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Hunts Post October 22 2003

Guided bus champion prefers rail

THE politician leading the drive towards a guided bus system linking Huntingdon to Cambridge admitted she was a fan of rail at a public meeting last Tuesday.

Councillor Shona Johnstone, cabinet member of the county council for environment and transport, told 60 people at a Huntingdon and Godmanchester Civic Society meeting at St Mary's Parish Hall, Huntingdon: "Rail is a lovely idea. I like it. But I cannot deliver it for you. The Government isn't interested in railways. It wants a Rapid Transit System."

She was responding to a number of questions from the floor regarding why guided bus - linked at either end by conventional buses running on existing roads as part of a Rapid Transit Scheme - was being pushed through by the council as the public transport improvement element to solve traffic problems on the A14.

Cllr Johnstone said that neither light or heavy rail would be financially viable between Huntingdon and Cambridge.

"There is not enough people in the catchment area to make any kind of railway self-supporting. The reality is, rail doesn't stack-up," she declared.

She said the Government had approved the controversial Cambridge to Huntingdon Multi Modal study - which many people in Huntingodnshire, including The Hunts Post, believe was badly flawed and non-representative - because it successfully addressed the three main issues:

- The upgrade and widening of the A14 would be carried out by the Highways Agency

- The public transport between Huntingdon and Cambridge would be improved by guided bus and this would be operating before the work began on the A14

- Freight would be carried on the rail link from Felixstowe to Nuneaton via North London

She said this solution had been arrived at at the same time as the County Structure Plan approved the creation of a new settlement at Longstanton/Oakington, which was on the route of the former St Ives to Chesterton railway line, which the council wanted to concrete over to form a guided busway.

She said the council would apply for a Transport Works Act to build the guided busway in January 2004, admitting that public consultation had provoked a re-think about some parts of the route. A Public Inquiry into the scheme would follow in summer 2004, but, she said, she hoped the Rapid Transit Scheme would be operational by early 2007.

She referred to the CAST.IRON organisation's plan to re-open the St Ives to Cambridge railway in stages by funding a community commuter service, which it hopes will establish the need for a full Huntingdon to Cambridge rail link, saying: "From day one of our scheme, you will be able to travel from Hinchingbrooke to Addenbrooke's. CAST.IRON cannot deliver that. It won't even be from Cambridge to St Ives by then."

And she won support from Somersham county councillor John Eddy, who commented: "All the consultants tell us that guided bus is an extension of what is happening now. Do you want to sweep away the bus services which are being provided now? Guided bus is the only solution you can afford. Please give what we are trying to provide for you a chance."

But it was clear that the majority of people - including a large continent of Lib Dem district and town councillors - were not in favour of guided bus and most were suppporting rail via CAST.IRON. As well as three two-minute presentations (see panel) there were a stream of negative comments about the RTS, coupled with support for alternatives, ranging from buses-only to light rail or tramways to heavy rail, which connected to the East Coast Main Line.

UK Independence Party candidate at the last General Election, Derek Norman demanded: "Rail wasn't an option provided by CHUMMS when it went to public consultation, but it's what most people want. Why don't you scrap guided bus and give your money to CAST.IRON? It is what the people want. You Tory councillors at Shire Hall are as arrogant as the Labour government."

Cllr Johnstone replied: "The Government wants a Rapid Transit System and we are delivering it on their behalf because it is the right thing to do. Light rail is not self-sustaining, so who will keep it running? Council Tax payers like you?"

District and St Neots town councillor Derek Giles said most of the councillors at Huntingdonshire District Council - its chairman, Councillor James Fell, wa s in the audience, but made no comment - did not favour guided bus, but Cllr Johnstone pointed out the council had signed-up for RTS.

Cllr Johnstone refused to guarantee that the public transport scheme would be running by the time building started on the new settlement and indicated that the county council never expected the Government to pay the full estimated 75million the RTS would cost.

"If they did that, it would set a precedent and this Government is not going to do that for a relatively prosperous part of Cambridgeshire," she said. "The county council will fund part of this through legal Section 106 agreements with people like the developers of North Stowe. If the Government does not come up with the money, then this scheme will go nowhere, but I don't expect that to happen."

Cllr Johnstone also responded to questions on all-through ticketing, bus stops, frequency of service, other guided bus systems around the world, style, safety and reliability of guided buses, the width of the tracks, the route, how buses on roads with other traffic would be given priority, and other details before saying: "If there's no guided bus by 2007, then there will be no Government money for the A14 upgrade. It is as simple as that."

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