FAILURE OF MILLENIUM TRANSIT BUSWAY, ROYAL BOROUGH OF GREENICH

Dear Mr. Harkins,

                I have been talking to my contact in the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

                Yes it is now accepted. The one time flagship project of busway enthusiasts is now a failed system, being considered for redevelopment. There is an obvious opportunity for MT line 1 to be converted to a tramway, which would solve all its problems; and a less attractive option to also convert MT line 2 to a tramway.

For those of you who are not experts on busway history here is a brief summary of the history, why this might be a game changing event and why all tram companies and tram promoters should get involved in promoting the conversion of MT  line 1 to a tram system. I suggest this failed project should be of interest to members of the APPLRG who are promoting new tram systems which are being opposed by alternative busway options ( e.g. Peter Hendy’s press campaign against Bath Trams.)

In the 1990s The London Mayor Ken Livingstone, his political advisers, the GLA, Transport for London (Peter Hendy) and many London Borough Councils all wanted to develop modern busways all across London as part of their surface transport strategy to double bus use. There was no place for new street trams in their vision for the future. The reputable consultants Steer Davies Gleeve were appointed to develop a large computer model which would compare the relative costs and benefits of tramways, busways, trolly bus and regular bus services. That is a large very useful report and software package which can be reworked using different data. Unfortunately because it is owned by TfL and it did not say everything that SDGs client wanted it to say its key findings have never been all made public for the benefit of other transit project promoters. However as I was at that time appointed to work on transit projects for the London Borough of Greenwich working with both Transport for London and Steer Davis Gleeve, I inevitably developed some understanding of what is in that very interesting report.

It proved beyond reasonable doubt that ordinary bus services cannot be made competitive with modern trams on quality of service, or operational costs, but the initial capital cost of segregated roadway for a top quality busway could then on average be less than the initial capital cost of an equivalent modern tram system, but not much less. Therefore it was argued that if the vehicles on a busway could be made as tram-like as possible the busway performance would become similar to a tramway performance, but at less initial capital cost. The flaw in that logic was that it had no concern for future costs of busway operation, maintenance, or labour. The pidgeons have now come home to roost; and MT 1 is in effect bankrupted, even though both the vehicles and the roadway are operating above their design capacities.

In the 1990s the vision for future busways was a technology system called Cegelec electronically guided bendy busses, with stop “docking” capabilities equivalent to trams for step free boarding and a ride quality equivalent to trams; and the vehicles would be driverless. It was decided that the demonstration service would be in LB Greenwich from The Dome / N Greenwich LUL stn. to Charlton NRN stn.; about 5km., of which 1.3 km would be fully segregated off  highway;  and then hundreds of miles of busway were designed all over the eastern boroughs in south east London. They wanted to place an order for 300+ bendy-bus vehicles to get economies of scale and halve the cost per vehicle (as VLR promoters now hope to do); so Merseytravel was persuaded to spend even more money to design a system for Liverpool and Knowsley and get TWA O approval,  which they did.

The partners in the demonstration project were TfL and LB Greenwich and my job was to represent the interests of LBG, who had responsibility for, highway works, the 1.3 km of segregated roadway and the Charlton stn. interchange. The first thing that went wrong was that LBG (suspecting a disaster) declared that it should be a tram system. Then they compromised and said MT 1 could be a busway if the follow on project Greenwich Waterfront Transit (GWT) could be a tramway. The political compromise was that both projects were designed for both busway and Tramway options and GWT became “technology neutral” and an “intermediate mode” project.

The second thing that went wrong was that when the prototype electronically guided 10 m vehicle was tested the on vehicle and in the road computers had difficulty communicating, so that there is a slight vibration, but nothing to worry about; and I rode in it driverless.

The next thing that went wrong was that the regular bendy busses which were in service elsewhere in London kept breaking down due to rear end slew problems and fires; and they developed a poor reputation with customers. However we were told the MT1 bendy busses were a different make, so no worries.

The next thing that went wrong was a design mismatch between infrastructure  and vehicles. Because TfL distrusted LB Greenwich they required that LBG designed and built he Charlton station interchange as a busway turning loop well in advance of the rest of the project. The land available required a very tight turn unless more land was acquired by compulsory purchase. The outcome was that it was decided that the turn was possible for a 10m or 12m rigid guided bus, but not for a bendy bus. No worries the electronically guided bendy busses could still be proven on the rest of the route. The plans were approved by TfL and the terminus built by LBG on time and on budget, assuming rigid electronically guided busses would be used.

The next thing that went wrong was that TfL found that “guided busses” required consents and approvals from the Office of Rail Regulator and not like ordinary busses from the Office of Road Regulator, which meant compliance to more exacting safety standards, even on fully segregated route. At that point TfL made a big mistake; they arrogantly assumed that their expert bus safety engineers would be able to persuade the ORR to approve their system as designed without modification, even when he warned them that might not happen; no worries just look what is approved in France! Because LBG officer Bob Chard was a consents and approvals man and not an engineer he was totally excluded from knowing what was going on, even though he was familiar with ORR consents from 10 years working on railway projects.

The next thing that went wrong was that the fixed opening date in 2000 became worryingly close. So LBG were asked to get full planning permission for the off highway 1.3km. of busway road, which had been designed for guided bendy busses by Steer Davis Gleeve and others. TfL were delighted to find that the promoters application prepared by LBG, took only 30 seconds at planning committee before being approved ahead of programme, so they pressed on and built it, also on time and on budget of about £3.2 m.

The next thing that went wrong was that public opinion and the GLA forced TfL to abandon the programme to roll out more bendy-busses in London. No more bendy busses could be purchased, but no worries the MT line 1 could open with rigid guided busses initially and upgrade later when the teething problems were solved; (but they never were).

The next thing which went wrong was public opinion. After months of publicity by TfL and LBG explaining the benefits of electronically guided bendy busses TfL was persuaded to undertake a very good survey of public opinion which then had to be made public. Without doubt 80% of the public in Greenwich and Woolwich wanted tramways and only 20% wanted busways; but no worries TfL knew what was best for them. On the other hand LBG could not ignore public opinion and stated their preference for the first full scale transit project to be a tramway. The outcome was the birth of the “intermediate mode” transit project, which might be either tram or bus (technology neutral), called Greenwich Waterfront Transit; which commenced initial design work even before MT1 was opened to allegedly prove the concept of electronically guided bendy busses was valid and value for money.

The next thing that went wrong was that the bus driver’s union raised concerns about operating guided busses round the tight turn at Charlton terminus; it was not safe for a bendy bus without guidance and guidance was not proven so they would not drive a rigid bus round the guidance loop there.

The serious problems came to the fore when TfL finally admitted defeat in their campaign to get ORR or grant approval for a guided bus; unsurprisingly TfL blamed ORR for all the subsequent problems:-

  • Without guidance the busses could not achieve the promised level boarding standards claimed for MT routes, but no worries TfL had a plan B
  • With only rigid single deck busses on MT route and no larger capacity bendy busses the total max line capacity of MT 1 was reduced; but no worries TfL would use some double deckers which would partly restore line capacity.
  • It also had to be admitted that docking at stops acceleration, deceleration and cornering performance could all be adversely affected without guidance making the line potentially less reliable;

But no immediate worries until demand had built up after several years.

The Millenium Transit line was opened on time by the Secretary of State. I was not invited but the press were there and the Minister made a speech congratulating TfL and LBG and optimistically stating that busways like Millenium Transit were the future for public transport in UK and many more would be built. He then pressed the button to operate the vehicle doors and the level boarding bridge (plan B) was supposed to shoot out of the bus as the doors opened, but it jammed. That was the last occasion when level boarding was ever attempted. The TfL project manager resigned to work elsewhere.

The original road surface was block work which TfL bus manager chose, ignoring advice from LBG Highways. Shortly after opening it was covered over with a more conventional flexible surface. The off highway road was claimed to be built to a high standard and so it may have been for bendy bus use, but fully loaded double deckers have higher axle loading and that combined with the unsuitable blockwork has contributed to a premature failure of the road. Unlike tram systems no long term forecasts of growth in passenger numbers were ever publicised, and I don’t believe they were ever even  considered because TfL never do that for bus services.

The last and worst thing to go wrong was part of the business case; the long term planned maintenance plan and budget for the off highway road. TfL busses who own that road did not do it and simply asked LBG adopt the road and maintain it for them. LBG agreed subject to their normal terms and conditions for adoptions; a sum equivalent to 25% of the road capital cost to be paid up front to the Highway Authority, LBG. It was only many years later that in response to a freedom of information question from Lewis Lesley that TfL admitted that the project cost had been £25 m.; but even in 2000 it was obvious MT LINE 1 was so over budget that London Transport Busses could not pay and never would be able to pay. Remember busways do cost as much as tramways when ALL the costs over a 30 year life are included.

After only 12 years of use the new off highway busway road was being fully used to full line capacity of 50 busses per hour, busses were over crowded, local residents complained about air pollution, bus priority at a major highway crossing could not be fully maintained without fewer larger capacity vehicles and ride quality was poor because the road surface was rutted and buckled and needed urgent maintenance. Nothing has changed in the most recent 6 years; except that I hear the road and the project is a write off after less than 20 years in use.

This is an ideal time to convert it to a tramway because more than enough right of Way land is already in use. The problem is that perversely and ignoring the benefits TfL are not even considering the tram option which LB Greenwich and local residents have been campaigning for years. They are I am told talking about a bigger and better dual carriageway road. If that is true it looks like a future battleground. It is suggested we contact Ryan Bunce. Manager Strategic Transportation at Royal Borough of Greenwich.

PS Liverpool got their Transport and Works Act Order for their busway but it was a complete waste of money without the promised vehicles.

Perhaps you might be able to interest the APPLRG in this interesting opportunity for a new tram system for London?

                                                Yours sincerely,

                                                                                Bob Chard

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *