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Stagecoach in Oxfordshire’s express coach service, the Oxford Tube, is currently introducing a brand new fleet for its Oxford to London route. Richard Sharman takes a look back at how the fleet has changed through the years and finds out what the new coaches have to offer

In 7 March 1987 a new company, formed out of deregulation, launched an express service that would become not only well known by those who lived in the areas it served, but also to international tourists visiting either Oxford or London.

The pioneer of introducing minibuses on a large scale to the UK was Harry Blundred OBE. He had previously been a driver and controller at National Bus Company (NBC)-owned Devon General and during privatisation led the management buyout of the company in August 1986.

The purchase of Devon General would not only change how the company operated, but also completely change a bus fleet that had the standard NBC mix of Bristol LHs/VRTs, Leyland Nationals/Olympians and Tigers. Seven months later, some of the vehicles would become important assets.

Following the purchase of Devon General, Harry was on a roll, and having had previous experience of working in Oxford as a Traffic Manager between 1979 and 1983 at The City of Oxford Motor Services, decided to launch Thames Transit. Whilst a sudden influx of Mellor-bodied Ford Transits caught the attention of the industry, and flooded the City of Oxford, he had another concept that was about to bring further competition in the form of the Oxford Tube.

Harry cleverly utilised the fleet of Leyland Tiger coaches it had inherited from Devon General’s coaching division Greenslades, as well as coaches that had previously been used on its National Express contracts.

The new first batch of Jonckheere-bodied Volvo B10Ms were taken to Blenheim Palace for launch. RICHARD SHARMAN

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Blackpool and Scarborough-built

The original all Leyland Tiger fleet had both Duple Laser 2 and Plaxton Paramount bodies. These coaches were in good condition as they were new in 1984 and 1985, so they were only a few years old at the time the Tube launched. All had standard NBC interior moquette and a rear toilet, but also a lot of leg room, 3-8, B400-3/5/6 UOD having Duple Laser 2 bodies with only 44 seats and the Paramounts 3200 1-2 AOD 648/9Y having 46 seats.

The additional legroom enabled the Oxford Tube to use the slogan ‘Every seat first class…Every ticket economy.’

By the winter of 1987 the fleet was boosted by the arrival of the last of the Duple Laser 2s, coach 14, B404 UOD which was rushed into service in full National Express livery with just Oxford Tube vinyls on the front, although it soon gained fleet livery. Other additions at the time were the first manual gearbox Leyland Tigers for the fleet, with Plaxton Paramount 3500 III 9, D142 PTT also being the first brand-new coach for the fleet with 51 seats.

Interestingly, this coach was registered in the middle of a large batch of Mellor-bodied Ford Transits.

By 1989 Thames Transit had acquired South Midland, which boosted the Tube fleet with additional coaches. Plaxton Paramount 3500 IIs 10/11 PYV 277/LSV 670, new as C128/9 KJO to South Midland, stayed well into the Stagecoach-owned era of Thames Transit as driver trainers before passing to Lewis of Greenwich. C128 KJO survives today, in preservation with Tyneside Heritage Vehicles.

Duple Dominant IVs 12/13 EBW 101/2Y also became Tube coaches and were ironically running alongside the rest of the EBW Y batch that were on the Oxford CityLink 190 London service.

The final Leyland Tigers were Paramount 3500 II 15, C922 HYA and Paramount 3200 IIs 16/17, B896/4 YYD 48-seaters.

The Leyland Tigers were good workhorses and when not being used on the Tube, those with destination displays would also appear on former South Midland routes to towns like Bicester and Chipping Norton that were struggling with the change from double-decker buses to minibuses.

Other vehicles that would gain Oxford Tube livery were a handful of Reeve Burgess Beaver-bodied Mercedes-Benz minibuses for promotional purposes and ECW B51-bodied Leyland Leopard VUD 29X, which was inherited with the purchase of South Midland. This coach was used on country services but was available as a spare.

Blue Danube dominance

By 1990 Thames Transit was moving on with the fleet, having developed a loyal customer base. The first Volvo B10M was purchased in the form of coach number 18, H69 CFJ. This coach had a Plaxton Paramount 3200 III body with a rear-mounted toilet, but a basic interior. It had 53 fixed seats, and no arm rests or curtains, but it proved that the Volvo B10M was the right choice for the Tube.

The next vehicle order came as a surprise to many as rather than taking the Plaxton route, as many expected, the Tube instead ordered the Ikarus Blue Danube 350. These coaches took the Tube to another level, with carpeted gangways, soft trim throughout, a sunken centre-mounted toilet, powerful rack blowers and a radiator heater system that was designed by Ikarus for the coldest countries – when on full blast it made the interior hotter than the sun!

Six were purchased brand-new as 19-24, H913-7 FTT/J499 MOD. Coach number 24 soon became the pet coach of the fleet and appeared at the Brighton Coach Rally and was later used on a contract for The City of Oxford Orchestra which saw it touring Europe.

Such was the popularity of the Ikarus Blue Danube 350 in the fleet with passengers, drivers and engineers, that Thames Transit went on to own the largest fleet in the UK, acquiring 25-8, H914-7 PTG after only 11 months with Hills of Tredegar. H916 PTG survives in preservation today with a number of other former Hills of Tredegar coaches.

A further three used examples were sourced from McLean’s coaches in nearby Witney, these being 29-31 F23/4 LBW and F337 CHE.

Coaches 25-8 were retrofitted with destination blind boxes, whilst 29-31 only had internal windscreen stickers fitted.

The original Oxford Tube terminus was directly opposite London Victoria at Grosvenor Gardens. Ikarus Blue Danube 20, H914 FTT is seen having just arrived from Oxford. RICHARD SHARMAN

The Jonckheere and Berkhof connection

Following the closure of Ikarus in 1993, new options for vehicle replacement were sought, which resulted in Jonckheere becoming the main supplier of new coaches with the arrival of both high and low driver Deauville coaches in 1993/4. First to arrive were low driver 1/ 2, L723/4 JUD. All built to 49 seats with a centre sunken toilet, coaches 1 and 2 arrived at the Horspath Road depot with surprising additions. Both of these coaches were low driver versions, but featured extra-long gear sticks! These gear sticks remained in place and drivers had to raise their arms to change gear.

Low driver 3-7, L210-4 GJO followed (with standard gearsticks!), and were the last of the Volvo B10M MK3s with the front-mounted radiator for the Tube.

Immediately following 3-7 were five standard driving position Deauvilles, 21/29-31/18 and L155-9 LBW. These were the first MK4 Volvo B10Ms in the fleet and had the radiator mounted on the nearside behind the wheel arch

These coaches also featured the updated dashboard arrangement that had all controls close to hand, unlike the previous version where you had to reach to the nearside beyond the gear stick to operate the heater controls or interior lights.

1994/5 saw further investment in the fleet. In 1994 Berkhof acquired Jonckheere, which led to Thames Transit purchasing the Berkhof Excellence 1000 next in two batches.

9/15/25/26/28, M103-7 XBW arrived first and had in-swinging entry doors, whilst the second batch 8/12/14/19/23/32-3, N41-3/5-8 MJO had plug doors. Both batches of coaches would survive into Stagecoach ownership and be used by other operating companies on Stagecoach Express/Virgin Trains services prior to becoming driver trainers.

In the three years that followed the Ikarus Blue Danube 350 coaches were slowly withdrawn or moved onto the short-lived Heathrow Express service. Former Wallace Arnold Plaxton Paramount 3500 IIIs 10/11/15/17, H639-41/50 UWR were moved into the Tube fleet from Thames Transit’s 390 service from Oxford to London via the Thames Valley and Heathrow Airport, having been replaced by new Marshall-bodied Mercedes-Benz minibuses.

Stagecoach Plaxtons

In March 1997 Thames Transit was acquired by the Stagecoach Group, which quickly went about introducing various Plaxton-bodied coaches from other parts of its empire following repaint into the now gold and red livery.
Five coaches in total were transferred in from other parts of the group. Plaxton Paramount 3500 III-bodied Volvo B10Ms 3/6, 3063 VC/9258 VC arrived from the Stagecoach Rugby coaching unit in what was, at the time, the division’s coaching livery of silver and red. These coaches were new as G543 LWU and G544 LWU to Wallace Arnold and had been well looked after having only been used on private hire work. They were pressed into service in as-acquired condition, but later gained Oxford Tube vinyls on the Stagecoach Rugby livery prior to gaining the gold and red livery.

The other three coaches had previously been on the National Express network. First to arrive already painted in Tube livery was Plaxton Expressliner 22, J456 FSR. This coach of course had the comfort shift gearbox mounted to the driver’s seat, which made it an impressive drive and it soon became a driver favourite.

Plaxton Excaliburs 20/24, J420/4 HDS again marked a first for the fleet, although ironically the Tube had sisters J426/9 HDS on loan from Plaxton after they were traded in by Parks of Hamilton many years prior to this. Both coaches arrived in the cream FlightLink livery and were quickly repainted into fleet livery before entry into service.

During this early Stagecoach-owned era the Tube also saw a number of loan coaches in 1997/8. The oldest were a pair of low driver Plaxton Paramount 3500 IIs from Stagecoach Midland Red in Stagecoach Express livery, with the Oxford-Stratford X50 still applied to the side windows. 74, 4828 VC and 75, 9737 VC were part of the C-PPE batch, new to Green Line, and this loan was to be their last duties with Stagecoach before being sold on.

A more modern loan was Plaxton Premiere 350-bodied Volvo B10M P186 NAK in plain white with reflective Oxford Tube windscreen top stickers added. It is recalled that this coach went like a rocket compared to the other B10Ms in the fleet and thus became very popular with drivers during its stay.

Ahead of ordering new coaches for the fleet, Stagecoach sent articulated Jonckheere Mistral-bodied Volvo B10MA 561, N561 SJF from Stagecoach Western Buses in Stagecoach Express livery to see if it could be used on the service. After a number of trial runs and issues in the depot with space it was deemed unsuitable and returned to Scotland.

Former Wallace Arnold 11, H640 UWR is seen in the shortlived 800 Heathrow Tube service. RICHARD SHARMAN

A world first

In 1999 Stagecoach took delivery of 28 Jonckheere Monaco-bodied MAN 23.350s, which were pioneering vehicles as they were the first low-floor double-decker coaches in the world.

Such was the importance of these vehicles that there was a major launch event at Gloucester Green market place that involved one of the new coaches being covered over, placed inside a tent and revealed with a light and smoke display to the international media.

The £6 million pound investment by Stagecoach not only introduced wheelchair accessible vehicles to the service, but also increased capacity to 68 passengers and added air-conditioning for the first time in the history of the service.

At the time Stagecoach was a big MAN customer, purchasing large quantities of the 18.220 chassis for the Alexander ALX300 body. The new Tube coaches had a Euro II-rated MAN D 2866 LOH engine which developed 350hp.

The tri-axle coach had a fixed rear axle but due to its relatively short length and narrow profile it was easy to manoeuvre around both cities.

Coaches 34-60 were new as T34-6 DFC, T37/8 BBW, T39 DJO, T40 UBE, T41-3 BBW, T44 UBE, T45-9 BBW, T50 UBE, T51-BBW, T55 UBE, T56-9 BBW, T60 UBE and W66 BBW, and later became 50034-60/66 in the Stagecoach national numbering sequence. These vehicles introduced private number plates T40/44/50/55/60 UBE which have been transferred to all subsequent new batches of coaches ever since.

The livery applied maintained the standard red, but coaches were delivered with white sections that would receive vinyl and contravision to replicate the Stagecoach stripes but in a flowing ribbons design, which at the time was quite eye catching. Stagecoach’s standard grey chevron covered reclining seats were used along with red floors, as used in the buses at the time. For the first time, curtains were out, but seatback tables were in, as was a top windscreen wiper, although this would not feature on any other new coaches ordered.

The 28 coaches remained unique, with no other operators placing orders for that combination, however many of these coaches are still operating today with independent operators thanks to the fact they are low-floor, high capacity and were of a solid build.

The sky’s the limit

August 2004 saw an £8 million investment in 25 new Neoplan Skyliner coaches, which represented a step change in the fleet due to these coaches being 13.7m long. This meant that for the second time the passenger capacity had been increased again from 68 to 81 seats. These were also the first coaches in the fleet to have a centre exit door.

Following on from the previous coaches the new Neoplans also had the MAN D 2866 LOH engine but this time with an AS Tronic gearbox, rather than the previous ZF fully automatic gearbox.

The Neoplan Skyliners proved popular with passengers; the coaches’ curved upper deck windows allowed for a better view of the route than ever before.

The batch included 50101-25, KP04 GJE-G/J/K/U/V/X-Z/GKA/C-G/J-N/ T40/44/50/55/60 UBE. They were delivered after Stagecoach introduced the ‘beachball’ livery, so the livery was revised to use elements of the new design. The interior was also updated to the new Stagecoach standard that included blue seats with the beachball logo and red floors.

Upon withdrawal, many of this batch departed for use elsewhere in the Stagecoach Group, before ending up with independent operators.

Berkhof Excellence 12, N42 MJO is seen at Showbus. It carried a promotional livery for the introduction of the 12-minute frequency. RICHARD SHARMAN

Belgian standard

Stagecoach’s standard fleet replacement policy for the Oxford Tube was to replace the coaches every five years. In 2009 it moved away from Neoplan coaches towards Van Hool Astromegas, which were also ordered for the UK and USA’s megabus divisions. The 26 Astromegas represented an investment of £9 million and further increased the seating capacity to 87.

The first Astromegas were delivered in two batches between 2009 and 2010, including 50201-226, T40/44/50/44/60 UBE, OU09 FMY/Z/FNA/C/D-J and OU59 AVE-E/AUR-O/T/V-Y/AVB.

Van Hools remained the favoured choice of Stagecoach for the next replacement cycle in 2014, with a further £10 million investment in 26 further Astromega TX27s, although by this time the model had received updated styling to the front and rear and a Euro VI engine. An additional feature on the 2014 batch was a glass roof and a red interior rather the the Stagecoach beachball trim that had gone before.

The 2014 batch of coaches, 50261-86, T40/44/50/55/60 UBE and YJ14 LFA/B/D-H/K-P/R-Y were joined in 2018 by 50237, CN61 FAO which initially operated in megabus livery with a red front, but eventually received a full repaint.

Saturday 4 January 2019 saw Oxford Bus Company, which had operated the long-established 190/X90 service, withdraw from the Oxford-London corridor due to declining passenger numbers, which effectively meant that the Tube had to increase its PVR (Peak Vehicle Requirement) from Monday 6 January to cater for the additional passengers moving over, and the introduction of a new express service on Monday to Friday peaks that runs direct from Oxford and Thornhill Park & Ride to Baker Street and Victoria for commuters. Former Megabus Van Hools were released from the network and sent to Oxford via Plaxton for painting, these being 50233/5, CN61 FAA/K and 50244-7/50, SV12 DZN/DVW/SV62 BBJ/K/FF.

The majority of the additional coaches, along with some of the 2014 batch, departed for Stagecoach West Scotland during November and December as the next batch of new coaches arrived.

Former National Express Plaxton Expressliner 22, J456 FSR arrived under Stagecoach ownership and was popular with the drivers due to its comfort shift gearbox mounted to the driver’s seat. RICHARD SHARMAN

A return to Volvo and Plaxton

On Saturday 28 November this year, at 0835hrs Stagecoach in Oxfordshire launched the first five new Plaxton Panoramas as part of a £13 million investment in 34 new double-decker coaches for the service. All of the new coaches are fitted with Volvo B11RLE Euro VI diesel engines developing 460hp, and the final five double-decker coaches will also sport solar panels, provided by Trailar, to deliver greater fuel efficiency by powering all on-board electrical equipment.

Onboard features include at-seat wireless and USB charging, reading lights, free WiFi, foot rests and three-point seatbelts.

Chris Coleman, Managing Director at Stagecoach in Oxfordshire said: “This year has been extremely challenging and so it is great to end it on a high with the introduction of our new Oxford Tube fleet.

“December is typically one of our busiest months as many travel to the capital for a spot of Christmas shopping, and to enjoy the festivities of the Christmas markets and lights. Although this month won’t be quite the same, we are still really excited to welcome passengers on board and look forward to the New Year when more customers can experience the new and improved Oxford Tube fleet.  Not only does this apply to local residents visiting London but also to visitors from the capital who, when the time is right, can travel to Oxford in style and enjoy the many attractions and hospitality our own city has to offer.”

At the time of going to press, 11 of the 34 Scarborough-built Plaxton Panorama double-decker coaches had so far entered service, with delivery at a rate of two every Friday. However, due to having a reduced PVR (Peak Vehicle Requirement) on the service at the moment, some of the batch are set to go on loan to other Stagecoach operating companies.

A representative from Stagecoach Oxfordshire told CBW: “We can confirm that some of our new Oxford Tube coaches will be on loan elsewhere in the company in the short term. Our service is currently running to a reduced operation and subsequently does not require the same number of vehicles at this time. This is not a permanent reallocation and as soon as our service levels require additional vehicles the coaches will be returned.”

Once the delivery of the new coaches is fully completed, the Oxford Tube will have used a total of 212 different coaches since its launch 33 years ago, excluding any loan vehicles.

The level of investment by Thames Transit in the early days, and by Stagecoach since 1997 is impressive to say the least.