- broken or defunct
- caught out doing something wrong
You’re probably familiar with the saying that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. In a similar vein, a month in Cambridge right now may as well be a lifetime.
Let’s start with a quick recap. On 26th August the Greater Cambridge Partnership published its vision of the area’s future transport strategy: an expanded and enhanced bus network, paid for by vehicles entering, exiting or moving within a ‘Sustainable Transport Zone’ (STV). This proposal was given the approval of the GCP’s Joint Assembly in early September. On Wednesday, if the City Council, County Council and South Cambs District Council representatives on the GCP Executive Board are also in favour, the next stage will be a public consultation later this year.
Following the publication of the proposal, the practicalities of using public transport, even with reduced fares and an improved service level, have been hotly debated by the public. As of course has the fairness of charging people who feel they have no viable alternative to the car for moving around their own city.
But the issue took a surreal turn late last Sunday night, when eagle-eyed transport campaigners posted details of forthcoming changes to the Stagecoach bus network. By reading the nitty-gritty of bus service registrations on a government website, they had unearthed route changes yet to be officially announced, including the total cancellation of no fewer than 18 routes:
Planned @Stagecoach_East rural cuts fr 30/10/22
22 St Ives Town
66 Huntingdon-St Neots
904 Huntingdon-St Ives
V1 to V5 busway links
— Cambridge Area Bus Users (@CBGbusUsers) September 18, 2022
Stagecoach, having been put on the back foot, then came out with the usual corporate blather:
“We have designed a new core sustainable bus network with the aim of growing services over the long term. The new network is responding to local demand, and as part of that, we’re pleased to announce a range of enhancements for people in Cambridgeshire.
However, as one caller pithily observed to Stagecoach boss Darren Roe on Tuesday’s BBC Radio Cambs breakfast show “How do you make a bus service better by making it worse?”
Who knew about this?
There has then followed a week of finger-pointing by all local political parties at Stagecoach and at each other, while more inquisitive observers try to work out which individuals in various parts of our multiple tiers of local government knew about what and when. It seems pretty obvious that the Combined Authority had several weeks’ notice, and there is crossover between the Combined Authority and the GCP, as noted by the clearly frustrated long-time activist Clare King:
There's a crossover between the GCP and Combined Authority, certainly with Katie T, Dave B and Lewis. The CA is the Transport Authority ( in part alongside County ). The GCP is a Labour led ( 2 voting members of 3 are Labour). The CA is a Labour led. Both are inept
— Clare King (@ClareFKing) September 22, 2022
So it’s reasonable to assume that the GCP must also have known the cuts were coming even as it published its Sustainable Transport Zone proposal. Of course, implementation is still some years off, but as a way of promoting public faith in public transport, the current situation is a pretty poor look. And it might explain why it’s been left to GCP officers to lead on the presentation of the proposal, with the leaders of the City Council, South Cambs and the County Council keeping their views to themselves.
Left in limbo
Stagecoach and the political establishment now appear to be trying to arrive at some, albeit temporary, rapprochement. Stagecoach has called for a ‘rural connectivity summit’ and on Friday the Combined Authority put out a statement saying that it is looking at providing a £1.7m support package to maintain as many as possible of the routes under threat until March 2023. But the precise form of that package won’t be known till after a key meeting on 19th October, and so for the next three weeks thousands of residents will be left in limbo, not knowing if, from the end of October, they will be able to get to jobs, educational and medical establishments; see friends and family; access sporting and leisure facilities, etc.
It is an impossibly stressful situation, as I know from many conversations with those affected this week.
About a year ago, I wrote a blog post about the frustrating experience of getting a bus from Cambridge to Huntingdon. Re-reading it recently in the light of the GCP’s bus-focussed proposal, I was struck again by just how significant the challenge of achieving the desired modal shift would be. The last week’s episode flags up aspects of that challenge still further:
- Stagecoach, which has a quasi-monopoly position locally, takes decisions which reflect its commercial priorities, not the public good. You can see what these priorities are in the new network plans – only Park & Ride services and the Citi1 achieve the 10-minute service frequency recognised as being the minimum required to achieve public confidence. The majority of other services which will remain after the cuts are implemented will run at 30-minute intervals in the peak period, dropping to hourly outside that, even Monday-Friday.
- This will further embed the vicious circle whereby, even where routes still exist, the public don’t use them because of concerns about service reliability – if the 8.00am bus to get you to college doesn’t show up, you can’t afford to wait an hour for the next one. So we can expect user numbers to drop still further from their already low levels. DfT figures for 2020/21 (latest available) show a paltry 9 passenger journeys per 100k population in Cambridgeshire for that year, compared to 52 in the best performing local authority, Brighton & Hove.
- Stagecoach’s cavalier treatment of its staff – letting them find out about the cuts from Twitter – will not help with recruitment and retention, so service interruptions due to staff shortages are more likely.
- Attempts to use ‘planning gain’ to plug gaps in the network, and connect new communities, make little difference. See for example Stagecoach’s withdrawal of the 25 (the Trumpington-Addenbrooke’s circular service) which has benefitted from “short-term pump priming” through S106 payments related to the Clay Farm development.
- The dysfunctional distribution of roles and responsibilities across tiers of local government leads to a lack of effective accountability and leadership, and creates far too many hiding places.
Will the deficiencies be acknowledged?
I will watch the discussion of the Sustainable Transport Zone proposal by the Executive Board on Wednesday with interest, to see how many of these factors Board members are willing to acknowledge. The report from the Joint Assembly says that it is critical that any consultation should see it “set in the context of planned, not current service levels” but there isn’t necessarily unanimity among the Board members about the acceptability of any bus-based approach. Certainly, when business representative Andy Williams sat on the Joint Assembly, he indicated scepticism in the business community (recorded 10/6/21).
What is clear is that the credibility of the proposal has taken a huge knock from Stagecoach’s cancellations; and who knows how much more damage will be done to the public acceptability of bus-based approaches by the time any kind of rescue package can be put in place.
Transport planning in Greater Cambridge is busted.