Thursday 9th September 2021
Buckinghamshire’s expansionist bus company Redline has upped the stakes in its competitive battle with Arriva by introducing of a new hourly route X20 between Aylesbury and Oxford. It challenges Arriva’s long standing three-bus-an hour Sapphire branded route 280 on the same route.
Redline are differentiating their interloper by offering a quicker 72-75 minute end to end journey time with the route bypassing both Wheatley and Haddenham which Arriva’s 280 serves and consequently takes a longer 87-93 minutes. One journey out of the three each hour on the 280 also takes in more of Thame on its route.
A journey time saving of around 20% is an attractive proposition provided there are enough end to end passengers to compensate for the loss of business from the bypassed communities.
Redline’s hourly frequency also needs more careful planning when making a journey than a 20 minute one offers and it’s debatable whether the quicker journey makes up for that too.
But as we know, Arriva is vulnerable at the moment with continued uncertainty about its future ownership, a freeze on investment and an unwieldy management structure. And Redline obviously mean business, introducing this latest challenge while competition on the Aylesbury to High Wycombe corridor I reported on in April is still in full swing.
Redline’s route X20 began last Thursday coinciding with revised schedules for the new school term and I took a ride yesterday to see how it’s first few days are going.
There’s an introductory offer of a £1 single fare to tempt business but I didn’t see many passengers taking advantage and it seemed to be having little impact.
I began my travels at the Oxford end of the route where the bus lays over in Westgate for its eight minutes stand time in between journeys. Westgate is handy for the new adjacent shopping centre and the Queen Street shops, but it’s a bit of a walk to the station.
Arriva’s 280 terminates a bit more conveniently for modal integrating passengers right outside Oxford’s railway station before continuing via Westgate and High Street towards Magdalene Bridge.
I suspect stand space outside the railway station is strictly rationed under the city’s formal partnership working arrangements as when I arrived in Westgate and it was time for the parked up X20 on the inbound stop to depart at 11:53, the driver set off towards the station to turn round using the adjacent roundabout at Frideswide Square reappearing six minutes later at the Westgate departure stop at 11:59 for a late set off.
Despite Oxford’s long standing practice of keeping cars out of the city centre we made slow progress through the city centre not reaching Magdalene Bridge until 12:13; 14 minutes for the first mile; mainly due to catching two red phases at the Longwall Street traffic lights by Magdelan College which had a lengthy 2 minutes 15 seconds on red each time. So much for bus priority.
We’d picked up one passenger in the High Street who travelled to Thame where another boarded and travelled to Aylesbury. That was it for the journey other than two concessionary passholders who made a short local journey in Headington as we headed out of Oxford.
Our driver made a valiant attempt to claw back the delays in Oxford and we passed the Thornhill Park & Ride site at 12:24, seven minutes down, the M40 service area at 12:30, 4 minutes down and arrived and left Thame at 12:43, three minutes down.
It looked good for the second half of the journey until we hit a queue at 3 way temporary lights at Scotsgrove by the road to Haddenham which delayed us for about six minutes. Thankfully the works seemed to be completing just as we got through.
More swift driving saw us arriving into Aylesbury’s dingy bus station at 13:09,only four minutes late, with an actual end to end journey of just 70 minutes of which at least ten had been spent in unnecessary queues.
This indicates even the 72 minute running time is quite generous.
I caught the same bus back from Aylesbury towards Oxford after its scheduled 25 minutes stand time.
One passenger boarded with me who seemed to know about the £1 offer and was trying the service out and we picked up another passenger at the first stop after the bus station who travelled to Thame. One passenger boarded in Thame as I alighted as I thought I’d check out how Arriva were doing on the 280 by comparison.
I’d noticed Arriva’s buses passing by in the opposite direction with mainly high single digit numbers on board and observed the 13:20 departure leave Aylesbury bus station with 11 on board.
I caught this bus when it arrived in Thame at 13:57 and four or five got off with half a dozen remaining on board and one other boarding with me. It had taken the bus 37 minutes to reach Thame (serving Haddenham) whereas the X20 (bypassing Haddenham) had actually done it in 20 minutes with the schedule allowing 27 minutes.
From Thame to Oxford the 280 is given 47 minutes which includes continuing to the station as well as serving Wheatley but the X20 has a generous 48 minutes. It doesn’t need it.
As well as picking up a few passengers along the route served by both the 280 and X20 (which was pertinent as we weren’t far behind the X20) we also dropped one passenger off and picked four up in Wheatley, which although sounds small is a useful percentage of those travelling at the western end of the route.
Passengers alighted in Headington and the city centre and I was the only one to go to the station.
I’m not convinced missing out Wheatley and Haddenham is the right strategy but admire Redline for trying something different. They’ve invested in three smart Enviro200 MMC buses which have received X20 route branding and offer very comfortable seats snd a lovely ride.
Characteristically Arriva were running a hotchpotch of vehicles – double deckers and single deckers in a variety of liveries and branding and former branding.
They had two buses in Derby Sapphire route 38 branding on the 280 on Monday, and I spotted one out today too.
The seats on the Mercedes Citaro I travelled on were the hardest and most uncomfortable I’ve endured for a long time.
This is not a good look when you’re facing competition.
I was also confused by timetables for route 280 displayed at the western end of the route which looked out of date, although I saw times had changed from 29th August, so it may be they’ve just not been updated, but again this isn’t a good look when you’re facing competition.
Oxfordshire also hadn’t updated bus stop plate displays to include reference to the X20.
At the eastern end, Buckinghamshire impressively had updated displays including details of the new X20 timetable in the comprehensive display in Aylesbury bus station as well as on the electronic screens.
Which was good to see.
Redline’s challenge is going to be raising awareness of their new ‘fast’ alternative travel option. I spotted one of the passengers I’d seen board the 13:20 280 at Aylesbury alight in Oxford at 14:45. She was the only one still on board from Aylesbury when I got on in Thame indicating not much end to end traffic. And she could have left Aylesbury ten minutes later on the X20, arrived in Oxford sooner and only paid a £1, but only if she knew.
But Redline know about the challenge of competing from their High Wycombe experience and if they follow a similar policy here, the next step could be a frequency increase to half hourly; but that would be a big commitment of another three buses (although possibly two with tightening up the slack running time), so seems unlikely for the foreseeable future.
In the meantime whether the gamble of a quicker journey serving a reduced catchment area at a lower frequency pays off is going to be interesting to see.
After all, millions are being spent on developing East-West Rail for this corridor, so Redline may be on to something, especially as Aylesbury is reportedly being missed off the new line with the longed for spur to Milton Keynes on hold, and there’s a clamour for a fast Aylesbury to Oxford link.
Redline’s £1 introductory offer lasts until this Saturday if you fancy a bargain ride on a comfortable bus through the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire countryside.
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.