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.
* 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.