No pain, no gain? Oxford bus services face 15 months of disruption

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Stagecoach has staff on hand to assist drivers and passengers. Passengers have a lengthy 500m walk towards the city. RICHARD SHARMAN

The delayed and much anticipated closure of one of Oxford’s main arterial roads to allow for a new railway bridge to be built has commenced, with significant changes required to the bus network during the work. Richard Sharman finds out more

As part of a £161 million station and railway upgrade, Botley Road in Oxford – a main artery into and out of the city – was temporarily closed at the point the rail bridge crosses the road near Oxford station on 11 April, and will remain so until the end of October to enable station and track improvements and highways redevelopment. The delayed closure is part of a two-phase project to improve the station and highway and which promises to bring several other benefits. The second phase of the project will see Botley Road closed again from March to October 2024 for bridge replacement and highway work.

Botley Road bridge

The programme for these improves has been named Oxfordshire Connect by Network Rail. It requires the replacement of the current bridge under the railway at Botley Road, so that an additional railway line can be added into the station, and also to allow buses, cyclists and pedestrians to more easily access the city centre. Before the bridge is physically replaced in phase two next year, 11 different utility services need to divert their infrastructure under the bridge and other additional enabling work is needed, which forms part of phase one.


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When the works are complete, Oxford station will boast a new western entrance that will be built next to Botley Road and will link up to the new and existing platforms via a subway. The new entrance will make the station more accessible to people living to the west of the station, reducing walking time by up to three minutes, and dedicated cycle parking will also be available.

The road network near the station will also be improved to create safer junctions with Botley Road and encourage sustainable transport by enhancing bus travel as well as providing more space for cyclists and pedestrians through the addition of a four-metre wide cycle- and footway on each side of the main road. The changes will also support the planned new East West Rail service from the end of 2024.

Claire Mahoney, Network Rail’s programme director for Oxfordshire Connect, explained: “Undertaking this work to enable the replacement of the bridge at Botley Road near the station in Oxford is a critical part of the works required to improve the station for the city, increase rail traffic in Oxfordshire and improve the highway for buses into the city.

“There was never going to be an easy way to do this work, it’s extremely complex and needs to be carefully coordinated with multiple utility companies as well as Thames Water and the Environment Agency, which is undertaking other works close by. We’ve split the work into two parts this year and next year, so that we reduce the impact on the city’s residents.

“We’re working closely with the city and county councils and transport providers so it’s easier to work and move around during the closure, but we know this is going to inevitably cause disruption. We urge residents and businesses to understand the impact on them and plan ahead whilst the works are in place.”

The approach to the closed bridge, with plenty of contractors’ staff on site to assist the public and ensure cyclists dismount. RICHARD SHARMAN

Bus service challenges

The main issue for bus operators is that a number of high frequency core local and inter-urban services pass under the bridge on the way in and out of the city, so the challenge has been to find a solution that will cause the least disruption to bus users. Oxford City Council is advising motorists that would normally use Botley Road to use one of the city’s park & ride sites, with Seacourt being the closest as it is located on Botley Road itself, or to take an alternative route into the city.

Until the end of September 2023, passengers using the park & ride can take advantage of a combined ticket at a reduced price which covers both parking and bus travel at a rate of £4 for a car with only one adult, or £5 for a car and two adults. With both options, up to three children under 16 can travel for free.

A key sticking point of the new arrangements is that it was originally intended for passengers to be dropped off at a newly created bus terminus next to the bridge, where provision was also made for buses to turn around or lay over. Unfortunately, this was not the case in the end and all bus services will now terminate at Osney Island – the last official bus stop prior to the railway bridge – before running up to the bridge out of service to turn around or lay over in one of the four newly created bays.

This situation has caused some upset amongst bus users as the 500m walk from Osney Island, under the railway bridge to reconnect with buses on the other side, is a good six or seven minutes for someone who is fit and healthy. You could probably double that amount of time for the elderly or disabled.

Whilst the road under the bridge may be closed to vehicles, luckily it features a walkway through a tunnel to continue to allow pedestrians and cyclists access to the railway station and continue onwards into the city throughout the work.

Both of Oxford’s major bus service providers had to undertake a substantial amount of work to prepare for the closure, as Luke Marion, Managing Director of Oxford Bus Company and Thames Travel, explained to CBW: “While we are disappointed with the extent of disruption to the bus network that these works will cause, we recognise that they have to happen, and have been planning for this for several months – with the closure initially having been scheduled to take place in early January.

“The closure of the Botley Road bridge affects some of our busiest services, such as park and ride service 400 – operated in partnership with Oxford Brookes University – and impacts services for customers travelling from as far afield as Didcot and Abingdon.

A youth hostel and the Station Grill fast food outlet had to be demolished so that a turning circle and four bus layover bays could be created. RICHARD SHARMAN

“To prepare for the closure, we have had to reschedule five services, divert another and create new driver duties for all the affected routes, including identifying new rest facilities that could be used to the west of the closure, with all our existing relief points inaccessible. We also had to work closely with Network Rail on the design of the turning circle and layover facility located to the west of the station, including carrying out last-minute tests and helping to train bankspeople who will be supervising services throughout the duration of the works.

“From a ticketing perspective we also had to ensure that customers needing to make connecting bus journeys through the road closure area did not lose out, so worked up special fare tables in Ticketer to allow drivers to deduct any fares already paid from the second leg of any connection journey. We also had to get all our service registrations completed and submitted to the Traffic Commissioners, data produced and published to BODS and on our website, update roadside panels, maps and timetable leaflets, and keep various stakeholders up to date with what was happening.

“We won’t have got everything right, and we are closely monitoring how things progress in the early weeks of the closure to see where adjustments may need to be made. We’re concerned about possible displacement of traffic to other corridors, such as the Abingdon and Woodstock roads, and have already seen early signs of increased traffic at certain times of the day on these roads in the early days of the works. Undoubtedly there will be things we need to adjust in light of experience, once we see how things perform in normal school day traffic.”

Stagecoach West provides services along Botley Road from Oxford, Witney and Swindon. Karen Coventry, Commercial and Marketing Director at Stagecoach West, told CBW: “The closure of Botley Road at the station was always going to be a major challenge to operators and other businesses relying on this important link into the city centre.

“Whilst we have been part of the discussions for some time, our options were very much limited when we had to accept that this was a full closure, would be long term and there would be no funding available to do anything differently.

“Resources were always going to be a challenge, as the industry is still feeling the impact of driver shortages and garage capacity is also something that was something that needed to be considered with every option we looked at.

“We looked at the four services using the route – the S1 service from Witney, S2 from Cheltenham via Witney, S6 from Swindon and the S9 from Wantage – all popular interurban services, operating seven days a week. A decision was made to re-route the S1 service between Eynsham to Oxford city centre using Woodstock Road, to enable the majority of people from Witney to access the city centre stops. However, to plug the gap between Eynsham and Oxford we had to add an E1 service which increased the overall PVR by one bus.

“Whilst we recognise that turning at Botley Road with customers having to use the stops at Osney Island is not solution that we would have designed given the choice – something operators have raised during the discussions about accessibility – the option to reroute the other services was not available as this would have resulted in a reduced frequency and isolating more communities by removing Stagecoach links to Besselsleigh, Cumnor and Botley completely. For those customers who want to travel further into the city we are offering free travel to connect onto services leaving the station and serving Frideswide Square.

“The situation was still evolving as we headed towards the implementation date and as our options were very limited, we were not able to consult on the changes however we have been pushing out our customer communications through the website and social media channels and bus stop and on-bus information. It’s still early days as the schools haven’t returned yet, but we will be continuing to monitor this as we head into the new school term.”

An illustration of the drop off point at Osney Island and where buses can be picked up on the other side of the bridge.

Unexpected viaduct closure

Whilst all the planning was going on for the Connecting Oxfordshire project, one thing that wasn’t being planned for was the sudden closure of the the Nuneham Viaduct that crosses the River Thames between Culham and Radley after significant movements in the structure were detected, despite recent ground stabilisation work. This led to the railway line between Oxford and Didcot being closed for safety reasons from Monday 3 April, just days before the Botley Road closure was due to commence.

To help keep passengers moving, Network Rail worked closely with rail operators Great Western Railway (GWR), CrossCountry and Chiltern Railways on a revised timetable to operate for the duration of the line closure. In addition, a substantial rail replacement service was put into operation with a non-stop service between Oxford and Didcot, plus a stopping service calling at the intermediate stations, adding up to 45 minutes to journey times.

Trains operating between Oxford, Worcestershire and Hereford are mostly unaffected, but passengers travelling to London Paddington or the south coast from Oxford are required to catch the rail replacement bus service to and from Didcot Parkway for an onward train.

Rail ticket acceptance has been arranged on Thames Travel services X2 and X32 between Oxford and Didcot and on Stagecoach West service S6 between Oxford and Swindon.

From 16 April, Thames Travel reacted quickly by enhancing the Sunday and Public Holiday service on service X32 to provide a fast and direct hourly service between Didcot Parkway and Oxford city centre and railway station. This is in addition to the existing Sunday and public holiday service between Didcot and Wantage, and was introduced to provide extra capacity due to the increase in passenger numbers as a result of the closure of the viaduct.

The viaduct is not expected to reopen until Saturday 10 June, so the rail replacement service will continue until Friday 9 June, before restarting again from 29 July to 6 August for track work and preparation work for the new platform at Oxford station.

Advice for coach operators

Oxfordshire County Council has advised coach operators that Oxford city centre coach bays for set-down and pick-up purposes at St Aldates South (northbound), Beaumont Street (westbound) and St Giles’ (northbound) will remain in use during throughout the Botley Road closure. Coach operators are advised to follow the diversion routes, including Abingdon Road, which will be in operation during the closure and advertised via electronic signs.

Stagecoach West has been providing at least one Oxford Tube coach on a daily basis between Oxford and Didcot on the rail replacement service. This ironically also allows passengers who would normally travel from Oxford to London by train to sample the comfort of the Plaxton Panorama-bodied Volvo B11RLE!

First day observations

Luckily for everybody involved, the very first week of the bridge closure fell on a school holiday week, immediately after a bank holiday weekend. This meant that things appeared to go exceedingly well on the first day, Tuesday 11 April.

Contractor Kier was appointed by Network Rail to deliver the £65m main works package on the redevelopment project, and to be fair to them and Network Rail I was very impressed by the resources that had been put in place to ensure everything ran safely and smoothly. For example, the area surrounding the station bridge was a sea of orange and blue hi-vis jackets as traffic marshals ensured only residents’ vehicles, deliveries and buses were allowed in the area. ‘Here to help’ officers are there to direct the public and ensure that cyclists dismount to walk through the bridge tunnel to the other side. In addition, security officers are also present – and they are needed. On a number of occasions a number of irate cyclists attempted to cycle under the closed bridge, or argued with site staff about having to dismount.

Meanwhile Oxford Bus Company and Stagecoach West provided officials to help drivers and passengers at the Osney Island stop. Of particular note, at least on the first day, were the number of surprised passengers still sitting on the bus expecting to go further! This was particularly the case on the S6 and park & ride services.

A number of drivers operating the rail replacement service reported being slightly unhappy about not being told the bridge was closed, and travelling the length of Botley Road only to find they had to then find an alternative route to the other side of the bridge.

Of particular note with this project is that the road under the rail bridge will actually be lowered as part of the highway works, which means that for the first time, full-height double-deckers will be able to pass underneath. Local operators will no longer have to order low-height double deckers in the future, and visiting operators with full-height double deckers will no longer have to divert to get around the bridge.

Whilst the general perception was that the first week was going to be carnage on the city’s roads as motorists tried to find a different way around, it was seemingly far from it, with many avoiding the area completely – including trying to access the Westgate shopping centre. This may not remain the situation for long though, and the Abingdon Road, Kidlington Road and Woodstock Road may come to a halt as traffic returns to the area, slowing the progress of bus services as people return to work following the school holidays.

One thing to note about this bridge closure though is the affect it has had on the Botley Road itself, a road that is normally nose to tail in solid traffic, is actually looking green and revived. If this is what an area of the city can look like with maximised use of bus services and a minimal number of cars then the future really is looking brighter, and maybe once the city’s enlarged zero emission zone is introduced, sometime after all the bridge work is complete the whole city could look like this, whilst also benefiting from the delivery of 159 new electric buses between September this year and March 2024.