Commercially successful COMS

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The newest vehicle in the Thames Travel fleet is ADL Enviro200MMC 454. RICHARD SHARMAN

Go-Ahead Group-owned Oxford Bus Company has been growing steadily for the last decade. Richard Sharman looks at how being commercially minded has grown the business in Oxfordshire and beyond

The City of Oxford Motor Services, which trades as Oxford Bus Company (OBC), has always been a very traditional bus company, originally based at a large depot on the Cowley Road in Oxford until it moved to a new purpose-built bus depot opposite the BMW factory in Cowley in 2004. Since then it has been on an acquisition trail that has seen it vastly expand its operating area.

Beyond the city
Go-Ahead Group has owned OBC since 1994, and in the years that followed the company’s network has seen some major changes. Four years prior to Go-Ahead Group’s involvement, OBC had acquired The Bee Line’s bus operations in High Wycombe and operated them under the Wycombe Bus Company name. By 2000 that operation was sold to Arriva the Shires and operations became more focused on bus and coach services in Oxfordshire, although there were some attempts at expansion to Bicester and Witney in the late 1990s.

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The decade that followed would play a serious role in expanding OBC’s operating area and setting it up for the opportunities it has had to grow the network in recent years.

Thames Travel, which operated a large number of bus services in South Oxfordshire and Reading, was acquired in 2011. Just one year later OBC would go on to return to the streets of High Wycombe by acquiring another independent operator in the form of Carousel Buses.

Financial experience
Luke Marion is OBC’s Finance and Commercial Director and joined the company in December 2012. “My background prior to joining was in finance. I had been with Reckitt Benckiser as Finance Manager then Commercial Controller before making the move to OBC as the Finance Director and stayed in that position for two years before the commercial aspect was added on. I joined the company six months after Managing Director Phil Southall, so we have been through all the big changes in the company together. The operation was in a good position for expansion when I joined, but it was set in its ways, so a number of changes had to be made to bring everything up to date.

“I was born in Swindon, but had worked around Oxfordshire so knew the company’s operating area well. I had also experienced the Milton Park area when it was in its infancy, with just a single grey minibus picking up the workers. So, although I had a lot to learn about the industry, I had a good start,” enthused Luke.

Coaching opportunities
“At the time that I joined, the competition had been quite agile in gaining ground in our operating area, where for some time the company had concentrated on its existing network.

“The first task was to sort out the X90 service to London. We had decided that new vehicles were needed and ordered new Plaxton Elite i interdecks for delivery in 2013. We also moved out of Victoria Coach Station, and that saved a quarter of a million in departure charges straight away. We got the X90 to a point where it was making money again; prior to that it was a loss making/marginally profitable service. Around the time of the introduction of the new fleet, Thornhill Park & Ride was seen as the battleground for the London services. Huge queues would build up in the mornings, and at the time we were operating 44-seat Plaxton Panthers. The competition would then arrive and hoover up the rest of the waiting queue with double-decker coaches. The interdecks were a compromise, but it allowed us to carry an extra 20 passengers in the peak.

“This worked well for a good few years, but when the Oxford Parkway opened with a line to Marylebone Station, it took away many of those peak time passengers.

“Where the London service made its real money was with the leisure market in the evenings and weekends, but this is when the train became cheaper, so we were fighting a losing battle in that sense and decided that the X90 service was, sadly, no longer viable.

“Ironically, whilst the Oxford Parkway was being built in 2014 we had won the long-term contract with Arriva-owned Chiltern Railways to operate rail replacement buses between Oxford and Bicester. At the time we initially sourced brand-new buses diverted from fellow Go-Ahead Group companies to operate this service. This included eight Alexander Dennis Enviro400s from Salisbury Red and another four from Southern Vectis. After some period of time the Salisbury Red examples went to their rightful owner, but by the time the Southern Vectis examples came to be released they had clocked up a large number of miles and were out of warranty, and thus remained with us and are now operating on the River Rapids network at Thames Travel. They were on that contract for over two years, and it was the first contract of that type that OBC had done in many years. It had been a great success, so it led to us wanting to do more of that kind of work.

Finance & Commercial Director Luke Marion. OBC

“At the end of that contract we carried on working with Chiltern Railways by increasing our Park & Ride service 500 which they funded so that the rail replacement service, which was curtailed from Oxford Station to Oxford Parkway in the end, could stop running. We still do a lot of rail replacement work with Chiltern, particularly in Aylesbury and Bicester.

“As Govia Thameslink is now part of the group, we have started to get a lot of rail replacement work to the north of London, whilst Go-Ahead London generally covers the South of London where their depots are mainly based.

“The pandemic has also meant we have a number of coaches that we can send out on rail replacement whilst the PVR is lower. This has enabled us to work with Great Western Railway and CrossCountry to serve destinations further afield such as Cheltenham, Gloucester, Reading, Swindon and Worcester. This gives our coach drivers work whilst our Airline and National Express contract services are not working to normal timetables. There is potential scope to continue these longer distance replacement services if demand does not return to pre-pandemic demand levels,” explained Luke.

“Obviously, we want to get the Airline coach service back to normal as soon as possible, but demand really will dictate when that happens, and we do not expect that to be this year.
Gatwick Airport has been massively impacted by the pandemic, with the south terminal being closed since March last year. It is hard to say what will happen in regard to flight departures in the future. Gatwick has great connectivity, so it may be that the likes of Luton and Stansted Airports might be the ones that lose out in the long run as the budget airlines decide to move to Gatwick now that British Airways has gone. Gatwick has taken the opportunity to improve many aspects of the airport during the pandemic, so we think it will definitely have an important future role to play in getting people back on holiday or travelling for business.

“Whilst we have had to suspend services to Gatwick at various times during the pandemic, passenger levels on the Heathrow service have remained steady. We even introduced an additional stop at Wycombe Coachway, and that has proved popular in both connecting with the airport and Oxford City. The constant passengers throughout the pandemic have been key workers. Whilst the Oxford Tube service was suspended, their passengers from Hillingdon were travelling to Heathrow and connecting with our service to get them to and from Oxford for the hospitals in the area.

“Away from the Oxford to Heathrow and Gatwick Airport services, we were due to start a High Wycombe to Heathrow Airport X50 service on 29 March 2020, a week after the pandemic hit. Heathrow Airport was going to provide funding to support this service, and a number of others to key destinations around the airport and the vehicles were all painted up ready to go, but sadly Heathrow Airport was forced to withdraw its commitment to funding once it became clear that the pandemic was here for the long haul, and how big an impact this would have on the airport’s finances.

“We used to operate the A40 service to Heathrow, which Steve Burns from Carousel Buses originally secured funding for in the early 2000s. Unfortunately Heathrow went through a period where they were not engaging with bus operators when they were trying to grow commercial services to the airport, and lost many of the links that had been built up.

“In 2019 they took on Matthew Wooll as Route Development Lead; he had previously worked for First Berkshire, so knew the operating area and the requirements of airport services well. His appointment led to much better engagement with bus operators, and he was given a budget to expand services.

“We secured funding for an hourly service, under a risk sharing approach, which would have seen the service operate from High Wycombe bus station, rail station and coachway to Heathrow Terminal 5 and Central Bus Station via Maidenhead. Heathrow Airport has, for now, withdrawn all its funding for the expansion of services, but it is something that we hope to revisit in the future.

“Because the National Express 737 service is currently suspended, National Express wrote to us asking if we would like to become an approved contractor of National Express Transport Solutions (NETS). We joined up and tendered for an Amazon contract over the Christmas period from November 2020 to 10 January 2021. It served Banbury Town Centre to the Amazon Warehouse on the edge of town on an AM/PM basis; because the social distancing was at 25%, we had to use four Plaxton Elite i Interdecks on it. This was handy work for us over the Christmas period and gave work to our EU rota drivers.”

Small bus success
“We have a number of spare Mercedes-Benz Sprinter EVM Citylines due to the PickMeUp on-demand Oxford bus service trial coming to an end. We have been able to obtain private hire contract work for those vehicles. At Carousel we have a contract that serves a large employer in High Wycombe and takes its employees from the rail station to the large office complex; we also had a Maidenhead Borough Council contract that takes people from Maidenhead town centre to the Bray Wick leisure centre on service BW1. We are also doing some work with HS2 around its construction sites in Buckinghamshire.

“There are quite a number of opportunities coming up in Carousel Buses’ operating area that these vehicles are perfect for, such as a demand responsive bus service around High Wycombe which Buckinghamshire County Council have received funding for from the Rural Mobility Fund – that will be going out to tender in the coming months.

“We have also loaned some of these vehicles to fellow Go-Ahead Group company East Yorkshire at various periods for their on-demand operations, but in general we seem to always have work for the small vehicle fleet.”

Milton Park Contract
“When we acquired the City Sightseeing Oxford operation from the Tappin family in 2017, it also came with the large purpose-built bus depot in Didcot. Our Thames Travel operations were originally running out of a rented base in Wallingford, which was not ideal, so we moved our operations to Didcot.

This opened up new opportunities for us; we had already built a strong network that served the Milton Park business and technology site, but believed this could be further integrated with our Didcot Connector services.

“Through a combination of services we were operating every 10 minutes through Milton Park. At the time Courtney Coaches, who had recently been acquired by Reading Buses, were operating a dedicated shuttle between Milton Park and Didcot Station which duplicated our services.

“We approached Milton Park and explained that instead of paying for a dedicated shuttle between two points, that money could help grow a wider network of services throughout East and South Oxfordshire, as well as Oxford city centre,” said Luke.

“Milton Park were investigating demand responsive services to East Oxfordshire, where many of the people who work at Milton Park lived, so were interested in hearing about the experience we had gained operating PickMeUp. In a way it has changed people’s perceptions of us as a company, in that we are not set in our ways, we are a forward-thinking company.

“We first presented the idea of expansion of the Milton Park network to them in January 2019 and eventually began the new deal in January 2021. Milton Park has now gained an extensive network of frequent, high quality services; they have also recently vinyl wrapped a number of vehicles to promote Milton Park, and they really stand out, especially in Oxford City Centre.”

Didcot Connector
“This network has been a labour of love for myself and Phil. There has been a couple of milestones: When we got the money from the Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) in 2015 and we went to Harwell every 15 minutes from Didcot Parkway and refurbished all the 57-plate Mercedes-Benz Citaros, then we gained the Great Western Park housing estate contract for service 98 in 2017 which is a long-term contract and operates seven days a week from early until late.

“In 2019 we won the Oxford University contract for the Science Transit Shuttle network that serves Harwell Campus. This is made up of two services, the ST1 which departs from Oxford City Centre and the ST2 from the John Radcliffe Hospital and Wytham. This service was previously provided by Uno Bus as a private contract with a PVR of 10, using minibuses. Our ST1 and ST2 services only have a total PVR of five and the service is open to the public. These services are partly funded by Oxford University and the Science & Technology Facilities Council, with the rest being commercial.

“The next Didcot service development will be an extension of service X36 (Wantage – Didcot) to serve Great Western Park South via the Wave leisure centre, which Alexander Dennis Enviro200MMC 454 will be allocated to.

“Didcot has undergone a massive transformation with major housing developments being built – our next focus is to win the contracts for services to Valley Park and Willowbrook Park.”
Pandemic service changes

“During the pandemic we had to try and save resources, so we put into place a number of emergency timetables. We had been thinking for a while that a cross city service was required. I had previously tried interworking service 6 from Oxford to Wolvercote and service 35 from Oxford to Abingdon 35 on bank holidays and during the Christmas period, which had worked well so I thought would we try it during the pandemic. At the moment I am not sure if it will become a permanent variation, but with additional bus gates in the city potentially coming into play, it may be possible to increase cross city links this way. Ticket machine data does suggest passengers are already starting to use the service for cross city journeys.

“Another change to a service during the pandemic was service 11X, which operates from the OBC depot/BMW plant to Oxford City Centre and back. This originally started off with Mercedes-Benz Citaros but later moved to Plaxton Panther-bodied Volvo B11R coaches to allow for better social distancing and to free up the Citaros to allow for repaints and vehicle movements to take place. This service also replaced staff transport minibuses to allow for social distancing. There are multiple stops in the city centre, so this has also allowed us to make some walking time savings on duties, and the service is also taking some revenue.

“We have also changed the X2, X3/13 services to provide a joint 10 minute frequency service to Abingdon. Additionally, this group of services also links Milton Park, Didcot, John Radcliffe Hospital and the new Barton Park development. We are hoping that NHS employees at the hospital will take advantage of the improved links to South Oxfordshire.”

Out of area developments
In the last 20 years OBC has generally stayed away from the North West Quadrant of Oxfordshire, but in recent years inroads have been made into this area. Luke explained: “Park & Ride service 500 was revised to provide a frequent link to Blenheim Palace in Woodstock a few years ago. We wanted to build better links to the attraction as we had undertaken some private hire work for Blenheim Palace in the past for their nocturnal concerts, and provide the Park & Ride service for the yearly Christmas lights trail.

The striking new Milton Park vinyl wrap is seen on recent Thames Travel Wrightbus StreetDeck 907. RICHARD SHARMAN

“There was also the opportunity to pick up train users from Oxford Parkway, situated next to Water Eaton Park & Ride and take them to and from Blenheim Palace for the day. We hope to develop these links further during the summer,” said Luke.

Another town served on and off over the last decade has been Bicester. OBC had been absent from the town for well over a decade before acquiring Thames Travel and winning a number of Bicester town services and rural route 25A to Oxford City Centre. An outstation was established in nearby Launton village to operate this contract.

These town services operated between June 2013 and September 2016, with the 25A being retained as it received section 106 funding from the Heyford Park development at Upper Heyford while the rest of the services were local authority funded. The outstation closed in 2016 after Oxfordshire County Council’s decision to withdraw all its local bus services budget, and the service was operated from the OBC depot. In April 2018 the 25A service number changed to 250 with OBC taking over operation of the service in September 2019 when Thames Travel moved into its lager depot facility in Didcot. The 250 contract ended in July 2020, and is now operated by Diamond Bus South East.

However, that was not to be the end of OBCs involvement in Bicester, as Luke explains: “Bicester is a growing town and so was an area that we wanted to work in. At the time we had service 250, but the Bicester Village Shuttle and weekend and holiday period Park & Ride services contract was held by APCOA along with the parking management. APCOA subcontracted the bus services to the Rotala Group. Around this time we had become members of Experience Oxfordshire as we were entering the tourism market by acquiring City Sightseeing Oxford. Bicester Village were also members of Experience Oxfordshire so we ended up building a relationship with them through various meetings and events. When the contract came up for re-tender, we put a bid in and were successful.

“The Park & Ride service alone on a Boxing Day has a PVR of 17 vehicles, so it is certainly a contract that requires good planning well in advance.

“Alexander Dennis Enviro200MMC 514 was purchased for the BV1 Bicester Village Shuttle, and will be used on it when social distancing decreases. It is currently on loan to Carousel. At present Bicester Village branded Wrightbus StreetDeck 662 is in use, whilst recent arrivals 901-903 will be the regular vehicles for the Park & Ride service as they are in a black and red livery.
“This contract works well with our Brookesbus contract, as we have vehicle availability at the weekend and during University holidays for Bicester Village Park & Ride duties or rail replacement services.”

Looking ahead
“We are looking to build the private hire and special events side of the business with our existing fleet and there are also some new Park & Ride sites being built at Begbroke/Eynsham that we can tender for.

“We are doing a lot of work on plans to electrify a large portion of the fleet, and working with the council to build a business case for government funding to help us do this. We also have the City Sightseeing Oxford operation to build on during this summer’s staycation.