Thursday 3rd February 2022
I’d been hearing encouraging news about the way the business and technology park known as Milton Park, near Didcot, is embracing public transport so took a ride out there one day last month to see what’s happening.
Situated two-and-a-half miles west of Didcot Parkway railway station, Milton Park is one of a number of technology and industrial parks around the country owned by MEPC plc. It opened in 2000 on land previously occupied by a Ministry of Defence depot.
Over 9,000 people are employed in 250 or so businesses including technology and pharmaceutical companies, distribution depots (DHL and UPS) and offices of the Vale of White Horse District Council.
Being a park specialising in technology you’d expect a fair sprinkling of techy type buzzwords to encourage you to use public transport and you won’t be disappointed. They’ve got something called “Mi-Link” bringing together different ways for employees to travel to the park including its “own bespoke journey planner platform”, a car pool community, a map showing cycle routes as well as its “own free ebike and bike hire scheme”.
Mi-Link’s website excitedly tells you it’s “the customer-facing name of the MultiCAV project which is being led by an experienced and diverse consortium which is to introduce autonomous vehicles to Milton Park in 2021 and improve the way people move around the park and the wider Didcot region”.
Something tells me that paragraph could usefully be updated as the consortium may well be experienced and diverse (it includes Innovate UK, First Group, Zipabout, Arrival, Oxfordshire County Council, South Oxfordshire District Council, Vale of White Horse District Council, Milton Park and University of West England) but unless I’ve missed something, it’s now 2022 and I didn’t notice any autonomous vehicles shuttling around the park, let along the wider Didcot region on my visit last month.
Perhaps the Milton Park website (as opposed to the Mi-Link one) is more realistic when it explains “as part of our Vision 2040, Milton Park is part of the Innovate UK consortium-led living lab project that is trialling autonomous vehicles in the area. The Mi-Link project will integrate autonomous vehicles including e-bikes, shuttles, buses and taxis with existing public transport so people can travel around more quickly and sustainably”.
As autonomous vehicles may be some time away (if ever?) it’s just as well there’s a decent bus service provided by Thames Travel, the bus company managed by Oxford Bus, to Milton Park. Credit also to Milton Park for its obvious support and huge commitment to buses, not only financially supporting the network of bus routes but also with branding, information provision and some very attractive subsidised ticket deals for commuters. These include an amazing price of just £20 for a whole year’s travel in a Didcot Travel Zone which includes Didcot Parkway railway station and Milton Park for employees either living in Didcot or arriving in the town by train.
It’s available through the Oxford Bus/Thames Travel website.
Helpful maps and links to bus timetables are available on the “Mi-Link” website.
As you can see from the above maps there’s a good selection of bus routes linking Milton Park not only with Didcot Parkway station but to towns further afield.
When you arrive at Didcot Parkway there’s a real time sign in the window of the ticket office showing upcoming departures not only for Milton Park but also for another techy type business park not too far away called Harwell Campus. More on that in due course.
Buses to and from Milton Park are operated under the Connector branding.
These provide links to and from Oxford city centre direct (every 20 minutes) on route X2, Oxford’s city centre and John Radcliffe Hospital, Harwell Campus and Wantage (half hourly) on route X32, Abingdon (half-hourly) and Wallingford (hourly) on route 33, and Wantage and Grove (half hourly) on route X36. As all these routes also serve Didcot Parkway, you can appreciate there’s a very frequent service in addition to the bespoke local circular routes 99/99A/99C running half hourly from Didcot Parkway.
In fact most hours after the morning peak there are nine buses an hour linking Didcot Parkway with Milton Park. That’s a pretty good frequency for a business and technology park isolated from anywhere else.
Also, impressively, these are well advertised with departure lists at the bus stops at Didcot Parkway as well as at each bus stop through Milton Park.
The Milton Park blue branding is applied to the bus shelters at Didcot Parkway as well as on road signs and buildings throughout the business park itself.
Thames Travel have also painted at least one double deck and a single deck in the branding.
There may be more, but others I saw carried Connector branding as well as standard Thames Travel branding …
… and former Oxford Bus livery, so it’s a bit of a branding potpourri.
During my train journey down from Paddington to Didcot I thought I’d give the “Mi-link bespoke journey planner” a try to see how convenient the bus connections were from the station to Milton Park. I went to the Mi-Link.uk website where you can easily find the “Plan you journey” tab.
“Our journey planner, delivering real-time travel information tailored to your individual journey and has been uniquely customised for Milton Park. Powered by Zipabout technology, the Mi-Link journey planner is a vital part of the project’s aim to encourage less individual car use by making it easy to plan and undertake sustainable journey options.”
With all due respect to the techy people at Zipabout the only trouble is, it was useless for my travel needs. My train arrived into Didcot at 11:11 but when you open up the “uniquely customised” Journey Planner you first of all have to complete the From and To fields from a list “powered by Google” so, for example, typing in Milton Park brings up Milton Park …. & Ride in Cambridge as the first option!
Hardly “uniquely customised”.
More unhelpful than that, it only allows you to enter a departure time slot every half hour – ie either 11:00 or 11:30.
The answer comes back with all sorts of symbols and indicators including cycling and driving options (I assume from the symbols) but quite frankly I didn’t understand what it all meant, not least the CO2 and ticks and with an X36 journey shown twice…
If you click on the right hand pointing arrow it does at least show further bus departures but only up to the X32 which leaves at 11:12 – not exactly convenient for my 11:11 train arrival. There’s no further right hand arrow to click to get more departures so my ideal departure at 11:25 on route 99A doesn’t appear as the next step is to enter the departure time again as 11:30 which would miss that departure as it left five minutes earlier.
These journey planners which show me how much CO2 I’m using (which, frankly, is meaningless to me as I have no idea how much CO2 is good and how much is bad) are all very well but I’d prefer them to tell me the bus departure I can get rather than the ones I’ll miss.
Anyway I duly caught the 11:25 route 99A which whisked me into Milton Park in no time at all; six minutes in fact. Sadly I was the only passenger on board.
Milton Park is laid out very nicely as a business park.
And even looked inviting on what was a cold, misty, grey January day.
The bus stops are well marked, if lacking a bit of consistency in typeface and logical presentation…
… and I do think they could have spent a bit more on making the bus shelters really stand out as great places to wait for a bus.
They’re a bit bog standard and uninviting. Not exactly “inspiring” despite what I assume is an instruction.
The one thing that struck me while I wandered around the park was just how quiet it all seemed. It was like a Sunday afternoon during lockdown. Mind you it was during the ‘work from home if you can’ edict which probably made a difference.
It was good to see buses pass by at frequent intervals but sad to see so few people on them.
After a good look around, I caught a bus on route 33 which had come from Abingdon and headed back to Didcot and on to Wallingford.
About four passengers got off at the Didcot Parkway with a couple staying on and three more joining us for the ride over to Wallingford. It was one of those classic higgledy piggledy Mercedes Citaro interior layouts with oddly placed luggage racks and seats pointing in all sorts of directions at all sorts of levels.
But it was good to see timetable leaflets available to pick up on board.
I finished off my South Oxfordshire busabout with a ride from Wallingford down to Reading on route X39 which together with its sister X40 link Oxford with Reading and have recently changed hands from Thames Travel to sister company Oxford Bus bringing the latter into Reading for the first time for many years.
Milton Park isn’t the only science and technology park in this part of South Oxfordshire. Six miles to the south west of Didcot is the already mentioned Harwell Campus. Wheras Milton Park is “a place where businesses, big and small, can innovate and thrive”, Harwell Campus is “the UK’s leading science and innovation campus”.
The northern part of the Campus was formerly the UK Atomic Energy Research Establishment created in 1946 on the site of RAF Harwell. This use is being gradually decommissioned and the whole site is expected to be cleared for alternative use by 2025.
6,000 employees work in over 200 organisations based on the site with 30 universities also working on site. “Harwell’s community of experts is pioneering advances in Energy, Space, Health and Quantum Computing” and it’s good to know, like Milton Park, many of them travel to and from work by bus. At least I can understand that concept if not what on earth must be going on inside the various buildings on the Campus.
Harwell Campus is at the end of a mile or so dog leg down Abingdon Road with buses carrying out a circuit of the site which adds about ten minutes to the journey time for through passengers, but it must be worth it as there’s a good selection of bus routes serving the site.
Thames Travel route ST1 (it stands for Science Transit Shuttle) provides a half hourly link from Oxford city centre and the Redbridge Park & Ride site via the A34 supplemented by route X32 providing the same link but via Didcot Parkway station and continuing on to Wantage.
There’s also route 98 providing a half hourly shuttle from Didcot Parkway Station.
Two other routes provide a peak hour link to Abingdon (34) and a less frequent link to nearby villages (94).
Thames Travel offer a 20% discount on its South Oxfordshire Zone products on the key smartcard to employees at Harwell Campus.
And like Milton Park, timetable displays at Didcot Parkway as well as bus stops on the Campus are clear and easy to understand.
It’s really good to see such excellent bus services to business parks and the commitment and support of the park owners. Milton Park’s high frequent bus link to Didcot Parkway coupled with a compelling fare offer has to be an exemplar for others to emulate. It shows what can be achieved with partnership working.
Who needs autonomous vehicles?
When the bus offer is so good.
Finally, here we are on the morning of Thursday 3rd February with TfL’s funding running out from tomorrow night and yet again no confirmation of future arrangements. Regional Mayors and aspiring Mayors-to-be take note. This is how devolved regulated “London style” transport works.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSU.
Next blog: Saturday 5th February 2022: Cardiff’s powerful electriCity buses.