First And Last Mile in Oxfordshire

Saturday 21st May 2022

There’s been talk about how to solve the ‘first and last mile’ conundrum in transport circles for ages. Pre Covid, whole conferences were even devoted to pontificating on the best ways passengers could ‘transit’ from their rural/suburban based homes to reach trunk bus routes or railway lines for longer commutes and similarly ‘seamlessly’ reach their ultimate destination at the other end of their journey.

First Bus had a go at linking parts of suburban Bristol using taxis branded as MyFirstMile to connect with nearby frequent trunk routes in 2018, but it didn’t work out as a viable proposition.

In recent times DRT protagonists have been claiming their fancy algorithms are the solution for this long standing problem by integrating such services into main bus networks.

But never mind such pontifications and optimistic algorithmic claims, in rural west Oxfordshire a group of passionate volunteers got together last year to set up a new not-for-profit bus company to actually deliver a first and last mile bus service called First And Last Mile. It’s now completing its fifth month of operation so I thought it was high time I paid a visit to check it out.

Originally planned for introduction last autumn, delays caused by tortuous bureaucratic legal hurdles meant the company’s two routes numbered 411 and 418 finally hit the road at the beginning of January this year. This was happily just in time for the new school term as an important market for the operation is fare paying scholars attending Bartholomew School in Eynsham from surrounding villages isolated from the bus network when traditional routes have been cut.

Three directors, Andy, Mike and Emily, set up the organisation as a CIC and began recruiting volunteers to help realise their vision of restoring those lost bus routes for local residents. Crucially they were able to persuade Oxfordshire County Council to allocate some Section 106 funding from two locally based residential developments to kick start the operation for a two year period.

Two 16 seater minibuses are used – one a former Arriva Click Mercedes Sprinter and the other a Ford Transit; the latter is used to duplicate the former on peak hour school journeys to and from the school in Eynsham.

The Mercedes Sprinter in its previous incarnation with Arriva Click in Sittingbourne

In the off peak the Mercedes provides three/four journeys on the two linked routes. Route 411 connects the villages of Church Hanborough, Long Hanborough and Freeland as well as Hanborough railway station with Eynsham while route 418 continues south from Eynsham to connect Sutton, Stanton Harcourt, Northmoor, Brighthampton and Standlake.

I arrived at Hanborough (the next station after Oxford) on a Hereford bound GWR train at 12:54 yesterday lunchtime for my visit which gave a convenient connection with the 13:10 departure on route 411.

Recent volunteer driver recruit Mark was at the wheel together with company director David on board making sure Mark was confident in his new role as well as a grateful passenger heading home to the isolated caravan park in Bablock Hythe.

David has been the Witney Parish Transport Representative for 30 years and has a wide knowledge of the local bus scene and passenger needs..

David explained the name First And Last Mile was chosen to reflect the connections available for village residents to both GWR’s trains at Hanborough and Stagecoach’s 15 minute frequency route S1/S2 at Eynsham between Oxford, Witney and Carterton and its associated H2 route.

Connecting in Eynsham

He said Stagecoach had been particularly pleased to see the operation begin as it brings passengers closer to their route S1/S2 while it’s hoped GWR will pursue its promise to include details of the route at Hanborough station including displaying departures on the dot matrix sign on the platform.

Route numbers 411 and 418 were chosen for the services as David well recalls the era when all bus routes in this part of Oxfordshire were numbered in the 400 series. In more recent times Stagecoach withdrew its route 11 in 2019 and route 18 in 2016 which routes 411 and 418 have partly replaced.

He also explained the logos being used by the company were designed by local school children highlighting the close community links of the operation.

We arrived into Eynsham at 13:29 and seamlessly changed into a route 418 with another passenger boarding who travelled to Stanton Harcourt and who was obviously also pleased to have this facility.

The route taken via Northmoor is quite narrow in places and takes in some very attractive thatched cottages which were an absolute delight to spot as we passed along the road. It was hard to believe, as David reminded me, that the road was once served by double deck buses.

The First And Last Mile team have had to contend with a number of challenges since their January start including the impact of Covid’s Omicron variant and issues with vehicle reliability as well as recruiting sufficient volunteers but it’s encouraging to hear passenger numbers are slowly growing with around 50 using the routes each day, 30 of whom are school children.

The interior of the Mercedes has had a makeover since its Arriva Click days in Sittingbourne. It’s still kitted out with a rear tail-lift for wheelchairs but there are now 16 brightly coloured seats with just about enough leg room.

We continued around the 418 circuit and soon picked up Amanda as we passed through Standlake who is another volunteer driver and was heading to the depot in Blackditch where she was picking up the Ford Transit for the afternoon school run.

The depot is used by Heyfordian who are happy to allow the company to park their two minibuses in what is a very secure yard.

On arrival at the depot Amanda and David left us to take the second bus while Bob swapped the driving seat with newly arrived Tim who was starting his shift. He’s one of the few paid drivers with the company and has driving experience with West Oxfordshire Community Bus too.

As well as driving stints Amanda also produces timetables, maps, other publicity and information for the operation and it was noteworthy all bus stops I saw had timetables on display as well as maps in some locations.

Tim dropped me off in Eynsham as his next journey was the school run and I headed back to Oxford on the next Stagecoach route S1 which arrived in about ten minutes.

I came away very impressed with what First And Last Mile have achieved in a very short time. Their website contains all the information you need including easy to find timetables and maps as well as a live tracking facility.

Live tracking on the website

As soon as I boarded the bus at Hanborough station I was given a warm welcome and offered timetable leaflets for the services.

These leaflets come with a route map as well as a timetable and information about fares – £3 single and £5 return with £2 single and £3 return for children and a 12 trip ticket for £25. Concessionary passes are valid after 09:00 and scholars can buy season tickets. The timetable runs Mondays to Fridays with no service at weekends and on public holidays.

The map showing both routes

Here’s a map showing Eynsham in relation to Oxford and Witney with route 411 serving the sparse rural area to the north and route 418 the sparse rural area to the south.

It’s great to see such passionate people determined to provide a bus service for isolated rural villages and it’s all the more impressive in an era of DfT and local authority obsession with funding tech based DRT schemes that this is happening with the minimum of funding support (through section 106) and maximum passion, dedication and effort.

I wish the team every success. They truly deserve it.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu. YES, for now, Su blogs are back again, so the next blog will land tomorrow …. and it’s about women working in the bus industry.

8 thoughts on “First And Last Mile in Oxfordshire

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  1. So Stagecoach are particularly pleased at this operation? – I bet they are, with extra customers for their existing services without them lifting a finger or contributing any money (please, someone correct me if that’s wrong) to help this volunteer project. I remember this kind of attitude being called ‘intelligent externalisation of costs’ (e.g. parking buses overnight in laybys, to save on proper outstations). Perhaps, if the project is as successful as it deserves to be, Stagecoach (and GWR for that matter) might condescend to pay for the evening/weekend services which cannot be provided by volunteers.

    You mention that MyFirstMile in Bristol ‘didn’t work out as a viable option’. Did that take into account extra revenue generated on other routes? – or only the money taken for ‘MyFirstMile’ journeys? I suspect the latter. Ever since Beeching, financial reviews of public transport have tended to neglect network aspects, maybe because the service providers do not want to commit themselves to anything so awkward as proper connections between routes or modes. It would be really interesting if there could be made available the details of how bus company finances are really looked at. The only thing I’ve ever read about it is that the ‘big five’ require every single route to make a minimum 14% contribution to overheads/profits. Again, please correct me, someone, if this is wrong, or no longer true.

    In a previous blog, you mentioned a drive in increase bus passengers/revenue by 10%. It strikes me that this could be achieved ‘at-a-stroke’ by proper integration of services, especially bus-rail, which could easily make 10% more journeys actually practicable (at times when people could and want to make them) – at the main cost of perhaps 1% of management time spent talking to one another, and – perhaps more difficult – a change in outlook. (I speak from the slightly embittered viewpoint of someone who has, for many years, wanted to use public transport much more, but has been unable to, mostly due to lack of co-ordination and lack of evening/week-end services).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The DRT Conundrum

      Various attempts have been made to operate DRT’s services as a potential replacement for fixed route buses. The failure rate of these service is very high. Typically, around 70% fail. Almost none operate profitably or even at break even
      The is a confusing and bewildering number of variations all tending to be called DRT or Dial a Ride
      Some use an app some are phone only. Some are demand responsive some are not and some operate to a fixed route, Some are targeted at the elderly and disabled only. Some except concessionary passes some do not
      Each of these services tend to be operated by a different operator and use different types of vehicles and have different branding. Each operates its own call centres and each if it has one has its own app
      The Marketing of these services tends to be poor. If you went into a town where these services operate and asked a 100 people if they new about the service you would be lucky to find 2 people that had
      These services tend to operate in rural areas. In rural areas most people will have a car simply because there is no public transport to speak of. Another issue is DRT services have an image problem. They are seen as a form of transport for the elderly and disabled only
      Having DRT services operate into a Hub whilst it seems attractive is unlikely to work. It means if you pay a fare you are paying twice and the journey will be slower and you risk it not connecting. It at least needs integrated ticketing

      DRT in my view is best marketed as a shared taxi type service. Within an LTA area it should use common vehicle types and common branding. This also keeps costs down and will make maintenance easier
      If seen more as a shared flexible bus service smaller vehicle could be used. One would be to consider with that though that a lot of the passengers will be elderly so ease of access would need to be taken into account
      Within an LTA area they should also have a common call centre. This also keeps cost down
      It is critical as well that the image of DRT is changed. To succeed it needs to attract a wider number of people. At present various reports suggest 75% of users are concessionary pass holders. To widen the customer base, it is essential that they have an app and that they are demand responsive

      Taxis typical charge about £2 to get in a taxi and go a couple of hundred yard and then about £2 a mile

      The fare for these DRT type flexible taxi services would need to be pitched lower than a taxi fare but higher than a bus fare. This would help stop people using the service when they could use a normal bus
      Some that use a phone system try to filter this out when a passenger’s call. This though takes time and is not customer friendly and will put people off of using the service
      Another thing that might help is if the Concessionary fare scheme was changed to allow them to accept the Passes and get the pass reimbursement and charge a small fare
      Run on the basis above breakeven point will probably be in the region of £20 to £30 an hour. They might be able to integrate as school taxi run into it as well


    2. This could be of use to DRT services provided it is a sensible price

      No idea how they can tell when passengers are getting of the bus

      Optibus has launched Ridership Insights, which it says will enable the visualisation and analysis of patronage data directly on a map during network planning. The tool will allow planners to view ridership KPIs on a route, segment or stop level with boarding and alighting data for each stop, or filter by time and date range.

      That data will bring insight into how a network is performing and result in the delivery of services that are optimised to meet passengers needs


  2. Speaking of Bablock Hythe and public transport,there was a cross Thames ferry there across to the bridleway leading to Cumnor and some reports suggest that the pub at Bablock Hythe still run it upon request.This isn’t Oxfordshire’s first dabbling in these on demand buses as Chilton ran Bicester Taxi Buses circa about 2000 onwards.They ran to the villages around Bicester.Considering that Chilton only seem interested in parkways it seemed a strange thing to do but it failed anyhow.At the opposite end of England coming back from the hospital in Newcastle in an ambulance to Teeside two days in a row we’ve passed the Tees Valley Flex on the A19,a green sign motorways through stealth road, and it’s always empty apart from the driver!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is an inspiring story and hopefully will continue once the S106 and novelty run out.
      Stagecoach could support it by deducting the local first mile fare from their fare, although I don’t know how this would work the other way.

      It sounds like the people behind this know what they are doing, so fingers crossed. Unsure if having public transport provided on a voluntary basis is a widespread solution though.


  3. I can confirm that Stagecoach do not provide any funding to First and Last Mile for these services. As a Community Transport operator one of the many bureaucratic obstacles faced is that commercial organisations cannot legally give funding unless it is from their charitable foundation.

    Stagecoach are interested in finding ways to offer through ticketing but again this faces legal obstacles because Community Transport is not permitted to make a profit or to financially benefit commercial operators.

    The old ferry at Bablock Hythe no longer operates I am afraid although there are those wanting to restore it.

    What First and Last Mile are doing can be done across the country if there are volunteers dedicated to restoring their lost bus services. It is not easy and very time consuming and we have been fortunate to have been supported by Oxfordshire County Council but it is possible. It is a cheaper model than Demand Response to operate but there is still a considerable financial burden to sustain these services.


  4. I have never understood the logic of a Pre book fixed route bus service. It just adds to costs as you have have someone take the bookings and do the admin. It also mean they are probably turning business away. The only possible saving seems to be fuel as if no one books presumably it does not run


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