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Rise and fall of Greenwich Millennium Busway

Segregated busways – roads where a physical barrier separates buses from all other traffic – can be found in many parts of the world. In some places buses are guided automatically so they always follow a set path ensuring they line up accurately with the kerb at stops. In London, the 1.8 km Millennium Busway, through Millennium Village, had been designed and built just in time for the opening of North Greenwich station and the yearlong Millennium Exhibition at the Dome (now the O2). The location of that station, at the tip of the Greenwich Peninsula, had been fixed by the Jubilee line extension alignment. LT/TfL recognised that many potential users would live/work well beyond the station’s walk-in catchment area and the bus network was developed accordingly.

One objective of the Dome Transport Strategy was for any new infrastructure to have legacy wherever possible. So, the planned 16 km ‘Intermediate Mode’ Greenwich Waterfront Transit (GWT) specification was applied to the Millennium Busway, planned to be GWT’s first phase and running along the spine of the Greenwich Peninsula.

That specification included: high priority, segregation, electronic guidance, and tram-style bus stops for step-free, gap-free boarding/alighting and minimum dwells, all to provide shorter, more reliable journey times. The geometry allowed for the operation of trams (and/or trolleybuses) at some future date.

Kerb guidance was roundly rejected because it is incompatible with pedestrian areas, cannot handle tight curves, cannot pass unequipped buses or maintenance vehicles, so it requires a maintenance road adjacent and parallel to the guideway (at extra cost and width, unless a suitable road happens to be there) and has serious mechanical disadvantages.

For the duration of the millennium year, high quality bus route M1 was planned to connect North Greenwich bus station with Charlton station via the Millennium Busway. Each M1 vehicle was fitted with an aerial on the front bumper which would guide the steering system to follow twin cables buried under the busway while the driver controlled the accelerator and brakes. Beyond the busway, the buses were to be driven normally.

The electronic guidance system was supposedly proven technology, used by the safety-critical Service Tunnel Transport System in the Channel Tunnel. However, it was problematic under extensive testing (required by Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate) in open air conditions and never went into public service. That delayed M1 buses being driven conventionally along the Millennium Busway for some months, so they used parallel roads. Other electronic guidance systems in other countries have since achieved the Holy Grail of combining many advantages of trams with the much more route flexibility and much lower cost of buses.

The plan had been to withdraw route M1 after millennium year, but it proved popular enough to be made permanent (as route 486) and extended far beyond Charlton station.

While segregation avoids many of the disadvantages of bus lanes (for example, the burden of enforcement and parked cars preventing bus doors being brought close enough to the kerb) pedestrians and motorists confused by the unusual road layout were deemed to have caused road traffic accidents and, after about 17 years of operation, the section of Millennium Busway adjacent to West Parkside Road was downgraded to a conventional dual carriageway with bus lanes. Between West Parkside Road and Peartree Way, segregation remains and the bus stops at Millennium Leisure Park are closer to the superstore doors than most car park spaces.

Nowadays, no fewer than eight bus routes work the busway’s whole length, including two 24-hour routes. One of the latter (108) continues through the Blackwall Tunnel; the other (472) follows a route like that planned for GWT between North Greenwich and Abbey Wood.

All the tram and transit schemes developed by TfL (including GWT) were cancelled by Boris Johnson when Mayor of London.

Neil Roth

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