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Oxfordshire’s back funding buses

Friday 11th September 2020

The last time Oxfordshire funded a bus service was July 2016. That month the County Council scrapped its circa £4 million annual bus subsidy budget abandoning 118 tendered bus contracts to the fate of the commercial market – and turned 34 years of deregulation on its head. Deregulation, you my recall, was meant to work the other way around with council’s rescuing routes abandoned by commercial bus operators.

It’s a credit to bus companies in Oxfordshire that 48 (40%} of these contracts were taken on by the commercial market in one form or another as well as community transport operators and funds made available from Section 106 planning obligations.

Oxfordshire’s four year bus funding famine has come to an end thanks to the DfT’s ‘Supported Bus Services Fund’ (SBSF).

SBSF is part of the Government’s £220 million ‘Better Deal for Bus Users” launched in that much welcomed bus funding optimism back in pre lockdown February. SBSF must be used “to improve the provision of local bus services by restoring lost services where most needed, improving current services and/or support new services or extensions”.

The DfT divvied up the £30 million SBSF among every local authority in England “based on past local authority supported bus mileage”. I’m not sure on that basis how Oxfordshire ended up with £588,403 seeing how their supported mileage had been zero, but presumably there was a catch all clause to ensure everyone got something.

The DfT stipulated a tight timescale to bid for the money with funding allocations announced on 8th February and a submission deadline for ‘statements of intent’ required by 13th March.

Before proposals were finalised the DfT stipulated public consultation as a requirement on local authorities and as you can imagine after four years of zero bus budgets in Oxfordshire the idea of restoring bus routes generated “a high level of interest amongst parish transport representatives, the general public and local transport operators” according to the County Council. Bus Users Oxford played an active role, making suggestions where the new money could best be used and I’m most grateful to the Group’s Hugh Jaeger for giving me much helpful background as well as Oxford Bus Company’s managing director Phil Southall.

In the event a submission was made to the DfT to spend nearly half the available funds (£253,400) to restore three lost bus routes with the balance supporting extensions to existing bus services – mainly evening and Sundays. Subsequently Oxfordshire turned down the option of redeploying some of the funding to help with Covid related bus needs and stuck with its original plans.

They include reintroducing the former route 63 between Southmoor and Oxford via several isolated villages now running five journeys every two hours; the reinstatement of some journeys on the former route X8 between Chipping Norton and Kingham station (only at peak times) and the reinstatement of a two hourly bus service (part of the old route T2, now using the number 45) between Abingdon, Berinsfield and Cowley.

The DfT approved Oxfordshire’s proposals and made the funds available for twelve months to run from September 2020 to August 2021 so I thought I’d take a trip over to Oxfordshire and see how the fledgling restored routes 45 and 63 are doing. It took two visits this week due to timetable constraints.*

I took a ride yesterday on the newly expanded Thames Travel operated route 45. Previously Thames Travel’s route T2 ran from Abingdon via Culham over to Cowley in the south east corner of Oxford and then into Oxford city centre every hour. This was chopped in the 2016 subsidy cull leaving another route (the 45) to provide a link between Abingdon and the nearby Culham Science Centre. Now thanks to SBSF the 45 has been expanded to provide an approximate two-hourly frequency between Abingdon, Culham and on to Cowley via Berinsfield.

In between journeys at Cowley the bus and driver now do a quick circular trip to nearby Rose Hill at 10:30, 12:30 and 14:30 as a route 20 – reintroducing part of a local route withdrawn by Stagecoach last summer.

It was good to see Thames Travel had updated the timetable display at the bus stop at Cowley’s Templar Square bus lay-by with details of the new 45 but a pity Oxfordshire County Council hadn’t updated the bus stop flags to include the new 20 and 45 numbers.

The bus arrived from its rounder on the 20 dropping off three passengers, which was encouraginfg to see, and after a short break we set off on time to Abingdon at 12:52 with two other passengers along with myself. One lady got off not too far into the journey at Littlemore and the other lady was just “trying out the new bus route” she told me as she’s seen it going past her house in Berinsfield.

Berinsfield is a residential estate with a small amount of ‘light industry’ just off the main A4074 Oxford to Reading road. It takes seven minutes to do a circuit ‘around the houses’ (literally) and get back to the A4074 and other than drop our inquisitive passenger off we didn’t pick anyone else up either there or anywhere else along the route. It’s only other service provision is from the community based operator ‘Going Forward Buses’ running once a week type services, otherwise the trunk routes to Oxford and Reading are on the main road. The 45 must be a welcome reintroduced bus service for residents following the demise of the T2.

Route 45 is a pleasant enough 43 minute journey, and a comfortable one too in the Mercedes Citaro, and when we arrived in Abingdon and drivers had changed over for the return trip to Cowley I noticed three passengers boarded who looked like they were heading for the Science Centre at Culham where the bus route has long been established.

Cowley is a bit of an odd final destination for a bus route from Abingdon. It’s not exactly a major draw. There are a few shops in Templar Square, but nothing like you’d find in Oxford’s city centre. However, there are plenty of buses operated by Oxford Bus and Stagecoach between Cowley and Oxford every few minutes so the old arrangement of route T2 continuing into Oxford was probably a bit of a waste. But there again, I’m not sure who the newly extended 45 is really aimed at.

My try out of the second restored route, the 63, necessitated a return visit to Oxford today.

Before its withdrawal in 2016 route 63 was also operated by Thames Travel but this latest 2020 reincarnation was won by Pulham & Sons (Coaches Ltd), a family owned coach company based in Bourton-on-the-Water in Gloucestershire. Pulham’s have been in business since 1880 so they know a thing or two about running coaches as well as rural and school bus routes. They’ve successfully expanded their portfolio in these latest tender awards from Oxfordshire County Council – also winning the 15 from Abingdon to Witney and the 19 in the Witney area from Stagecoach as well as their own X8 and X9 (more on these shortly).

The Monday to Friday only timetable on the reincarnated 63 is very similar to how it existed until 2016 and includes five return journeys between 07:30 and approximately 18:30 with a morning and afternoon journey timed and routed for school children attending Matthew Arnold School.

The 50 minute journey between Southmoor and Oxford sees a bus service restored to the villages of Hinton Waldrist, Longworth, Fyfield, Appleton and close to Eaton which all lie to the north off the A420 Oxford to Swindon road served by Stagecoach’s route S6 running every twentry minutes through Southmoor.

I took a ride on the 12:45 journey from Oxford to Southmoor this morning – ideal for returning morning shoppers. The good news is four passengers boarded with me; the not so good news is two of them alighted just before Cumnor which is served by city route 4 and Stagecoach S9.

Still that means two passengers are grateful for having their bus back and they made it clear they were telling both the driver and myself. They lived in the delightful village of Appleton – a 23 minute ride out of Oxford.

The following 27 minute journey to Southmoor after they’d alighted saw just me and the driver, as was the entire trip back at 13:45 from Southmoor to Oxford.

The 63 is a lovely ride though some beautiful Oxfordshire villages passing delightful residential properties that would be an estate agents’ dream to describe. Like the bus yesterday, it was also a very comfortable and smart bus to ride in too – and with wifi and usb sockets. The seats looked very smart.

But the thing is it’s going to take a lot of hard work to raise awareness a bus route is back and ensure details of the timetable are readily available.

Thanks to Hugh of Bus Users Oxford there was coverage in the Oxford Mail last week – which is what alerted me to the reintroductions – but so far no news or promotion from the County Council. It’s as if they’ve just gone through the motions of spending the money allocated by the DfT.

A slice of the £588,403 should have been allocated to effectively promote and publicise the reintroduced routes as well as updating bus stop flags and timetables along the route.

In Oxford city centre the 63 departs from stop E7 in New Road but you need a leap of faith waiting there – there’s not even a flag on the shelter to tell you it’s E7 let alone route numbers and no timetable on display either.

At the Southmoor terminus there are numbers on the flag – but not the 63 – and Pulhams have inserted one of their timetables in the case but it’s for the 15 to Witney they now run.

There’s no mention of the 63 at all.

I don’t know if Pulhams are on a fixed price contract and have an interest in generating revenue – if so I’d strongly recommend distributing the rather nice timetable leaflet available on their website far and wide along the route and work with the County Council to get bus stop flags sorted.

After the 45 and 63 I’d have also liked to sample the third restored route – the X8 running at peak times between Chipping Norton and Kingham station for commuters, but the timings don’t fit too well for a Sussex resident so I had to give this a miss.

Route X8 is also operated by Pulhams. Director Andrew Pulham commented back in May 2016, when the Oxfordshire County Council were withdrawing subsidies and referencing the full daytime timetable on the X8 (and X9) his company operated at that time “It is crucial these lifeline bus routes continue. We want to save these two services and are reaching out to the public now asking them to make good use …. of the revised timetables introduced on a commercial basis from July 2016”. Sadly the public didn’t respond to Andrew’s plea and the X8 was withdrawn the following year.

Now, thanks to SBSF the X8 is back, but in a very much slimmed down form with just three peak hour journeys connecting with trains at Kingham station. I hope it’s a success, but I have my doubts the few commuters around at the moment, having had no bus to take them to the station for the last three years, will be rushing back now. But I wish it good luck. It seems a shame the peak hour bus couldn’t have been utilised on some off peak journeys for shoppers too.

It’s somewhat uncharacteristic for a Tory Government to make funds available to reinstate long withdrawn rural bus routes. It’s not something Tory run Oxfordshire County Council can be used to either, having pretty much washed their hands of buses in 2016. It’s also a somewhat incongruous time with Covid still very much with us and no bus routes running on a commercial basis anywhere to be launching new rural routes.

If this funding isn’t to be wasted for the next twelve months and passengers attracted back to make the services survive beyond September 2021 some serious attention is needed to raise their profile and make people aware. Otherwise come 2021 Oxfordshire’s busless villages will surely be back to where they were in 2016.

Roger French

* Another reason it took two visits to try out the 45 and 63 was my naive error relying on a Google search for timetables for the 63 and X8 which brought up the pre July 2016 versions which are still easily accessible and I omitted to check the ‘small print’ of the date. I ended up waiting for a city centre departure which last ran in 2016. Lesson learned. (A lack of bus stop displays doesn’t help). For good measure the T2 is still available too. The mantra ‘it’s all online’ is unfortunately true – it is ALL online including what’s out of date.

BusAndTrainUser View All

I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.

17 thoughts on “Oxfordshire’s back funding buses Leave a comment

  1. That route 63 has been run by various companies and I think that Red Rose where the last before funding was withdrawn?I was also a good while back run by a company called RH Travel which went bust.i think that prior to that the route 66 had various variants which went into the villages instead of just stopping at the lane ends like it does now although it’s probably not the 66 now….S something I expect?there where a few infrequent routes from Farringdon to Wantage to also numbered in the 60s and I think run by Heyfordian?and one from Swindon to Wantage to via Uffington which was run by Thamesdown.during the summer a company called Regis ran a Ridgeway Explorer service all the way from Reading to Swindon via the villages under the Ridgeway.the services now to those places are virtually non existent and once again only motorists can visit clogging up the countryside with their ugly cars.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The 66 has been renumbered the s6 by Stagecoach and is now one of their gold services, and I think the only village it goes into it southmoor on its way between Oxford and faringdon. However, it is great to see an intercity route like this be every 20 mins. The 67 (a/b) are run by Thames travel taking various routes between Wantage and faringdon – I think this is hourly and has lots of variations through many villages, though there are still many more villages with no bus service at all.

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      • Testing my memory here but other Southmoor/Kingston Bagpusse which you might regard a 2 villages the other villages and hamlets who’s urban area the 66 actually touched as opposed to the lane ends where;Rockley Cumnor,Besselsleigh,Tubney,Fyfield,Watchfield and Shrivenham.

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  2. And now all the local versions of Traveline are to be abandoned (for me the most reliable source of information since the lack of printed timetables), so will be even more difficult to find what runs where. In the not-so-distant past, I recall many, if not most villages, had a “Transport representative”, a voluntary post procured or oversaw by the parish council. Surely, with half the population clearly having absolutely nothing better to do with themselves but sit in Costa Coffee shops, garden centres or driving to the post box, “Bus” Volunteers could be arranged to promote buses. It may have to be explained to some what a bus is, but once they get the hang of it their enthusiasm for this new-found pastime could be unlimited. As well as keeping the area bus stops clean, making sure CORRECT timetables are displayed, doing leaflet drops and generally promoting the service, they may even find they enjoy using it themselves. We find such enthusiasm within “Community Bus” schemes, so why not the real thing? County Councils need to prod Parish Councils and it could both save a fortune and our buses.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Transport Representatives do still exist in Oxfordshire and many other counties. I say this having served in Witney for almost 30 years and doing many of the things described. In Witney the community was large enough to take action to preserve its town service but small villages often had the will but not the means to take the necessary action.

      County Council’s do have responsibility for bus stops but will not object to volunteers maintaining stops as long as they are aware of what is happening. Bus operators should put their own timetables into bus stops of course and currently with many temporary timetables lots of information is out of date.

      I agree that every community would benefit from having a Transport Representative but it is a very time consuming role and does require a lot of commitment. That is probably why nobody else in Witney has ever come forward.

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    • Arriva changed most of their timetables round here a couple of weeks ago, but not just changed the timetables – they completely removed some routes, renumbered some routes, and rerouted others. Apart from the departure lists at the bus station (which don’t show timetables, just departures), none of the other bus stops around the town have been updated yet and so are still showing timetables for routes that don’t even exist any more .

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    • Although the Traveline South-East website closes from this Wednesday (23 Sep), I am reliably informed that the Traveline Midlands site at http://www.travelinemidlands.co.uk will continue, so all is not lost ! To the casual observer, the sites appear identical and provide timetables for the same parts of the country. Like you, I have found TSE to be the most reliable source of timetable info for some years, and what is more, it manages to both list routes in numerical order and combine related routes on the same table. These simple requirements seem to be totally beyond many people these days !
      How long Traveline Midlands will continue to provide a similar service, I don’t know, so we’d better make the most of it while it lasts !

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  3. Hi Roger

    Thank you for visiting Oxfordshire and taking the time to write such a comprehensive review. I would be willing to provide you with further information on this from the Council’s perspective should you wish; I am surprised that neither of your local correspondents gave you my details.

    Kind regards
    Dave Harrison
    Senior Public Transport Planner
    Oxfordshire County Council

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I refer to my comment to your article “From Tiger to Flyer”. Why can’t operators ‘watch and learn’ from Transdev Blazefield n how to launch a new bus service?

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  5. I thought it was April the 1st

    Is this the most complex Covid system a bus company has dreamt up ?

    The buses will be divided up into 5 zones. Best of luck with them enforcing that. I should imagine in practice it is totally unworkable

    Blue Year 7
    Green Year 8
    Yellow Year 9
    Orange Year 10
    Pink Year 11

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  6. Interesting comments from Mr. Miles, and I did suspect that some voluntary posts still existed, but Witney is a town and still expanding. My comments were aimed at the thousands of villages where the bus, if still exists, has a poor profile and service provision only known to the handful of people who totally rely on it. Huge numbers of people have (unfortunately perhaps) too much leisure time on their hands these days and could be used in a voluntary capacity to actively promote their local services, with leaflet drops etc, and indeed keeping information at a clean bus stop up to date. A struggling Operator doing a “bare bones” tender, and a County Council trying to keep costs down simply cannot afford to maintain infrastructure as well as perhaps might be expected, whatever the law may say. So I feel this is the moment to launch such a voluntary scheme nationwide, particularly if everyone who claims to be “concerned” about the environment really mean it.

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  7. Some interesting comments here, including that our blogmeister came across out of date timetables on the www. This seems to be all too prevalent recently . . . perhaps because the data is copied from the operator’s sites (with good intentions), but never removed (maybe the updater simply didn’t realise that the route had changed or been withdrawn. May I recommend BusTimes.org; I believe this site is updated using TransXChange files, which will become more widespread with the DfT “OpenData” program from January next year.

    Around 3 years ago I contacted Bus Users UK to offer to compile bus timetables for small towns for distribution in libraries and shops. The timetables would be very simple affairs on A4 folded sheets in black and white; they would serve to inform potential passengers, and could be printed cheaply, or even photocopied. They weren’t keen on doing anything like this, seeing their role as more agitating for improvements rather than actually supplying information.
    I’d still be happy to produce the publications (especially now I’ve retired!), but I don’t have anything like the local contacts that BU UK must have. Baby steps, yes, but routes like these MUST have as much promotion as possible . . . . bus stops and the www isn’t sufficient . . . door drops and prominent notices in libraries would reach many more potential passengers.

    I fear that these rural route initiatives will simply go the way of the rest . . . death by lack of knowledge about them. A great shame.

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    • Great idea Greenline. Working on such a project would interest me too. I guess my question would be though could it be monetised – I’m still part way through my career and the time it would take is considerable. I guess the answer is mostly no, though.

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      • I don’t see how it could be monetised, as the addition of any cost other than printing would make it impossible to fund.

        My original concept was that the initial compilation (and the layout of the timetables to allow for easy B&W printing) would take the time . . . after that, any updating would be relatively straightforward (as long as advice about timetable changes was received in good time).

        It’s the local distribution that’s the killer . . . without local interest and input, updating and distribution would fail, and keeping it updated is essential (as with any form of timetable, both paper; bus stop and www). Now more than ever, promotion of the bus is essential, otherwise the bus will gradually lose relevance.

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      • Many of these villages and hamlets have been blighted by Barratt boxes tagged on to the villages for car owners and the inhabitants of these Barrett boxes have no interest in the local public transportation as they don’t use it as they drive everywhere and the closet they’ll ever come to taking an interest in buses is possibly their childrens school bus and previously park and ride but due to coronavirus the park and ride set will be too scared to use it now.

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  8. Thanks Greenline, this is perhaps something which operators and / or local authorities may be prepared to outsource, at low cost (are LAs allowed to award ‘de minimis’ contracts to one supplier without an expensive tendering exercise?). The preparation and compilation is something that could be done remotely by the right person – someone who’s really persistent and consistent, and willing to maintain relationships with a myriad of local contacts, and hold them to their commitments to do the local distribution. But potentially very time consuming.

    This (deep penetration of local social networks) is something I’ve often wondered about. It’s no doubt something most commercial organisations and local authorities simply don’t have the time to do, but has potential to bear much fruit, both in promotion of local bus services but also feedback of useful demographic and demand data.

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