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Oxfordshire’s Business Community take note

As operator of a comprehensive network of services in the city, in addition to express coach services to Heathrow and Gatwick airports, Oxford Bus Company’s role in keeping the people of Oxford moving for nearly 140 years can easily be underestimated. B4 met with Managing Director, Phil Southall, to discover that business specific services are becoming an increasingly established element of the company’s impressive portfolio, but they need more support.

In addition to the city and airport services, readers will be familiar with the BROOKESbus service which Oxford Bus Company (OBC) operates in partnership with Oxford Brookes University, not to mention the popular park&ride service which connects five car parks to the city centre. But less is known of four services which are designed to support Oxfordshire’s business community, as Phil explains.

“We are really keen to promote our services which support business and highlight how the business community can engage. There are four key solutions as follows: a new Airline service which can cater for business groups; the business support services that our sister company, City Sightseeing, can provide; the science transit shuttle from Oxford to Harwell; and finally, the Pick Me Up service which really needs the support of business to help it continue to operate..

Airline – Heathrow and Gatwick Airport services

“We have just invested £3.3 million in eleven new state of the art coaches. We’re providing a prestigious and luxurious service with all the creature comforts on like Sat Nav (which tells you how long it’s going to take you to get to the airport); luxury seating where you can actually pull your seat out if you want a bit of space between you and the person next to you; we’ve got standard services like Wi-Fi, USB ports for device charging and we’ve also put tables in for customers’ laptops and cups of coffee.

“So we’ve taken a lot of the improvements from the city buses onto the new airport coaches. The feedback has been excellent and we have obviously gone to the next level to try and provide something exceptional and a luxury experience.

“We are also starting a new high quality coach hourly Airline service from 29th March and whilst it doesn’t come to Oxford directly, it will benefit Oxfordshire businesses. The Wycombe Airline will run from High Wycombe bus station to High Wycombe train station, then to the Handy Cross Park and Ride facility, down to Maidenhead and into Heathrow. So if you’re trying to get to Heathrow from places like Banbury or towns and villages that are on the Chiltern rail line, you have a “RailAir” service from High Wycombe train station to Heathrow which cuts out Oxford and London completely, thus alleviating some of the transport strain in the city centre. In addition, customers who live in the south of the county might want to drive to Handy Cross and park their car there and catch the Airline. This will help those customers who get on / off the bus at Lewknor but have nowhere to park, which is why Handy Cross Park and Ride is such an attractive option.

“We also have a new facility for groups on the Airline website so we can handle requests for groups to Oxford. We can help you to co-ordinate group movements from both Heathrow and Gatwick and the chances are we can also improve on price. If you have people in a group coming in dribs and drabs in one direction, they can come on any coach that we operate and if they want to go back as a group, we can help with that and vice versa.

“Similarly schools have movements to and from the airports, especially the international language schools. We’re trying to encourage them to book with us rather than book expensive taxis and other transfers. We’re encouraging them to talk to us and have the flexibility of having group travel in both directions or just in one direction. Please do talk to us as we can provide bespoke solutions to suit the needs of the business community to ensure that the Airline is the service of choice to get to Heathrow and Gatwick from Oxford and the wider Oxfordshire area.

“Time-wise we can get from most places in Oxford to Heathrow within an hour, and to Gatwick within two hours, congestion permitting. It’s comparable with rail because by the time you’ve got to the station and then changed trains at Reading or London, going direct to either airport in the timeframes mentioned is quite powerful. People often miss that key link to the airport is already there. Obviously it runs every thirty minutes to Heathrow all year round and is enhanced to every twenty minutes at the busiest times, and to Gatwick it’s hourly, so it’s a very comprehensive service.”

City Sightseeing – Business Support services

“We took City Sightseeing over at the back end of 2017. As a company we are very much engrained in the tourism market having been founding Ambassadors of Experience Oxfordshire and the recently launched Oxford Pass.

“A lot of City Sightseeing customers know the brand from its global visibility and expect us to provide additional tourism services in Oxford. We have already developed the business so that we now offer a bureau de change at the train station and we tried later tours at the back end of last summer which were successful on certain days of the week but not others – mainly at the weekends when people were dwelling longer.

“Customers have also asked us to provide more walking tours. Traditionally we had one walking tour which went from High Street, past the Radcliffe Camera down to Broad Street. This allowed customers to get off the bus and see some of the more spectacular sights of Oxford on foot. We are now looking to add very short walking tours starting from St Aldates through Christ Church and up to the High Street so passengers can then choose to do one or more walking tours or add it on to the bus tour, giving our customers more options.

“These services are also available to the business community – they run all year round so if you’re organising a conference or event in Oxford and you want to do something a bit different and get your group outside the conference venue, we can provide a bespoke service to add an extra dimension for you. We can then add in the walking tour elements and focus on the fit and healthy aspect of doing something active in conjunction with the City Sightseeing tour…..it’s a great way to see some of the beautiful sights in Oxford that you might not otherwise see.

“So if you’re coming to Oxford, why wouldn’t you want to see some of it in a short, sharp burst in your lunch hour or whenever your itinerary allows. If you go to the City Sightseeing or Oxford Bus Company websites there will be links to help you plan your tours on foot or on the bus – we will be pleased to assist.”

Thames Travel – servicing Oxfordshire’s southern based Business Parks

“Thames Travel has been part of our portfolio of companies since 2011 and the strategy has been to work with business parks in south Oxfordshire including Harwell, Milton Park and Culham to support their transport provision. Over time the aim is to work with these business parks to build the overall network both within the Science Vale and to and from Oxford and the eastern area of Oxford. But that is going to require an element of pooling together of all of our resources….Thames Travel taking some commercial risks and the business parks doing the same by investing services available to everyone, not just their employees for environmental reasons and financial reasons.

“It’s taken some time to get to where we are now with Harwell. The Science Transit Shuttle used to be run by another provider and the University perceived that with the money they had available at the time, this was the only option open to them. The service was operated on a closed-door basis meaning it wasn’t available to the general public and you had to get a special permit either from a business at Harwell or the University to travel on that service which, of course, held back its commercial development. It was also run by small sixteen-seater mini buses, so what quite often happened was the service was full and people were being left behind. Overall, a bad experience.

“When that contract ended, the University came to us and asked if there was a better way of operating the service. They were more established than when the original service began and asked if there was a partnership opportunity to work with us to improve the service to Harwell and also the service that went from Wytham and into Oxford through the University area and up to the John Radcliffe. We said ‘yes’ because some of the demand that they were satisfying in Oxford could be transferred to the Pick Me Up service. So anyone going to the Churchill, the JR or the Big Data Institute could use that service which was subsidised by Oxford University where they gave everyone four free rides and then we offered a discounted rate which helped to build up patronage.

“They then needed less in terms of investment for the Science Transit shuttle so we were able to halve the cost of that service for them and we’ve doubled the patronage since July 2019 up until January 2020, a great success. There have been some teething issues, mainly in terms of running times in the early stages, but since 5th January, everything has been running very smoothly and with the headlines of halving cost and doubling patronage, we can look at this as a massive success.

“The key message here is that if your business is procuring its own transport and it’s costing more than you think it should, please contact me direct and we can convene what work we need to do to get that moving. The Connector brand is now evolving as a connector between the southern business parks and we want to expand the Connector brand as much as possible. With the housing growth in Didcot we have plans to expand that network further over the next six to twelve months and provide more people with connectivity from the science parks in south Oxfordshire to each other, to Oxford and to the east of Oxford. So please talk to us if this is of interest.”

Pick Me Up service

“This came about because there was lots of frustration in the business community and the city council, in fact everybody really about services outside the city centre. Whilst the services from Oxford into the city centre are established and everyone thinks they are great, frequent and reliable, if you’re a bit more remote like the Science Park and Oxford Business Park, you’re not on the main bus network and the orbital (area around the ring road) connectivity isn’t established. If you look at the numbers, on any given day in the City Centre, 55% of people on a weekday have got there by bus of some sort. This increases to 65% at the weekend because of tourism, but by stark contrast 90% of people drive to the Eastern Arc, so that’s why we have got this problem, only adding to congestion.

“As the business parks have expanded and the number of parking places that have been allowed have been restricted by planning conditions, it’s created this issue where business parks are saying to potential occupiers that although it’s a great place to be, it’s a great environment and a great place to work in, you can’t have the car parking you want. This is a massive turn off to potential tenants and existing tenants are also struggling to recruit the people they need because they feel they need to drive. Whilst we are trying to encourage people not to drive, the alternatives aren’t always there.

“We spoke to the business parks in combination with the county council, city council and Oxfordshire LEP and we explored the possibility of a fixed bus route which ran from Redbridge to Thornhill every ten minutes. It was going to take 12 buses and cost £1.8 million, but the business community wasn’t interested and said it was still going to take too long and wouldn’t service the residential areas. We had to think more innovatively so we came up with a demand responsive transport solution (Pick Me Up) but we needed the support of the business community to implement it successfully.

“We were prepared to take some commercial risk but we needed the businesses to back us. Oxford Science Park did and gave us a three-year commitment with some Section 106 funds it had available, which was excellent. We also engaged with TripAdvisor and Oxford University, and they have also been very good in buying bundles of free tickets. We are also hopeful of working with Oxford Business Park and have recently managed to get some Section 106 money released to look at doing some travel planning a service with them.

“Other than that, there are plenty of larger players in the Eastern Arc who should be supporting the service and we did say when we launched that we would need this support, but it hasn’t been as forthcoming as we would have hoped. We have until June to prove this service has a long-term future and given the notice periods required, we really need to come to a conclusion by March.

“We are holding an event at Oxford Business Park on 27th February between 12pm and 2pm, so any interested businesses that want to attend can come along and find out more. Register your interest by calling 01865 785405 or emailing Lesley.Pacey@oxfordbus.co.uk and we will provide joining instructions.

“The bottom line to businesses at this event is that if they don’t back this service it won’t exist beyond June of this year, just at the time that the Connecting Oxford proposals are coming forward which are aimed to give buses more priority so that they can circulate more freely. The average speed of the Pick Me Up service is 9 miles an hour at peak times and that’s the barrier because it means you can’t get around as quickly as we would like and therefore can’t serve as many people as we need.

“The service needs Connecting Oxford to help it, but if the Workplace Parking Levy is going to raise funds to invest in public transport, we need a bridge. If people think the parking levy can help, this isn’t coming in until late 2021 or 2022, so we need something to keep Pick Me Up running in the meantime. I would argue the responsibility to keep the service going rests with the City, County and the business community…it needs to understand that this service can be of massive benefit to it.

“A few years ago I spoke at Business in Oxford and the message to the business community was that we can help to provide solutions for ever increasing staffing, transport and congestion problems. We are trying to help the business community but we can’t do this without more engagement. Without OBC’s solutions, which can’t be guaranteed without support, the existing issues of attracting and retaining staff and traffic congestion will continue to prove more and more challenging to businesses and, ultimately, business growth will be stifled.”