’s actually a pretty short branch from March this would again make sense for electrification at reopening if the wires are already going to reach March.

The Felixstowe electrification would also mean that the Ely-Ipswich line would be electrified, and since the Newmarket-Cambridge section is an obvious “infill job” it seems likely that Cambridgeshire and Suffolk will be much better connected with faster electric trains.

The East West Rail announcement is interesting, too – this reads to me like the existing paper studies will be re-run to look at ways of providing more benefit to Norwich and Ipswich. The existing report notes that the top demand for journeys of an hour or so is actually Cambridge-Northampton, and no journeys from Ipswich or Norwich make the “priority journey” rankings. If the study is re-run assuming that the Cambridge-Ipswich and Cambridge-Norwich lines can be upgraded (with higher linespeeds and electrification), it may bring them more into scope. An interesting exploratory report from Network Rail has already mooted the idea of a Norwich-Cambridge-London service which would operate along the same lines as the King’s Lynn service – using the existing hourly fast service from London to Cambridge, with a front portion that continues to Norwich. If this connects well with the eventual Cambridge-Reading service, Norwich gains a second fast route to London and connections across the whole of southern England.

I’m pleased to see that an Addenbrooke’s station has been formally “considered”, too – the County Council have it in their development plans, and the land has been reserved for it in the present development. It should help take pressure off the main station, provide a better service for the new housing in Trumpington and people in South Cambs, and probably also presents a nice opportunity to enhance Cambridge’s southern rail approaches. At the moment, the two lines from London converge at the confusingly-named “Shepreth Branch Junction” just north of Great Shelford. The four tracks briefly become three, and then merge down to two (an unusual case of where facing points on running lines have been used in place of a double junction – this is unusual because it’s considered less safe, as a train could end up routed down the “wrong line” into a head-on collision, though the interlocking should prevent it). Just north of Long Road, the line becomes three tracks again to approach the station. A new station at Addenbrooke’s is likely to cause a bottleneck if it was just built as-is (especially given the increased services once Thameslink starts, and even more so if the East West Rail route ends up being via Royston and Hitchin as seems most likely to my mind), so it seems likely that the whole area would be remodelled, with the two main lines becoming four parallel tracks as far as Addenbrooke’s, and then three or four tracks from there to Cambridge. This allows fast trains to pass slow ones and gives a lot more resilience.

Just to mention the Liverpool St line – it currently feels like the poor relation compared with the King’s Cross route, because the Cambridge services stop everywhere, with no real fast service. The line’s actually completely maxed out in the Lea Valley south of Bishop’s Stortford, not least because the Stansted Express is using a lot of the available paths. There are all sorts of ideas about how to solve this, a lot of which are expensive and involve trying to widen an existing two-track railway into four, which will take a long time to happen. There seems to be some traction around the ideas though, so it may well happen.

More detail on the new Thameslink franchise

July 12th, 2014

I discovered last week that Govia have updated their website with a lot more detail about their plans for the Thameslink Southern Great Northern franchise. They take over the franchise on 13th September – so we have nine weeks left of First Capital Connect before the changeover. Govia are known for not stamping their name all over the companies they own, and so they’ve chosen to use relatively simple brand names for the new franchise. These are:

  • Thameslink
  • Great Northern
  • Gatwick Express
  • Southern

Here in Cambridge, we can expect our trains to be branded “Great Northern” from September, but not a lot else will change immediately. Govia have very sensibly chosen not to try and make any major changes in the first year of the franchise, and a lot of the enabling work for future changes will still be in progress. They are planning to shake the fares up a bit, introducing cheaper advance-purchase fares, so there’s a possibility that they might appear in the first year.

One year on – September 2015 – they intend to have franchise-wide smart ticketing. This means an ITSO-type smartcard which can be loaded with pre-purchased tickets rather than having to use paper tickets. For people like me who buy daily or weekly tickets depending on what they’re doing that week, this’ll be a big step forward – buy your ticket from your computer or phone before leaving the house, then just go straight to the ticket gates, no need to queue for a machine. ITSO will not (initially) work like the Oyster PAYG system, though they hint that they would like to try and make that happen!

For my London friends, you will be pleased to know that they plan to extend the Oyster PAYG system well beyond Greater London, so that you can use Oyster to pay for your train journey to Gatwick or Luton Airports and to stations as far north as Welwyn Garden City.

In the spring of 2016 we will start to see a bigger change, as services will switch to being operated by different types of train. The fast Cambridge trains and the King’s Lynn trains will be operated by Class 377 sets that will be transferred from Southern. These are relatively new trains (built in batches from 2003-present) whereas the existing Class 365s date from the mid-1990s. The 377s are very similar to the 379s being operated by Abellio Greater Anglia on services to Liverpool Street – they have air conditioning and may well have power sockets and wifi. Those of us who use the slower trains are actually getting brand new trains during 2016 – the Siemens-built Class 700s will be introduced, replacing the existing 1980s-built stock. However, these are relatively spartan inside as they’re designed to handle massive numbers of passengers when passing through central London, so we’ll see how comfortable they are!

Once May 2017 comes around, the King’s Lynn services will become half-hourly. Finally, in May 2018, Cambridge will get through services on the Thameslink route – so the stopping trains will serve St Pancras rather than King’s Cross – and trains will run through to Gatwick and Brighton. The full service won’t be implemented until December 2018, giving time for the new systems to bed in. Govia promise “a range of stopping patterns” on the four trains an hour to serve Cambridge – so there’s a good chance of getting additional trains serving the smaller stations on the Cambridge-Hitchin line. Royston will almost certainly benefit from having another fastish train to London and Cambridge.


Thameslink returns!

June 3rd, 2014

It was recently announced that GoVia have been awarded the new Thameslink Southern Great Northern (TSGN) rail franchise, with the new management taking over in September 2014. GoVia is a consortium of the British firm GoAhead (mostly an operator of buses) and the French firm Keolis, which is part of the state-owned rail operator SNCF. They will take over the services currently run by First Capital Connect, some operated by Southeastern, and then integrate all the services operated by Southern from 2015 onwards. GoVia have promised that they will resurrect the “Thameslink” brand for this extensive network.

Looking at this mostly from a Cambridge perspective, a number of interesting service improvements are promised for our route:

  • firstly, the ongoing refresh of the Class 365 trains will continue over the summer, so the new operator should have a newly-refurbished fleet of trains on the fast services to Cambridge and King’s Lynn
  • the current hourly service to King’s Lynn will become half-hourly from May 2o17 (once the junction improvements in Ely have been completed)
  • the Cambridge-Kings Cross expresses will be retimed to get the journey time down below 50 minutes again (this is probably as a result of needing less margin now that the Hitchin flyover is open)
  • new trains (the Siemens Class 700) will be introduced

Once the Thameslink Programme is complete in 2018, there’ll be quite a big change to the timetable. The DfT and the Thameslink Programme have both published maps that show services we can expect in four years time – now, there’s always a risk that they might be changed again in that time, but it’s worth having a look now anyway.

Promises, promises

So, the DfT map promises (mouse over “Cambridge”) that Cambridge will have “six trains an hour to and from central London off-peak” from 2018. Cambridge currently has four trains an hour to London off-peak: two non-stop (one of which has come from King’s Lynn), one semi-fast (calling at Royston, Letchworth etc) and one slow one that serves all the stations between Cambridge and Hitchin and then major stations into London. So, what’s going to happen to the existing services, and what new services will we get?

Helpfully, there’s a clue in the map published by the Thameslink Programme, which shows how trains will be routed through the “Thameslink Core” (between St Pancras and Blackfriars) linking up destinations north and south of London. Each line on the map represents two trains per hour each way (so a half-hourly service, approximately), and two lines are shown as serving Cambridge – making four Thameslink services every hour! The grey line on the map shows a Cambridge to Brighton service, which will also serve Gatwick Airport. The red line shows another Cambridge service serving, err, Tattenham Corner? Really? I used to commute from Croydon to Kingswood on the Tattenham Corner branch – it’s a popular commuter route but by no means a major destination in its own right. Tattenham Corner station itself is really only there to serve Epsom racecourse anyway! However, the reason for doing the Thameslink upgrade is to get more line capacity by reducing the congestion caused at major stations by terminating trains in central London – and the Tattenham Corner off-peak trains currently terminate at London Bridge.

Fast trains to Gatwick and Brighton

Now, my hunch is that the Cambridge-Brighton service will take over the existing stops and timings of the Cambridge semi-fast service, except that it’ll run half-hourly instead of hourly. It currently takes an hour for this service to reach Kings Cross, and likewise an hour for the limited-stop service from London Bridge to Brighton. Given 20 minutes to transit through London and 20 minutes to turn the train round at each end, that makes a nice neat 3 hour cycle – so the half hourly service can be fulfilled using six trains.

Slow trains to Tattenham Corner

I suspect that the Cambridge-Tattenham Corner service will take over the existing Cambridge “slow” train, which takes 90 minutes to reach London. London Bridge to Tattenham Corner services currently take 50 minutes, so with the 20 minute transit time through London that makes 2 hours 40 minutes. Assuming a ten minute turnaround at each end also gives a 3 hour cycle – six trains again would give a half hourly service. If this happens, this’ll be a big step forward for the smaller stations on the Cambridge branch – they’ll get twice as good a service as they get at present.

So, here’s your answer: six trains an hour – two that start from King’s Cross,  run non-stop to Cambridge and continue to King’s Lynn; two that start from Brighton and call at major stations only to Cambridge; and two from Tattenham Corner serving all the local stations.

New trains too

Now, the Thameslink services are all going to be operated by the new Class 700 trains, which will come as an eight-car and a twelve-car version. These trains have big walk-through connections between coaches, so they won’t be coupled and uncoupled the way that our existing trains are. Since the small stations on the Cambridge and Tattenham Corner branches have 8-car platforms, it would seem likely that our stopping services will see the existing Class 317 and Class 321 trains (dating from the late 80s) phased out and replaced with the new Class 700s. I suspect that the old trains might find their way to newly electrified lines in the north-west of England or on Great Western suburban services in the short term. Siemens are supposed to be delivering the new trains from 2016 onwards, so it’s likely that we’ll start to see them operating our existing services before the Thameslink services begin.

The King’s Lynn trains are also due to be replaced with Hitachi-built Class 801 trains eventually – these should start to appear in 2018 as well.

One unresolved question

As yet, we don’t know exactly which services will call at the new Cambridge Science Park station. Cambridgeshire Council’s consultation suggests that all the services currently using the Cambridge-Ely line will call at the new station (i.e. the King’s Lynn trains, the Birmingham-Stansted train, and the Ely-Liverpool St trains), plus one “semi-fast” service currently terminating at Cambridge station will be moved up to terminate at the bay platform in the new station. On that basis it seems likely that some or all of the Thameslink trains will serve the new station – given that it has only one bay platform I might be tempted to suggest that two out of the four Thameslink trains will call there – most likely the faster Brighton services as they have a bit more turnaround margin and will give the promised “semi-fast” service. Let’s wait and see!



Cheap peak rail fares to London (and the West Midlands!) from Cambridge

March 10th, 2014

I have to go to Coventry in a few weeks to go to a trade fair. I looked up the rail fares and discovered that they can be astonishingly cheap – typically around £12 each way, provided that you book in advance. However, some of these fares take you via London and therefore provide for a cost-effective way to travel to London at peak times if you can book in advance. Simply search for fares from Cambridge to Coventry and specify “via London King’s Cross”, and you’ll often find you can travel on the 0715 or 0815 to Kings Cross for £12, and likewise return on the 1745 or 1843 for £12, which would normally attract a full fare of £38.60 return, saving you £12.60. You do have to travel on those specific trains though! If you have a nationally-valid railcard (i.e. not a Network Card) you can get a third off the already-discounted price, too. The trick also works in First Class, where you can pay £34 each way on that same routeing.

If the Coventry fares have sold out, you can also try booking to Rugby, which is technically a different ticket but is charged at the same price.

Electrification details

March 2nd, 2014

Last week’s Rail Magazine has a big feature on rail electrification projects in England, concentrating mostly on the “Electric Spine” project to provide an electric route between the Midlands and south Yorkshire and Southampton Docks. The article explains that there is programme funding for electrification work over at least a decade, and that it’s likely that various additional “infill” electrification projects will happen alongside the main “spine” that was announced in 2012. Network Rail have been asked to look at “connectivity to ports and airports” in general, and specifically to consider an electric route between Felixtowe and the West Midlands. This is exciting from a Cambridge perspective because it offers the prospect of much-improved connectivity across the Fens – there’s potential for electric services between Ely and Ipswich, as well as an all-electric service from Ely to Peterborough via March. The latter will make the Cambridge route into an electrified loop off the East Coast Main Line, which opens up potential for direct electric services between Cambridge and North East England.

The article also mentions the Oxford-Bletchley-Bedford East West Rail project, saying that the priority is to open the Oxford-Bletchley section in the spring of 2019 – suggesting that the EWR project is either already running late or will open in 2017 as planned with a more limited diesel-powered service. The Bedford-Bletchley electrification is apparently proving quite challenging and may well be put back beyond 2019. Likewise, the Oxford-Coventry electrification is likely to take place well after 2019 as it’s deemed less of a priority.

Whilst the delays to EWR are a little demoralising, I’m encouraged that Network Rail are being encouraged to look at electrification a lot more widely, and that opens up a lot of new opportunities for rail services.

Cambridge to London rail fares

February 20th, 2014

This is mostly for my own future reference, but I reckoned that it might be useful to other people in Cambridge. How much does it cost to go to London by train? Well, that depends – I was quite taken aback with the sheer Byzantine complexity of all the different prices and rules! Anyway, here are the ones I use most commonly:

Weekday flexible off-peak day returns:

  • To Kings Cross (50 minute journey time),  £23.70 return. With Network Railcard discount: £15.65
  • To Liverpool Street (1hr 20 journey time), £16 return. With Network Railcard discount: £13.00 (minimum fare applies)
  • To Kings Cross with an all-zones travelcard, £30.90 return. With Network Railcard discount: £20.40
  • To Liverpool St with an all-zones travelcard, £23.50 return. With Network Railcard discount £15.50

Weekend flexible super-off-peak day returns:

  • Either route, £16 return. With railcard discount: £10.55
  • Either route with travelcard, £22 return. With railcard discount: £14.50

Advance Fares (cheapest single journey to London)

You must book online via Greater Anglia for these. They cost £6 or £8 (depending on availability) each way, to Liverpool St only and are restricted to specific trains.

Anytime (Peak) fares:

  • Kings Cross return, £38.60
  • Liverpool Street return, £35.20
  • Either route with all-zones Travelcard, £48.60

A more detailed explanation follows…

Read the rest of this entry »

House sale plaudits

February 5th, 2014

Our house sale completed on Monday – goodbye, Oxford! I’ll miss the lively atmosphere and convenience of Cowley Road, though I suspect that my waistline will benefit from not having quite such easy access to supermarkets and restaurants.

Now the sale’s over, I’m going to give out my customary plaudits to the firms we used for our move.

Firstly, the estate agents: Breckon and Breckon, who were constantly helpful and professional, responded well to emails and phonecalls, handled all the bidders, supervised all the viewings, took decent photographs and even arranged for extra surveys and quotations on behalf of the buyers. In short, they did everything possible to make the process straightforward, so thanks very much to Jenny, Julie, Ellie and the rest of the team there.

Secondly, our solicitor: Chris Wingfield from Woodfines‘ Cambridge office, who handled our conveyancing last time. Again, excellent on email and managed to keep us up to date with everything without needing to be chased.

Finally, the removers: A G Jacob & Sons (they must get a lot of renditions of this song – but I resisted, just!) who quoted sensible prices for removals and storage and would supply packaging and do all the packing for £150 extra. Steve, Melvin and the team were courteous and helpful and very efficient. They’ve got all our stuff in storage down in Wallingford and we’ll probably see it again in a couple of months. I would strongly recommend that if you have enough furniture to need a full-service remover that you pay extra for packing – it doesn’t add a lot to the cost and massively reduces the levels of stress and hassle beforehand. In fact, you’d probably pay almost as much just for the packing materials if you bought them yourself.

The house purchase process grinds on slowly, with pretty much all the delays being caused by Clydesdale Bank, whose business process is so slow it makes most glaciers look positively rapid by comparison. They are at least helpful when I speak to them, and I don’t have to deal with them via the execrable London & Country Mortgages this time – Clydesdale’s mortgage team answer the phone on the second or third ring, which is more than L&C ever did. But we’re now into the fourth week since we had our offer accepted – two weeks were spent waiting for Clydesdale to give us an appointment to discuss the mortgage, and I’m told that the necessary forms and paperwork have been finished today and should be with me tomorrow. However, their process apparently can take up to another eight weeks from them receiving these forms before the mortgage is ready to draw down. The vendors are already getting shirty with us (via their estate agents), which is exactly what happened last time. I’m only sticking with Clydesdale because it’ll cost me £8k in early repayment penalties to go to someone else, and because they at least are prepared to give us a mortgage when we’ve both just changed jobs, which it seems a number of other lenders have a problem with. But generally, don’t touch them with a bargepole. I don’t own a bargepole any more, but I might just buy a new one so that I can not touch them with it. Let’s hope we inch forward a little bit in the next few days.

Busway complexity

January 31st, 2014

Stagecoach have just announced a new timetable for their Busway services from 23rd February onwards. This has been reported in the press as offering five minute frequency between Cambridge and St Ives during peak hours, as the present service is now apparently at capacity. Let’s have a look at the timetable:

  • the five-minute frequency service starts at 0700 from St Ives (for service towards Cambridge) and continues until 0840. Buses going outbound from Cambridge in the morning peak have a 7-8 minute frequency.
  • In the evening peak, the five-minute service starts at 1613 and continues until 1753, when the service goes back to a 7-8 minute frequency. Buses from St Ives to Cambridge are 7-8 minute frequencies during this period.

Stagecoach are admitting in the News article that they don’t have enough buses to operate a more intensive service than this, but did suggest that they’d be open to buying some more in the near future – particularly with “Chesterton Station and Northstowe” coming onstream in the next few years.

However, they’ve done the usual bus company thing of complicating the timetable in order to shoehorn in extra occasional services to various outlying districts. If you look at the timetable document, you’ll find the main timetable shows buses on the “core” busway – the northern termini are Peterborough, Hinchingbrooke hospital, RAF Wyton and Marley Road in St Ives. However, towards the end of the document, you’ll find details of “village commuter” services in the morning and evening peaks. So, for instance, a bus shown in the main timetable as starting at Marley Road at 0710 has in fact come from Chatteris via Pidley. Whilst these extra services are no doubt welcome to the residents of the places they serve, they all operate as part of “busway route A”, meaning that users unfamiliar with the timetable are potentially going to be quite confused by the destination indicator. The “A” route is supposed to start from Trumpington P&R, which means a single decker bus – the double-deckers don’t fit under the bridge in Trumpington, and terminate in St Ives or at RAF Wyton. We now have a number of morning peak buses that are designated as Route A but which don’t go to Trumpington, terminating instead at Cambridge station – I wonder if these are double-deckers? One of them makes an off-timetable continuation to Long Road Sixth Form College, just for bonus complication! Likewise, in the evening peak some of the “route A” services start from the station rather than Trumpington. “Route B” buses are even more complicated – even on the off-peak schedule they have 2bph to Hinchingbrooke (calling at Huntingdon bus station), with 1bph to Peterborough (again, via Huntingdon bus station) and 1bph which terminates at Huntingdon, but which is the only one of the four to go to Huntingdon railway station. Effectively, the only thing the route letter tells you reliably is which stops the bus serves in Cambridge – “A” buses go via the Science Park, Milton Road and Victoria Bridge, call at New Square and continue to the rail station and “B” buses go via Orchard Park West and Shire Hall, terminating at Drummer Street. Going the other way, you do at least vaguely get the idea that “B” buses go to Huntingdon, although a few “A” buses do as well…

Clear as mud. Perhaps it’s time to think about how the complex routeing and timetable arrangements affect how easy the system is to use?

Plusbus again

January 2nd, 2014

Following my previous rant about the complexities of Cambridge’s bus ticketing, there’s a further interesting item to add to the mix – Plusbus. As I’ve discussed before, Plusbus is an add-on to a railway ticket that allows use of local buses. The Cambridge version costs £3.10 (plus your rail ticket), which is a reasonable saving on a £3.90 dayrider. it covers the same area as the Stagecoach Dayrider but also works on Whippet buses, including Busway routes C and D. If you’re a railcard user, the discount applies, cutting the cost to £2.05 (plus rail ticket). Greater Anglia (who manage Cambridge, Waterbeach, Ely and Shelford stations) are supposedly upgrading all their vending machines to sell Plusbus tickets, otherwise you can buy one as an upgrade to a machine-issued ticket when you arrive at Cambridge station. It’s also possible to buy them online and then collect from any ticket machine.

Bus frustration again…

December 28th, 2013

I was in Cambridge at the weekend, and re-acquainted myself with its bus system. A few things have changed in the two years I’ve been away, but some obvious things appear not to have been acted upon.

Let’s start with some good news – the guided bus system appears to have been popular enough for the original routes to have been expanded somewhat, and for some routes to now be operating at a higher frequency. For instance, the Stagecoach route A service from Trumpington to St Ives is now every 15 minutes rather than every 20, and now makes a slightly better job of connecting Addenbrooke’s with the railway station, although the Park & Ride bus service from Babraham to Milton still actually has a faster journey time.

I used the route A to get from our temporary flat at Addenbrooke’s into the city on Saturday (partly because the guided buses stop within 2 minutes walk of the flat, whereas the main bus station is about a ten minute walk) and it arrived ahead of time at the railway station and sat there for a few minutes. The new bus access road and bus stops at the railway station (built as part of the CB1 development) are a big step forward for traffic flow around the station, but I can’t help feeling that some important details have been lost in the remodelling. Our Route A bus stopped at stop 9 at the station, which is the one that’s nearest to the station entrance. No fewer than six people came and asked the driver if his bus went to the city centre. He answered no – which is probably the right answer, the route A calls at New Square, which is fairly central but not the main shopping street – and directed them further down the road to another stop (stops 6 and 7 both have buses to the city centre). Surely it would be more logical for the “buses to town” to be using the stops nearest the station entrance, so as to make things easy for people unfamiliar with the city?

This has been a longstanding complaint of mine. Outside the front entrance to the station should be a large signboard explaining where to go to take the buses to a few popular destinations (the city centre and Addenbrooke’s being obvious ones). The bus stops themselves should also be clearly labelled “buses to city centre from this stop” and should also clearly show the fare and explain that the drivers can give change for banknotes but don’t take credit cards.

Now, let’s get onto the thorny topic of ticketing. Stagecoach have a near-monopoly on services in Cambridgeshire, so the majority of people will be happy buying Stagecoach’s tickets: there are singles, returns and two all-day tickets (Dayrider covers the city only, Dayrider Plus covers the whole county). It’s impossible to obtain the single or return fares on the web – you have to call the depot and ask – which seems daft in this day and age. About 20% of buses in Cambridgeshire are operated by other independent operators, so the County Council applied some leverage to the bus companies and made them issue a ticket called a Multibus, which was originally a day ticket covering all buses in the county. A Multibus is quite expensive – £7.80 as against a Dayrider Plus at £6 and a city-only Dayrider at £3.90 – and I suspect they don’t sell very many. Until recently it wasn’t even listed on Stagecoach’s website! However, the Multibus ticket now doesn’t cover the Stagecoach-operated Busway A and B routes, for no reason I can properly understand. There is, however, a special busway smartcard ticket that works on both Whippet and Stagecoach busway buses, but nowhere else! Logical!