Buzzing with the B

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The Cambridgeshire Guided Busway used by route B runs through very typical fenland landscape. ANDY IZATT

In the last of his occasional series on the exceptionally long bus routes that radiate from Peterborough, Andy Izatt tries Stagecoach East’s service B to Huntingdon and Cambridge

Having tried the other three long bus routes that radiate, or in the case of Centrebus’ Five Counties to Nottingham, used to radiate from Peterborough (Issue 1273), it was time for me to try Stagecoach East’s service B which takes around two hours to cover what is a distance of very approximately 40 miles to Cambridge. That’s certainly not as long as Stagecoach Midlands’ Gold X4 (Issue 1167) which takes around three and a half hours to reach Milton Keynes, or anywhere close to First Eastern Counties X1 to Lowestoft (Issue 1199), a four hour, 45-minute marathon involving a change of bus at Norwich, but it is nevertheless a significantly long route and there’s added interest as it’s one that uses the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway.

When it opened in 2011, the 16-mile guideway, which is in two sections, was the longest guided busway in the world. The northern section uses the alignment of the Cambridge and Huntingdon railway and runs through the former stations at Oakington, Long Stanton and Histon while the southern section is part of the former Varsity Line to Oxford and links Cambridge railway station to Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the Trumpington Park & Ride site.

Busway routes A and B between St Ives and Cambridge are Stagecoach East services. The A runs through Cambridge to use the southern section of guideway while the 15-minute daytime-headway B, which originally terminated at Huntingdon railway station or Hinchingbrooke Hospital, was extended to Peterborough on an hourly frequency for much of the day in 2012. Peak time routes R between Cambridge railway station and Trumpington and service N (St Ives or Longstanton Park & Ride to Regent Street, Cambridge are also operated by Stagecoach East. Go-Whippet provides the C between St Ives and Cambridge as well as the U linking Eddington and Addenbrooke’s.[wlm_nonmember][…]

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The Enviro400 fleet used on route B has regularly been updated. The original 10 buses, Scania N230UD 73-seaters (45 on the upper deck, 28 in the lower), were new in 2009. Three with 76 seats, (47 on the upper and 29 lower), arrived a year later with another three added in 2012. Then there were six acquired in 2014 with the next 10 arriving the following year. Latest in June 2017 are four Scania N250UDs with Enviro400 MMC bodywork, again seating 76.

Stagecoach East single-deckers primarily used on route A have similarly been updated with 10 Wrightbus-bodied B8RLEs in 2015 replacing 10 Wrightbus-bodied B7RLEs bought in 2009 and supplementing five that were purchased in 2012. While my journey back from Cambridge on route B was on one of the 2017 Enviro400 MMCs, the trip out was on a bus seven years older.

Riding the B

As with my previous excursions on Peterborough’s longest routes, the journey started at Queensgate Bus Station where a mother and three small children were the only other intending passengers waiting to join the 0921hrs departure. Our bus arrived in good time and the smartly attired driver was attentive and personable, checking that the details on my £6.70 Cambridgeshire Day Rider Plus ticket, purchased earlier that morning, were correct.

Just before we were to make our on-time departure, a mother and two older children as well as three students boarded – it was half term after all. The latter were clearly pleased that they had made it in time and were looking forward to their visit to Cambridge.

The high-backed E-Leather covered seats were comfortable and there were side wall mounted 240v power sockets. It looked as if the side casing, where I was sitting near the rear wheel arch in the lower saloon, intruded a little on seat space. Other aspects of the specification included free WiFi, real-time information, which commendably was working, and an air chill system. This particular vehicle was a 2010 76-seat Scania N230UD, one of three bought that year. With the arrival of newer vehicles it had lost its busway branding, but retained green livery and appropriate ‘greener, smarter travel’ lettering emphasising its environmental credentials. Despite the vehicle’s age, the inside was tidy and it looked clean.

Our driver certainly wasn’t hanging around and if I had a criticism, it was that he was a little heavy on braking when approaching roundabouts. Our route out of Peterborough was across the East Coast Main Line, along Thorpe Road, Longthorpe Parkway and then Nene Parkway to reach the Serpentine Green shopping complex at 0928hrs. The mum with two children departed and three women joined us. One had several questions for our driver who was happy to respond. We were on our way again on time at 0931hrs.

There were roadworks in Yaxley which were a minor holdup, but as soon as we were past the end of the speed restriction at the edge of the village, our driver put his foot down as we headed towards and then crossed the A1M road. Rather than go through Stilton we re-crossed remaining on the B1043 road as runs south adjacent to the motorway. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful autumnal day. The bus rode well at speed on what was a good road surface and there was little other traffic.

We crossed the A1M once again so we could access Sawtry. There were roadworks where Fen Lane and St Andrews Way meet and with temporary traffic lights phased four-ways, we were held for around two minutes before going on our way. We collected a man at the subsequent stop and then more at the picturesque The Green in the centre of the village. A small van was partially blocking our access to the stop, but I don’t think anyone particularly minded as it was clearly its driver who was sweeping out the well kept bus shelter. The seven passengers joining were a mix of ages.

At 0952hrs along Green End Road we collected a father and son who clearly enjoyed each other’s company. Again, the father had plenty of questions for our driver which were answered patiently and in good spirit. Once on our way, a woman ensconced in the nearside front ‘bus spotter’s seat’ that has an excellent view of the road ahead lent back to retrieve a copy of the Metro newspaper from the box above the wheel arch.

The elderly woman who boarded next was clearly not very steady on her feet, but our driver waited until she was safely seated before pulling away. The lower saloon was becoming increasingly full with those of an older disposition.

The Cambridge Road junction with the Busway is where route B buses were diverting, which meant they were not serving Orchard Park. ANDY IZATT

Crossing the A1M again, we rejoined the B1043 south towards Huntingdon. The bus continued to ride well although the road surface was less good in places compared to how it had been. Entering Little Stukeley we had to wait as oncoming traffic had priority. The entrance to RAF Alconbury was passed at 1006hrs, eight minutes late, the replica Northrop F-5E gate guard providing a reminder of the base’s long association with the United States Air Force.

The busy A141 road had to be crossed before we could access Huntingdon town centre, our driver finding a gap in the traffic in front of a lorry driver who, naughtily, was using his mobile phone. Ermine Street took us under the East Coast Main Line into the centre of the town. This was old Huntingdon and the road was busy and quite narrow. Much wider was recently constructed Edison Bell Way which took us to the town’s railway station where one passenger departed. The quality of the access road surface here was noticeably poor. It was 1014hrs and we were seven minutes behind schedule.

Huntingdon has a one way system that circles the town centre, but rather than having to go round it after joining from George Street, there’s a contraflow lane that allows travel south over the short distance needed to reach the bus station. Our driver took advantage of that and we were on stand at 1016hrs where eight of our passengers departed and another15 joined, three of them pushing shopping baskets. One or two wanted to pay with notes, but our driver quickly dealt with their requirements and he was backing off the stand four minutes later.

I was about to discover just how extensive the housing estates northeast of Huntingdon are. Leaving the one way system on its north side, we turned into Ambury Road, picked up a man at the Avenue Road stop and negotiated some traffic calming before turning right into California Road where we passed the Regional College. A route B Enviro400 going the other way held back so we could clear parked cars.

There were four off at The Whaddons stop and the father and son who had joined us in Sawtry left us just before the bus turned right into Coneygear Road. At the Maryland Avenue stop there were five waiting to board – all pensioners. One disembarked. It was still a beautiful sunny day and the autumnal colours in the trees were eye catching. It was warm and easy to forget for a moment the time of year, not least as a man in his shorts boarded and went upstairs after we turned right into Pennington Road.

It was then a left turn into Desborough Road and almost immediately right into Sapley Road. We were amongst more upmarket housing now and there was a little group of five waiting for us at the stop before we cleared the estates and joined the B1514 Main Street towards St Ives. At the major roundabout with the A141 we turned right on to Huntingdon Road and our driver was once again keen to take advantage of the 50mph speed limit. An unusual yellow sign by the side of the road said ‘Is your indicator still on?’ This roundabout is clearly a congestion hotspot because buses travelling in the opposite direction are able to take advantage of bus only access along Old Houghton Road which avoids it all together.

It was 1040hrs as we passed the sign marking the start of St Ives, but there was a long queue of traffic on Houghton Road because of traffic light-controlled roadworks. It was 1045hrs before we were through and turning right into Ramsey Road where there were five more intending passengers waiting at the stop opposite the Seven Wives pub. Two women travelling with a similar number of children wanted a family ticket, but again our driver quickly dealt with the transaction.

St Ives is an old town with narrow streets, but we threaded our way through. Rather than pick up in the bus station, we utilised a stop that’s adjacent in Station Road. It was 1051hrs when six passengers left us and another four joined. They included a couple who appeared to be from South America who decided to have a lengthy discussion with our driver as to what ticket was best. Despite the delay, he dealt with them with good humour, putting his jacket on before we pulled away at 1055hrs.

It’s a short hop from there across Harrison Way to reach the St Ives Park & Ride site and the start of the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway.

On the guideway

The popularity of the busway for accessing Cambridge was underlined by the number of people waiting to board at the St Ives Park & Ride site. There were 22 including two family groups, one of which was fully armed with scooters. Then the reason for the driver putting on his jacket became clear. There was a driver change over that was quickly executed in less than a minute and we were on our way again at 1059hrs, 11 minutes behind schedule.

Once on the guideway our new driver gradually increased speed but significantly slowed when he spotted a pair of horse riders on the adjacent bridleway, a move they gratefully acknowledged with a wave. Ride quality was quite acceptable, but more akin to what might be experienced on a railway with jointed track than modern welded rail. The bus gently swayed as it motored along. While our driver always slowed when approaching bisecting public roads, we always had a green light when it came to making the crossing.

Our first stop was at Swavesey where there were five people waiting including a little girl in a pushchair. Two of the students who had boarded at Peterborough moved to the back of the lower saloon to allow the mother to sit next to her charge. With a Wrightbus-bodied Volvo B7RLE on route A (St Ives-Trumpington Park & Ride) stopped in front of us, we weren’t able to proceed until it was ready to depart.

The functional, comfortable upper deck of one of the Scania N250UDs with Enviro400 MMC bodywork. ANDY IZATT

On the long undulating stretch of guideway to Longstanton Park & Ride the only distinctive landmarks are an aerial tower and windmill and it’s not the smoothest riding part of the guideway.

At Longstanton there were nine waiting to board including a man in a wheelchair. No need for the driver to deploy the manual wheelchair ramp with platform level docking, but two people were happy to move to clear the onboard nearside wheelchair bay space in a lower saloon that was becoming decided crowded.

Once everyone was safely onboard, our driver took the opportunity to overtake the route A Volvo B7RLE. It was 1113hrs and we were 17 minutes late. There’s still a sign up to mark where the proposed Northstowe new town would be located, but no sign of any building work starting yet. Two passengers departed at Oakington, but we didn’t make it to the next stop at Histon & Impington because it’s the east side of the junction with Cambridge Road. We turned south onto the public thoroughfare because we were taking a diversion that meant we wouldn’t be able to serve Orchard Park.

The closest stop to it was on Cambridge Road by the Kings Hedges Road junction south of the intersection with the A14 dual carriageway and that’s where the man in the wheelchair departed at 1125hrs once the driver had deployed the manual wheelchair ramp. The onboard real-time information display which had cessed to update once we went ‘off route’, took time to restart, but did eventually do so.

At the first stop on Castle Street, the mother with three small children who had been waiting with me at Queensgate Bus Station were amongst those to depart, but there were half a dozen others who wanted to board. Two were particularly doddery pensioners and the mother who had been give a seat so she could be near her pram, gave up hers so they could sit together.

On Magdalene Street we were clearly in the centre of historic old Cambridge with particularly narrow streets to match. Around 11 passengers disembarked at The Round Church stop including the doddery pensioners. On Jesus Lane we passed the college of the same name, dropping 21 people off including the scooter family at the Central Cambridge stop on Emmanuel Road before effectively doubling back on ourselves to reach Drummer Street Bus Station at 1139hrs, 17 minutes behind schedule.

B advantages

There seemed no obvious reason for the delay that morning apart from the roadworks although judging by the speed our two drivers drove when they could, it’s a tightly timed service. The delay certainly wasn’t down to the Orchard Park diversion. If anything, I would have thought that would have reduced the amount of time lost. The diversion, incidentally, was to allow repairs to be carried out to busway crossing points at Iceni Way, Chariot Way, Chieftain Way and Graham Road during the half term holiday.

Thanks to the Cambridge University colleges objecting many years ago to a railway station closer to the city centre, there is over a mile between the two. With rail journeys between Peterborough and Cambridge timetabled at 50 minutes, route B becomes quite an attractive alternative in terms of end-to-end journey times, all the more so for those living along the route in Peterborough and Cambridge, and when the cost of a ticket is factored in.

With the Cambridgeshire Day Rider Plus ticket covering an area from Spalding in the north, St Neots to the west, Newmarket and Bury St Edmunds in the east and Royston, Saffron Walden and Haverhill to the south, there are also plenty of other travel opportunities to explore for an adult fare of just £6.70.[/wlm_ismember]