Most years seem to have a ``theme'' underlying many of the important events of that year. For this year the theme is surely buses.
The year started inauspiciously with an announcement by Cambridgeshire County Council that they would no longer support conventional bus services at all. Both Stagecoach and community bus operators made it clear that they could not hope to fill the gap. Our parent organisation masterminded a judicial review by a local bus user which has led to a consultation, still under way, about the policy. Many of the intended cuts were suspended, with the result that there has been little change in the more rural areas. However a county-wide purge mostly affecting evening and Sunday buses run by Stagecoach did go ahead in April. Some but not all of these have been included in the consultation. We presume that the ones that haven't were withdrawn for other reasons, probably as a by-product of the reduction in county council reimbursement for concessionary fares (an issue highlighted by Stagecoach at the ``bus summit'' called by the Council to launch their new policy).
A couple of years ago, when the County Council announced the opening of the guided busway which was cancelled at the last moment, Stagecoach announced cuts to services Cambridge Citi 2 and 7 to be implemented when the guided busway started. They then retracted these cuts when it turned out that the busway wasn't opening after all. Well this time cuts to the Citi 2 and 7 were included in the April package; even though this was several months before the busway opened, and the cuts were different, we strongly suspect that there was a connection. The Citi 2 was curtailed so it no longer serves Milton: this was particularly significant because the bus user referred to above lives in Milton. The cuts to Citi 7 mean that while passengers between Cambridge and Histon or Trumpington now have as many buses as before these buses are split between different stops (at both ends) so whichever one chooses the effective frequency is halved.
We hope that as many people as possible will reply to the consultation, which closes at 16.00 on Fri 9 Dec. If they think the consultation is flawed (as we do) then they shouldn't react by ignoring the consultation but by highlighting the flaws in their response.
The other main bus-related event is, of course, the opening of the Cambs Guided Busway. This has brought some improvements (though scheduled journey time for journeys between Cambridge and Huntingdon is longer than ever), especially for the villages of Longstanton, Swavesey and Over; but we believe that the money would have been much better spent on the county's bus network as a whole; in particular a small fraction of it could have saved us from the council's cuts referred to above.
The guided busway route includes a non-guided section near Cambridge station which has recently been opened up to conventional buses. We are still in an interim period, but we believe it could bring many improvements in terms of coordination, for example if the X5 terminated at the station.
One undoubted improvement that has come with the busway is the availability of the maintenance track to cyclists and walkers. Unfortunately there is at present no access to it from the Shaftesbury Road developments, for which it could provide an easy and pleasant route to the railway station. The section between Swavesey and St Ives has had to be rebuilt because of flooding problems; this seemed to be nearly finished at the Coordinator's last visit.
Some but not all of our neighbours have also made draconian cuts to buses, such as Suffolk and Northants. Indeed, considering that Cambs have not yet implemented some of their intended cuts (see above), Suffolk in particular has probably fared much worse. However one of our neighbours has actually had some improvements: Bedford Borough launched a survey of bus needs after taking over the transport functions of its part of Bedfordshire from the former county council, and this led to changes in August which greatly improved links between Kimbolton and Bedford, and services from St Neots between the A421 and B645 corridors.
The prognosis for 2012 is grim: further cuts to local authority budgets on top of a doubling of fuel duty for buses will surely lead to further loss of services unless bus users can get their act together to demand a reversal of policy. Norman Baker, the Minister with responsibility for buses and someone who during the previous government had a good reputation for supporting sustainability, is now preaching the virtues of leaving everything to the discretion of local councillors -- but that hasn't stopped him from condemning a plan by Westminster City Council to charge motorists in some areas for parking in the evenings and on Sundays, even though unlike Cambridgeshire and other shire counties (and indeed metropolitan areas) London has plenty of buses 24 hours a day 7 days a week.
We have produced, but not widely circulated, a new membership leaflet. This is the first full year in which all our money has been in the Co-op bank, which we have asked for a regular annual statement in line with our accounting year; this means that for the first time we can include actual rather than deduced balances in our accounts.
As we write the scheme for a new island platform on Cambridge station is moving on. This should be able to eliminate any capacity problems in the Cambridge area, and we believe that this could be used to develop a local rail network. However little is actually planned except for a new station at Chesterton, whose siting means that it will probably serve workers at new developments in the vicinity but little else.
While there may be progress in the future on other schemes, such as Thameslink and East-West Rail, it will be many years before we get any benefit.
The "Club 55" offer by First Group which we mentioned in our report last year was reintroduced this September. While it has now been withdrawn for the Christmas period, we hope it will return after the new year.
Our parent organisation has campaigned vigorously on rail fares and several of our members supported them when Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, signed a petition against continuing fare rises.
Last year we announced the cancellation of the A14 upgrade for financial reasons; but recently there have been rumours that the Government plans to reinstate it, using tolls to pay for it. This will not affect our objection to the scheme for as long as it prioritises catering for ever growing traffic over environmental improvements.
We also announced that the Government had signalled the end of a mythical war on the motorist, with schemes such as the withdrawal of funding for speed cameras. There have been further developments on these lines, such as the plan to increase motorway speed limits to 80mph in spite of evidence that higher speeds add to danger and increase emissions (and also noise).
Cambridgeshire County Council have been consulting on plans for an Ely southern bypass. While there is a real need to bypass the level crossing just north of Ely station, especially with increases in both freight and passenger trains through the station in the pipeline, we are not convinced that a full scale bypass can bring benefits that justify the cost; and we think that the scheme as planned may lead to the loss of the direct bus link from Soham to Ely station.
Our original fear that the so-called Addenbrookes Access Road might lead to a full scale Southern Relief Road, along the lines of a scheme abandoned as a result of strong protest over 20 years ago, is probably unfounded. But the road has still contributed to the degradation of the first view of Cambridge by rail passengers from London (just as the view for coach passengers was degraded when a supermarket was built on the grounds of Anstey Hall in Trumpington).
A new road has opened in Peterborough as part of a project led by Lincs CC to provide an alternative route south-west from Spalding. Part of this road has actually been used by local buses for a short period as a consequence of roadworks on their normal route, but we are not convinced that this scheme has brought significant benefits to the area; but at least we can't argue that it has sucked up money at the expense of local bus networks (as neither local authority has made cuts as draconian as Cambs or the others mentioned above).
Our parent organisation along with many other environmental groups has lobbied strongly against proposed changes to the planning rules. These suggest that there should be a presumption in favour of schemes for ``sustainable development'' but what the Government means by sustainable development does not appear to require easy access by sustainable means (i.e. other than by car), which is important for reasons of social exclusion as well as sustainability.
There has been continued work on many development schemes -- Clay Farm, Trumpington Meadows, NW Cambridge, Alconbury among them -- to which we have contributed our views on various occasions.
Many of the above Government policies are incompatible with the restraint on greenhouse gas emissions from transport for which there is an urgent need, but the Government seems to be ignoring this issue.
We have continued to participate in email groups such as the Cambridgeshire Sustainable Transport Forum and the Cambridge public transport group, also the regional group STEER and the e-group BEACON which covers transport issues on the Cambridge-Oxford corridor. We have continued to represent our group at meetings of the Bedfordshire Rural Transport Partnership, and the Coordinator also represents Cambridgeshire interests at the Bedford Area Bus Users Society (BABUS).
We continue to send our newsletters to Campaign for Better Transport local group coordinators and local representatives in the surrounding region, and other groups involved in transport campaigning, though this is now being done mostly by email to save costs.
During this year Passenger Focus assumed a role in representing bus users -- albeit one that has been largely emasculated by Government cuts. One of their staff, Linda McCord, had meetings with representatives of local bus user groups throughout our region, including our Coordinator; our priority recommendation was that Passenger Focus should compile a good practice guide for local authorities which could lead to moves such as the opening up to passengers of school and positioning works (she said that she had had representations about school buses from other groups too).
We remain affiliated to Bus Users UK and exchange newsletters (of which we produced 3 this year plus a mini-newsletter about the County Council 2011-2 budget consultation) with the following organisations: Notts Campaign for Better Transport, Norwich & Norfolk Transport Action Group, and the Peterborough-Norwich Rail User Group.
Well, what a year it has been -- both public transport wise and personally.
In July, at Simon's request, I attended a Cambs County Council (CCC) Cabinet meeting where the legal challenge to the Council's cuts to bus subsidies was ``debated''. Well, it would have been nice to have a proper debate between the public and the Councillors present but the restrictions put in place by CCC make this impossible (e.g. the petition must contain a 3 figure sum of signatures, and even then you are only allowed 3 minutes to put your points across plus questioning of Councillors is not permitted) so the ``debate'' was just between the Councillors. So much for democracy. Cllr Nick Clarke deserves a mention, if only for the negative comments he made on the legal challenge to the cuts to bus subsidies which I have on record. It's time people of his ilk lived in the real world (at least he didn't get his 25% increase in salary which he did not deserve, when many other people are lucky just to have a job - never mind a pay rise).
After the meeting it was down to Histon to observe the driver training runs on The Busway, which finally opened on Sun 7 Aug, nearly 2 years behind schedule, with muted fanfare (myself and John Woods, the Light Rail Transit Association Area Officer for Norfolk and Suffolk, rode the Northern Section on opening day plus the Southern Section a few days later -- my report has been uploaded to the ``files'' section of a number of newsgroups plus the video footage I shot can be viewed on my Youtube site). While initial loadings seemed promising, it appears that the novelty factor wore off fairly quickly and The Busway will struggle to meet its demand forecasts until such time as Northstowe becomes a reality. Is a passenger count at stops a good idea, either by ourselves or CAST.IRON?
After many years, the long promised island platform at Cambridge Station will open with the December timetable change although it is a rather basic structure -- a canopy covers about 2/3 of the platform, shelters are provided but no toilets (although provision has been left for them to be installed in the future) so anyone caught short will have to troop their way across the footbridge to the existing inadequate facilities and hope that they make it in time ! Also it appears that there is no provision for concession stands on the new platform. The footbridge, while an imposing glass, steel and brick structure, will be rather draughty in the Winter months as the design of the glazing doesn't completely enclose it. With the footbridge nearing completion at the time of typing this report, there is as yet no sign of the promised cycle guttering on the stairs or is this no longer being provided?
The arrival of the island platform does now make the possibility of a proper cross city S Bahn style local services (with an eventual on street or underground light rail loop serving the City Centre, Karlsruhe style) focused on Cambridge that much more promising although the availability of funding/rolling stock means that I doubt nothing will happen in the short to medium term (I will continue to work on my plans as and when time permits however). One thing that could be done at minimal cost and relatively quickly however is the creation of an independent bidirectional single line running between the northern end of the island platform and Coldhams Lane Jn, which would eliminate the conflicts between Cambridge-Ipswich services and those operating between Cambridge and Ely at said junction and would allow an increase in capacity on the latter route. This could be done by stitching together several existing little used sidings and adding/altering appropriate signalling and wiring -- the latter, using either existing or new pointwork, would enable an increase in capacity from 2 to 3 tracks between the junction and the station.
Lastly, on 16 Nov, as the National Express East Anglia (NXEA) Station Adopter for Manea and Whittlesey I helped out at the Fenland Rail Strategy consultation at Manea Village Hall along with 2 senior managers from NXEA, representatives from Fenland District Council (who very kindly gave me a lift from/to March) and FACT (Fenland Association for Community Transport) plus we also had 2 representatives from Arriva Cross Country and -- most unusually -- First Capital Connect who popped in for a short while. Expecting to be twiddling our thumbs all afternoon, we were surprised with the steady trickle of people who came to discuss rail matters with the NX managers and the FDC representative -- also to fill out the Fenland Rail Strategy questionnaire.
Although nothing much will happen until the 15 year EA franchise commences in 2014 or thereabouts, the intention is to make the service between Peterborough and Ipswich hourly (currently 2 hourly) -- this is dependent on finding sufficient rolling stock of course -- with Manea being served every 2 hours and Whittlesey being increased from 2 hourly to hourly (Cross Country would cease to serve Manea). It is also an aspiration for the platforms at both stations to be lengthened to take 4 car trains, to meet future requirements.
Manea, unlike many other Fenland villages, is growing with a considerable number of new houses having been built there in recent years, although this is not apparent from the train as the village is strung out over a considerable distance. Land has been earmarked by Network Rail behind the down platform for a car park should station calls become 2 hourly. It is also intended for it to become a transport hub for the Fenland area, particularly for Chatteris (which lost its station when the St Ives-March line closed to passengers in the late 1960s) which is just 10 minutes away by car and is also growing in size, with about 1,600 new houses likely to be built there over the next few years on the south side of the town.