In early February rail users were alarmed to see a radical, and quite frankly bonkers, proposal given so much coverage in the press. Fortunately the government seems to have as little time as Railfuture for an idea (dating back decades, when the railway was shrinking not growing fast as it is today) to pave over the railway tracks to run buses instead.

More than a decade ago Railfuture campaigned hard to reopen two mothballed railway lines but lost out to the previous government’s experiment to construct concrete kerb-guided busway instead. Both those schemes (close to Luton and Cambridge) have been built, amid much controversy, delayed openings cost overruns, and construction defects.

Railfuture’s Nick Dibben campaigned for over 20 years to reopen the Cambridge to St Ives railway line. He and other Railfuture members living in the Cambridge area are both frequent uses of both rail services and the busway and therefore have an understanding of the features and limitations of both transport modes. These are some of the technical and practical issues in adopting the Paving over the Tracks’ proposal by Paul Withington and Richard Wellings (published by the Institute of Economic Affairs) on the economic benefits of converting existing urban railway routes into bus corridors.

General comments

Throughout the IEA report actual railway performance is compared with theoretical performance for the bus road. For example the capacity of HS2, using actual design data is compared with a maximum capacity of a bus road. So whilst it may be possible to run 1000 buses per hour on a straight length of plain road, as soon as bus stops, junctions and tight bends requiring vehicles to slow down, the capacity will reduce.

No operating method is suggested, although direct express buses from a series of points into the city centre is implied. Whilst city centres are the main destination, most rail routes also are used for local journeys. Therefore in addition to the express buses, local stopping buses would be required. This suggests that overtaking points would be required along the bus road, requiring additional space. Existing rail stations on viaducts and cuttings, may not have space for buses to overtake or for buses to turn around or leave the bus roads to continue their journeys on local roads.

Experience on the Cambridge busway, suggests that typical bus stop times are between 15-30 seconds. Without the ability to overtake, an express bus will quickly be delayed by stopping buses and the overall capacity of system substantially reduced. 50-60 buses per hour may be a more sensible limit for free moving buses on the system.

The Space Issue

The report notes that typical railway bridges and tunnels are suitable for double deck buses (page 26). Any visit to the Cambridge Busway will quickly reveal than many of the buses are single deck. This is because the southern section of the Busway from the railway station to Trumpington P&R uses former railway bridges that are unsuitable for double deck buses.

Many suburban rail routes in the UK are built to the W6 loading gauge, the smallest gauge used on the railways. The maximum headroom is 3965 mm over a small width, far less than 4100-4200mm of a typical double deck bus. Details of the current loading gauge on the rail network can be found in Network Rail’s route strategy documents.

Conclusion: the claim in the report about suitability of double deck buses is simply incorrect.

Although the Cambridge System uses concrete guide sections on most of its length, the report suggests using conventional roads which could allow other vehicles to use the road outside peak periods. During the public inquiry into the Cambridge Guided Busway, the question was asked; why not build a normal road? Two main answers emerged. The first was that the guideway would take less space so fit onto the former railway alignment. The width of the double track guideway is 6m against 9.3m (the report claims 7.3m) for a normal road. Although buses currently operate on roads that are narrower than 7.3m of tarmac, they do so at reduced speed, typically 30mph in built up areas, even slower when two buses pass.  

Without specific routes for conversion identified in the report, it is not possible to verify if such widths are available on existing railway routes. It should be noted that the Cambridge Busway is built on generally flat edge of fens countryside. Many existing urban railway routes are built on embankments, viaducts and in cuttings where achieving additional width could prove expensive and may involve demolition of adjacent buildings.

Although the Cambridge Busway is built on former railway routes, the original St Ives route joined other railway lines, that are still operational for long distance passenger and freight traffic,  around 2 miles north of Cambridge Station. As there was no room for a guideway next to the railway, buses have to use existing roads between the Cambridge Science Park and the railway station. A rail journey that would have taken 4 minutes takes 20 minutes by bus and is often much longer due to traffic. This situation, where a possible busway would be unable to use railway land to gain access to the centre of a city is common and use of normal roads would negate any benefits of a segregated route elsewhere. Few cities have roads that are wide enough to include a dedicated bus lane in both directions, Cambridge is an example. Proposals to create a bus lane on Milton Road by removing trees along the road met with strong opposition and the plan was dropped. Current discussion in Cambridge is about expensive bus tunnels under the city to provide a segregated route for buses.

The report suggests that where there are 4 existing railway tracks, 2 tracks could be replaced by a bus route. As noted above the required width for a road is greater than suggested in the report and this width does not consider any required safety distances required between road and railway to allow for future maintenance.

Conclusion: The space to convert a double track railway into a bus road is not proven and would require detailed surveys of any possible routes to confirm. Urban railways on viaducts and in cuttings cannot easily be widened.

Elimination of standing passengers

The report claims that conversion of railways to bus roads will avoid the need for commuters to stand. The experience of the Cambridge Busway is that standing passengers are common, including Sundays! Although the number of buses has increased since opening, bus operators are unwilling to provide further buses and drivers for effectively a single trip each way during the peak period. Additional services are likely to be linked to new housing development where the developer can contribute financially to these services. The current situation suggests that the report is optimistic in thinking that operators would provide sufficient buses unless a subsidy is provided. It is also noted that the commercially services on the busway, reduce to hourly in the evenings and there are no buses on Sunday evenings.

Conclusion: The evidence from Cambridge is that busways still have standing passengers and it may not be commercially viable to cater for all peak demand.

Wider impact

The Cambridge Busway as noted in the report currently operates at 15 buses per hour in the peak period. At this frequency there are complaints from St Ives residents that the busway delays road traffic where it crosses the St Ives by-pass (A1096). A significant increase in bus services would require a bridge to be constructed at significant cost and visual impact, assuming that land is available.  

Conclusion: Railway routes with level crossings may not be suitable for conversion unless replaced by bridges.

 The Conversion process

The most significant omission from the report is to detail the sequence and process that existing railways could be converted into a bus road/busway.

The Cambridge Busway was built on former railway routes that had not seen any rail traffic for many years. Therefore the 2 year construction period had a minimal impact on existing transport systems, which was limited to short term closures of local roads whilst the new crossings were installed and some limited railway closures when work was carried out to relocate signal cables next to the railway station.

Converting an existing operating railway to a road is a different matter. There are examples of the process, for example the Newcastle Metro and Manchester Metrolink. However these existing railway routes were generally operated with two carriage trains not the 8,10 and 12 coaches of some existing London routes. As noted above working adjacent to a working railway has restrictions which would add to the cost and construction programme.

Although a phased system is proposed, without an example the process cannot be confirmed as practical.

The cost of disruption in terms of extended journey times and extra traffic congestion during the conversion period needs to be assessed and added to the project costs. The experience of the railway industry is that such costs can make up a large part of the project costs.

Conclusion: The conversion process is not well defined and disruption costs need to be identified

Which Routes?

The report does not identify any routes for conversion, although it would have been relatively simple to carry out a desk study of routes into major cities to identify possible routes that:

·         Had direct rail routes into the city without sharing tracks with other services
·         Carried only local passenger trains and not long distance passenger or freight
·         Were without tunnels or level crossings

The idea of converting rail routes into bus roads is not new. Possible candidates for conversion in the past have included the lines into London Marylebone and London Fenchurch Street. The fortunes of these lines have been transformed in recent years. The once run down local suburban network from Marylebone now has frequent long distance trains to Birmingham and a direct service to Oxford is planned. At the time of the first Gulf War the Managing Director of the Fenchurch Street route was, in the eyes of Essex commuters, less popular than Saddam Hussain! Thanks to investment, the route is amongst the most reliable and there are new freight flows from the ports on the north bank of the Thames.  These changes highlight the need to look at the long term transport needs rather than short term cost savings.

Conclusion: No routes for conversion have been identified, possibly because none exist. The changing fortunes of rail routes means that short term cost savings must not override long term flexibility.

Overall conclusion

The report follows the theme of past reports by presenting a theoretical case without any practical examples. The lack of action to turn such ideas into reality in this and other countries suggests that there are major technical, practical and cost issues to be overcome and that the report takes a highly optimistic view of these issues.

Without a specific example to study in detail, the idea will remain a piece of ivory tower thinking.

A view based on personal experience, by Nick Dibben of Railfuture East Anglia Branch – February 2015