Cambridge might need light rail after all, says county council leader
Buses alone will not solve Cambridge’s public transport problems in the future and alternatives will need to be explored, a council leader has said.
Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, the Liberal Democrat leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, acknowledged that light rail, trams and other new technologies including autonomous vehicles should be explored “for climate change reasons”.
She spoke in the week that the Greater Cambridge Partnership agreed to go ahead with a consultation over its highly controversial plans to expand and improve the area’s bus network by imposing a £5 road user charge on motorists driving in Cambridge.
Cllr Nethsingha told the Cambridge Independent that there is a need for the transport system to move to a “much more electrified system”.
“And that is likely to mean that we need to think about what type of vehicles we’re using and how they are powered,” she said.
“I wonder whether in the long term we’re going to need to think about how we power vehicles going out along our bus routes in different ways.
“Battery technology is improving all the time, but the size of the battery that you would need to run a bus for 30 miles is a lot and there may be other ways of doing that.”
Earlier in the month, Cllr Nethsingha hit out at former Conservative mayor James Palmer for having “wasted time on unaffordable things for four years” and said that was why public transport needed urgent improvement now.
“For that we need buses, then we need other stuff as well,” she noted.
Cllr Nethsingha’s comments will come as welcome news for Cambridge Connect, which has created a vision for light rail in the city.
The group says a light rail network would have the capacity and attractiveness to deliver the transformative change needed.
The comments may also provoke questions among those who believe a road user charge is not the answer. Nearly 20,000 people have signed petitions against the idea.
Cllr Nethsingha, who says she has concerns over the hours of operation of the charge currently suggested to be between 7am and 7pm, noted that any future transport options would likely be beyond the life of the City Deal, which the GCP delivers.
The Labour mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Dr Nik Johnson, scrapped Mr Palmer’s £2bn Cambridge Autonomous Metro (CAM) proposals – a promise he made to voters during his successful election campaign.
Dr Johnson has not ruled out looking beyond buses in the future, with the consultation on his Local Transport and Connectivity Plan including the prospect of rapid mass transit schemes, encouragement for cycling and walking, the expansion of e-bikes and the possibility that light rail or very light rail could be introduced in “geographically appropriate” areas.
Should other technologies be explored beyond the life of the GCP, then it would be the responsibility of the Combined Authority to do that work.
Cllr Nethsingha said when referring to the GCP’s successful trials of autonomous vehicles on the University of Cambridge’s West Cambridge site throughout June last year: “I think there’s also space to look at how we use those and I think there will be different types of vehicles needed for different places and different speeds.
“The size of vehicle and the speed that it’s going for a bus getting up from Cambridge to St Ives on the guided busway is quite different from the size and speed of the vehicle that you’d want for a kind of inner city hopper type thing that people can jump on and off.
“I think we just need to think that in the end, the whole concept of a bus is likely to change and morph because the way in which they are powered changes. These divisions that we have between light rail and tram – I think it’s all going to get blurred by changes to the way in which vehicles are powered.”
On the GCP’s consultation, Cllr Nethsingha said: “I’m pleased that they’re moving forward with the consultation. I think it’s been a long time when very little has changed in public transport and it’s been a long time when public transport has been getting worse and worse.
“The recent Stagecoach cuts make it clear firstly, how many people depend on our bus network to get to school and to work and how very fragile that actually it is. It is still getting worse.”