Bus extension pros and cons… but adapting is key

By Connor Steel

FOLLOWING nearly two years of development, it was all smiles as the Bus Rapid Transport extension was opened to the public on Sunday morning with the 0.6-mile stretch from Hutfield Link to Rowner Road Bridge fully complete.

Aimed at connecting Gosport to Fareham with faster and less congested journeys for public transport users, the question is how well does the £11.6 million  project fare and are there any issues that need addressing?

As detailed in the map attached, major changes have been made to Ellipse routes – particularly in the Holbrook and Rowner areas. The previously key junction of Hutfield Link has been closed, as have all bus stops on Forest Way, Brockhurst Gate and Tichborne Way; buses instead following the new extension between the ‘old’ Hutfield Link stop and Rowner Road bridge opposite Huhtamaki.

On the extension there are two stops each for travel to Gosport and Fareham, Oakdene – located south of Hutfield Link – and the Leisure Centre stop featuring just off Holbrook field. Both stops have steps and a walking path on either side providing easy access for all, while a clear view of the roads and stops makes it unlikely that drivers or public transport users will collide.

When on the bus the experience didn’t feel all that different; the buses, drivers and organisation haven’t changed at all. The only real change was the views out of the window, which featured a lot of wooden fences and trees instead of houses and oncoming traffic. Like any new road, it did feel odd to travel on the extension as a passenger, although it was certainly a smooth journey and the drivers did seem confident about using the additional stretch.

In the planning stages, and even on first view, it appears that the extension is too tight in width and looks like a one-way route. But in fact the opposite is true as witnessed in rush hour this morning; two buses can pass travelling with relative ease compared to other areas across the Ellipse network such as Leesland or the previous Forest Way route.

With this in mind, it appears the timetables have been tweaked to avoid that happening on too many occasions but it will undoubtedly occur in the event of issues such as a late-running bus. The creators have also put traffic lights around Rowner Road Bridge similar to those at Hutfield Link, to give equal priority to buses and vehicles on the roads. Another positive, although it will never be perfect and may need tweaks in future.

Is it quicker?

The new extension promised to make buses faster between Gosport and Fareham, as well as connecting different parts of the boroughs. And this point has been proven by a timing experiment carried out on Tuesday morning in rush-hour. Previously, the route from Fort Brockhurst to Fareham Train Station took just over 17 minutes. Using the extension, it took a quarter-of-an-hour.

The same applies from Hutfield Link to Gosport Bus Station, a journey that took 19 minutes using the E2 route before the extension was open to buses. Today, this route took 17 minutes and 23 seconds according to a fit-bit stopwatch.

But there are many factors to consider when calculating these times such as traffic, the number of stops and straight road instead of junctions throughout the extension.

Also, what about the congestion element behind this project? One observation made was the reduction of cyclists on the path running adjacent to the extension as they used the extension route instead, making it safer and comfortable to walk freely to Holbrook field from Hutfield Link. This is particularly useful given that the extension follows the same layout as the existing BRT with limited footpaths around.

But what about other vehicle users?

Developers will argue there are fewer hold-ups around Forest Way and the A32 including Brockhurst Gate. And while this may be correct, reports on social media have highlighted further congestion around Rowner Road Roundabout and Grange Road due to the new traffic lights in place at the bridge. Only time will tell if this irons itself out and can be put down to ‘early running issues’, or whether the extension has simply moved congestion to another main road.

There are some further issues for residents caused by this extension such as the closure of bus stops in Holbrook and Tichborne Way, with elderly and vulnerable residents – often carrying items such as shopping bags – having to walk further distances to use public transport. This is particularly challenging in these cold and wet winter months.

But developers can definitely help on the second issue for residents – signage. Although there are clear labels on the bus stops that signal ‘closure’ and ‘not in use’, there doesn’t seem to be any further information on how to find the new stops if not looking at the map. When walking between them, at least three people asked how to find the new stops, with no signposts or directions yet around the route.

With commuters and vehicles getting used to the new system, it has raised further questions such as what happens next to the Hutfield Link junction? It is currently shut with a barrier blocking access and this road has recently been re-surfaced. Will there be a third bus route that uses this junction or will it remain unused? One suggestion includes keeping the junction open for emergency service vehicles which need quicker access to the bus lane, although no plans for this junction have been confirmed.

Also, how are developers planning to improve the damage caused by the building work? For example, huge swathes of Holbrook Field are now waterlogged with no grass. It is not only unsightly but likely to worsen over the winter months before getting better. There is also some tidying up to do such as removing signs from now closed stops, which will reduce confusion for many residents.

Overall, there are both positive aspects of the new extension such as its consistent and professional appearance with the rest of the BRT, as well as slightly faster bus routes and the company’s desire to serve links between the two towns despite logistical concerns. But as mentioned above, there are some issues that need to be addressed over time as people get used to the new route and how it works – something that may prove to be the biggest challenge.

For nearly 10 years since opening, the bus services in Gosport and Fareham haven’t really changed, particularly for those that used the BRT from Hutfield Link to Redlands Lane. Therefore, passengers have got accustomed to using the same bus stop every morning or following the same walk to catch public transport while shoppers have become used to having access on the ‘doorsteps’ of Brockhurst Gate for example.

Drivers and pedestrians using Rowner Road will also need to make changes to their normal routes or routines as a result of this extension opening. Some will argue that the extension wasn’t needed and was a waste of money, but it is now functioning and too late to make any huge changes. Consequently, success will depend on how Gosport and Fareham residents adapt to it.

PICTURED ON BBC NEWS: All smiles as E2 uses new extension for first time on Sunday morning