GUIDED BUSWAYS – on the wrong track?

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 15 May 2008


British engineer, Arthur Henderson claims to have invented Kerb-Guided-Buses (KGB) in 1965, for services from Paddington to Heathrow. A guided-wheel hovercar system for Paddington to Heathrow was reported in Engineering in July 1964. Government’s 1967 Transport Study referred to guided buses.[1]


Basic principles of the system

Kerb Guided Buses have horizontal guide wheels on each side at the front, to steer buses - via arms attached to the steering knuckle - within 18cm high concrete ‘rails’. Gauges range up to 2.6m. Articulated buses also have centre guide wheels also. The gauge at entry to ‘rails’ is 1m wider, to ‘funnel’ vehicles in. Width is 0.8m more on radii under 400m.

A Paper to the Select Committee on Transport [2] stated:

·   Light Rail Transit (LRT) requires least space, busways most, guided busways are in between. LRT and busways are similar in cost, guided busways are generally slightly cheaper,

·   Buses can run at the same speeds, same capacity and pollution levels, as light rail, (which given diesel versus electric is questionable).

·   Light rail vehicles have a longer life than buses.

·   European light rail systems gained more passengers than buses. 20% transfer from car to light rail, whilst transfer to busways is lower.

·   Their survey of 1850 car drivers in four UK cities showed 47% preferred light rail and 36% guided bus.

Another Paper [3] mentions:

·   Light rail systems include vehicle costs whereas those of guided bus systems are funded by operators.


Worldwide developments


Essen built 5.9km in three segments, using 2.5m wide buses. When snow compacted under wheels, it could not be ploughed, but was removed by hand, causing disruption. Electric heating was later installed. When buses, dating from 1993, needed replacing in 2004, new buses were 2.6m. Replacement was deferred to 2009. A section including underground services was abandoned in 1994. Part was being converted to light rail.[4]

Mannheim opened an 800m system in 1992. Guided buses were withdrawn in 2005.


Adelaide’s system opened March 1986. At 11.8km, it is the world’s longest and has 33 bridges and a 60m tunnel. There are no breaks in the system for cross traffic. Maximum speed is 62.5mph. Buses have auxiliary front wheels to permit movement at slow speed with burst tyres; and a push bar to move disabled buses clear. Both cause delays. It averages 25,000 passengers daily, 4,500 in peaks. Some direct services proved unviable, so feeders were provided which do not guarantee connections. Off-system journeys and onboard ticketing cause late running. Rush hour buses are usually in convoys. Following rear end collisions, flashing lights were installed on buses to indicate they had stopped. A breakdown recovery vehicle was designed. Speed reductions were imposed to combat tyre scrubbing on curved sections [5]. “Its 113 buses are past their sell-by date. Replacements cannot be bought, as Daimler-Benz no longer sells the O-Bahn idea”[6]. Plans for extra busways were scrapped. There are no breaks in the guided rails, allowing higher speeds and only two intermediate stations, both off-track. This is totally unlike UK systems.

No other country has installed a system.


UK Schemes

In contrast to Adelaide, UK routes are in short sections. The longest is only 1.5km.

Birmingham opened its  600m length system in October 1984. Construction and maintenance was a highway authority responsibility. It closed September 1987, when another company won the contract and would not fit guide wheels. “Abandonment cost £100,000 in restoration”.[7]

Ipswich opened 200m in January 1995, using 2.4m buses. It had little scope for time gains. The Council reduced car speeds. Other improvements helped increase traffic. It had to be re-gauged to take wider buses. “Most were unimpressed - some language was unprintable. Some questioned the need for a 24-hour bus lane on roads congested for short periods in peaks, and the route does not have 24-hour services”.[8]

Leeds opened 3.5km, in stages from 1995 to 2001, funded by government.  It is in short sections on approaches to roundabouts.  Two companies bought new buses, but others on the same routes would not fit guide wheels. A free Park & Ride opened. Dr. Tebb, UK’s foremost promoter of guided systems, stated its ‘success’ was due to whole corridor enhancement. Buses run about 3km on ordinary roads from the central area before reaching the first of a series of short lengths of guided system [9]. The total cost was £14.5m. Maintenance is a highway authority responsibility. (I experienced savage braking and some rattling buses). Speeds are 30-40mph.

Bradford opened five sections totalling 2.3km, costing £12m in January 2002. On parallel roads, the speed limit was cut from 40 to 30 mph, creating an impression that buses can only compete if cars are made slower. Pedestrians climbed over fences alongside busways - serious accidents ensued. [10]

Edinburgh opened 1.5km in December 2004 - on a former rail­way, which needed widening to accommodate one of the bus lanes. There is now 2.2km. The cost to public authorities of this and 6km unguided route was £10m, 25% over forecast. Thirty special buses cost £4m. Maximum speed is 30mph. Road repairs were required twice in the first year. “Ever since it opened, it has been one disaster after an­other. It closed twice for repairs, following complaints of bumpy rides, once for a week, and once for ten days”[11]. “A guide wheel came off and struck a taxi. Bridges built to carry a busway over other roads have a maximum 30mph, which is just as well because the buses seem to ‘hunt’ more than on other systems”.[12]

Crawley began its system in 2002. Opened June 2006, it has 2.5km guided busway in short sections and 9km ordinary busway. Funded by a public/private partnership, it cost 30% over forecast. Bus company Go-Ahead withdrew its £3m commitment, which was picked up by government. Complaints included: “peak hour overcrowding, passengers left behind; road infrastructure destroyed; routes are not near houses which does not help the elderly; there are collision risks; closed roads should have re-opened to other traffic; buses are not environmentally friendly and carry less than a tram”[13]. “The system suffers from guide wheels snapping off as buses steer into the start of a guideway”[14]. Promoters claimed it was unique in building bus routes before houses. Runcorn’s 19km bus-only road preceded house building in the 1970s!

Claimed benefits of guided systems are invalid as all schemes involve off-system improvements and carparks, which implemented separately, may have a better return.

Transport expert, Professor Carmen Hass-Klau describes current guided bus operation and plans as “terrible, terrible, terrible systems”.[15]


Projected U.K. schemes

Leigh (Greater Manchester) proposed in 2000 to construct 7km on a disused railway, by 2012. The original £25.9m cost - including off-system improvements - rose to £44.7m. There will be breaks for five cross-roads, three vehicle tracks and six footpaths. Maximum speed will be 40mph. At ‘burst-throughs’, buses would cross without ‘funnels’, at 40mph. Two bridges are required. There will be seven bus stops.

Cambridge will – it is claimed - have the world’s longest system when completed in 2009. However, it will be in two separate sections of 20km and 5km (16km on closed railway and 3km on new roads), and the Council say there will be eight breaks in the guideway for cross roads etc, including three ‘burst-throughs’ of 3-4m for footpaths. The overall route includes two major off-system running (Huntingdon-St. Ives, about 4-5 miles, and through Cambridge). The cost has doubled from £65m to £116m (£92.5m government and £23.7m developers). Construction includes a new bridge, work on three bridges, new bus lanes, bus priority traffic signals, two Park & Ride schemes; and a bridleway for pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders. Benefits of all elements which could be provided independently should be discounted.

It warns: ‘as with any large construction project this programme is subject to change’. Of nine major tasks, Project Newsletters show seven already have later finish dates. Being too low for double-deck buses, a railway bridge was rebuilt, closing a road for six months. Utility diversion is involved.

Operators will pay maintenance - but not capital. The council claims peak passengers will wait less than ten minutes for buses, but does not say whether some will stand. Supporters claim light rail requires feeder buses. Many rail commuters walk to stations. The guideway on the closed railway will be no nearer to homes.

Objectors said “the Council would send men with shovels to clear snow; bus schedules require Formula 1 acceleration and braking; costly alterations had been overlooked, and a bridge supposed to require minor modification must be demolished”[16]. “This scheme is set to fail environmentally, as tailpipe pollution can only be less dirty and never clean”[17]. “Few locations justify using railways for guided-bus tracks. Cambridge is unworkable and will soon have to be removed”[18].

The Luton-Dunstable 15km system includes13km on disused railways. Government promised £78m in 2003, £4m was a ‘planning gain contribution’. The East of England’s Regional Fund Allocation promised support.[19]

Objectors say [20]: “it will not switch freight to rail in line with government targets. Half the cost is to be a loan to the council, repaid by local taxpayers for a scheme they don’t want. The council provided no evidence any operator will use it or pay track costs. Meetings supported rail with virtually no one supporting guided buses. Letters to newspapers show preference for rail. No proof has been advanced to show journeys will be shorter than on existing roads. Trade bodies favour light rail. Busway demand was overestimated.”

Expert Professor Carmen Hass-Klau said the catchment population for a light rail option was underestimated.  The County Council voted to halt the scheme.


Abandoned Schemes

Chester planned 3.2km costing £17m. It was abandoned after re-appraisal in 2002.

Bath abandoned a proposed system on consultant’s advice to consider rail based options.

Kent Thameside considered guided buses in the 1990s, but opted for a bus-only road, without guide rails.

Cleveland abandoned plans for guided buses.

Northampton was to have a system financed entirely by the private sector. It didn’t go ahead.

Oxford, Guildford, Bristol, Chatham, Dartford and Runcorn abandoned the idea.[21] A study by Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham was not progressed.[22]


Advantages attributed to guide systems:

A Consultants’ Report [23] sets out advantages only, including ‘improved ride’ (not borne out in Edinburgh and Leeds), ‘higher speed’ (30-40mph over short sections), ‘access for mobility impaired’ (available on other transport), ‘environmentally friendly’ (not demonstrated), ‘more flexible’ (not within guide rails), ‘grass may be sown between rails’, (needs weeding, feeding and mowing!).

Blocked to other traffic. (As are bus-only roads. Bus lanes are used off-peak by other vehicles).

The overall width of guided bus lanes is slightly narrower than lanes where buses are steered by drivers.


Disadvantages are

Cross roads require breaks in continuity.

At unsignalled roundabouts, buses exiting the system give way to traffic from the right.

Pedestrian lights for central busways, will delay other traffic, but some passengers may miss a bus.

If guide wheels break, or buses break down, following services are delayed.

The unit cost of a few UK tow trucks will be high.

When guided buses are unavailable, unmodified replacements may not serve all stops where busways are not along ordinary roads leaving passengers waiting at some bus-stops.

Delays will occur if trained drivers are unavailable, as it is a criminal offence to drive modified buses even on ordinary roads without special training.

During strikes, systems will be empty, whilst replacement cars congest roads.

Debris flying in from adjoining roads cannot be bypassed, and will cause delay.

Unless under-surface heating is installed, services will be suspended until snow is removed by hand.

Re-­surfacing busways, and repairing ‘rails’ requires diversions to ordinary roads.

If operators withdraw, there is no guarantee others will take over.

If operators are responsible for maintenance, and one pulls out, it is unlikely others will pay more.

Buses travelling beyond guided systems will be late on re-entry.


Conversion of UK railways to busways

The DfT advocates replacing rural trains by buses to cut subsidies. Bus companies running railways get 5-6 times BR’s subsidy.[24] Bus opera­tors will not pay all infrastructure costs, just as applies with bus shelters, bus lanes, red routes, raised pavements and lay-bys.

Railway level crossings for roads, farms and footpaths have narrow gaps for rail wheel flanges, which are not feasible for bus tyres. Bridges or breaks in the ‘rails’ are necessary.

Drainage is needed. Railway gradients up to 1 in 200 are commonplace, but during a debate on converting railways to roads, at the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1955, A.A. Osborne, Engineer with Wilson & Mason stated: “Gradients are a serious problem; less than 1 in 200 is inadequate for drainage on roads. A drainage system would be necessary”. In 2005, Cambridgeshire County Council wrote: “a closed railway being converted to a road required land to be purchased to provide verges and drains, whilst a bridge was replaced with deeper piling”. Their letter and drawings showed the new width was about 3.3 times that of the closed railway.[25]

“The general public report many services do not meet the standards they expect, and in too many places, patronage remains on a downward trend. Rural bus subsidy grant and Kickstart have provided support for new and improved services. Bus subsidy has risen to £1.8bn in 2005/6. This includes the Bus Subsidy Operators Grant, up 59% in real terms on 1997/8, and Subsidised Service Spending over 300% more”.[26]

Under original Enabling Acts, which gave compulsory purchase powers, current owners of land crossed by railways may still have legal powers to seek restoration, if it ceases to be used for its original purpose. Those concerned should research land and Parliamentary records and lodge objections and claims.

It is 24 years since UK’s first guided system opened. Only 6.7 miles exist, with 20 miles authorised – all funded by the public purse. In contrast, 24 years after opening the first railway, over 8,000 miles was in use, and another 4700 authorised for building – all by private capital. Guided buses will be a nine day wonder.


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[1] Transport Correspondent, Times 18.1.67

[2] Passenger Transport Executive Group, Annex 4. Select Committee 8th Report 2000.

[3] Institution of Highways & Transportation RT18.

[4] Christopher James Long, ‘Review of Translink scheme’, November 2005.

[5] Professor Graham Currie, Monash University (2006) “Bus Rapid Transport in Australasia”.

[6] September 2007

[7] Traffic Engineering & Control, November 1990.


[9] Michael Taplin, Tramways & Urban Transit, May 2001.

[10] Telegraph & Argus 22 March 2002, 22 April 2002.

[11] Evening News, 15 November 2005.



[14] CastIron Fact Sheet No 5 February 2004.

[15] LRT Fact sheet 124, July 2001. Does the guided bus really have a purpose in life?

[16] Cast.Iron Information sheet No 5, February 2004


[18] Arthur Henderson, inventor of KGB in e-mail copied to the author.

[19] Tramways & Urban Transport May 2007

[20] Luton Dunstable Translink Inspectors Report, 2005

[21] Select Committee 8th Report 2000, Paper RT 18.

[22] e-mail to author from local authorities.

[23] Read, Allport & Buchanan, The potential for guided busways, Traffic Engineering & Control, November 1990.

[24] E.A. Gibbins, Britains Railways - The Reality, page 183, Leisure Products, 2003.

[25] E.A. Gibbins, Railway Conversion - the impractical dream, page 188, Leisure Products, 2006.

[26] Jim Harkins, Tramways & Urban Transport May 2007


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