Connecting Oxfordshire – LTP4 response

Our response to Oxfordshire County Council's Local Transport Plan 4: 2015-2031

6 May 2015

General aspects

1. The wide scope of the various parts of the Plan is welcomed, though the interdependence of some parts could be clearer. Thus the many inter-urban bus services within the ring road often provide a useful supplement to local city services, but are not mentioned in the Oxford strategy. These take up valuable space in the centre of the city where they terminate and lay over. There is also relatively little about the part that rail will and could play in local transport.

2. Although the scope is wide, it is a pity that there appears to be no intention to hold any public meetings at which a range of stakeholders will be present to discuss the proposals “in the round” and to hear the views of competing arguments and interests. This should help to get the overall strategy accepted, and discourage “cherry-picking” of particular parts to the disadvantage of other key parts, leading to under-achievement of the wider objectives.

3. The general outlook presented gives a fair view, though it is surprising that there is little analysis of the previous Local Transport Plan 3, and of its successes and failures. More might be done in identifying areas of existing congestion, how successful existing attempts to address them have been, and what new actions might be proposed.

4. The main emphasis is on accommodating future growth in population, housing and employment. It is understood that this is a major source of potential funding, but it risks putting off any solutions to existing problems to an undefined future.

5. Many components of the strategy are described in a very generalised or aspirational way, which may make it easier to tick boxes, but as a result it is often unclear what exactly is being proposed, or what would need to be done if some other part of the strategy were to be delivered. A good example of this is the proposed Rapid Transit routes; in practice these could be anything from a re-branding exercise of something similar to the existing “prioritised” levels of bus service to a true Rapid Transit service with the on- and off-road priority that is a key feature of most such systems. In the latter case there will be a need to define the measures and restrictions and therefore the choices required to achieve it.

6. There is also a general lack of quantifiable objectives that could be used in assessing the effectiveness and value (in the widest sense) of proposed solutions to existing and future problems.

7. A number of strategic choices need to be presented, principally over the volume of traffic permitted and the management of road space. Some of these are necessarily “paired” actions, which need to be separated from independent “discrete” choices. Thus how much it is intended to contain or reduce future traffic levels in the city (which is conspicuously not highlighted in the document) determines amongst other things the scale of increased use of P&R and the degree of other modal shift required. Then, as a second order strategic choice, either expansion of existing P&R sites or development of a replacement set beyond the Ring Road, together with the proposed means of achieving other modal shift from the private car is required. This is then followed by more detailed debate about the locations of the new sites, how they are connected, and about modal shift measures. However, the measures proposed for actually containing or curtailing traffic levels are not scheduled until the mid-2020’s; in the meanwhile a number of other actions are being taken, including recent and forthcoming “improvements” on the Ring Road and the A34, which are actually making it easier to choose to drive into the city. This means that in practice for the next ten years adverse traffic, environmental and bus operating conditions will get no better, and may well (e.g. due to increased patronage expected for the Westgate) get worse.

8. We would like to suggest a different approach, tackling first the reduction in traffic and the potentially difficult measures that will be necessary for modal change to public transport. Measures such as the Workplace Parking Levy, traffic restriction gates (as suggested in the document), and the difficult problem of routeing a Rapid Transit system through the centre of the city should be given priority. With the Rapid Transit system being a key part of LTP4 for Oxford, the sooner investigation and decisions on possible routes are undertaken, particularly in the Eastern Arc, the sooner we shall see real improvements from their introduction. The scale of this work, and the benefits it will bring, should help to make a strong case for funding outside the slow drip that may come from developers’ contributions. Business and road users and government may well be more willing to pay (and to pay more) if the end result was a tram system where delivery of the “total” system incorporating a high level of service and a strong public image was an inherent commitment.

9. We also suggest that rapid implementation of the proposed cycle premium and other routes would produce a quick and relatively inexpensive step change in the ease of getting from one part of the city to another. This would enhance public confidence in the other measures proposed. It is regrettable that the County has no Cycling Officer to help with this.

10. We welcome the acceptance of the importance of easy interchange between different travel services and modes to encourage more sustainable travel, but are concerned that, apart from obvious locations such as rail stations, little thought appears to have been given identifying other locations and the space required for them. These will be key to a good integrated transport system.

Rapid Transit

11. We are disappointed that the consideration of the relative merits of bus Rapid Transit, light rail Rapid Transit (tramways), and possibly some tram-trains in the particular circumstances of Oxford is rather limited and generalised. This is a key strategic choice, and deserves much more investigation, with social and environmental effects being given serious consideration as well as the easier-to-assess financial aspects of reduced journey times. Rail Rapid Transit is much more widely used in Europe, including the UK, and benefits from a high and positive public profile, which typically has resulted in a doubling of passenger numbers. Any suggestion that bus Rapid Transit is more flexible neglects the fact that major traffic generators such as schools and hospitals do not move. We have included a summary of a recent meeting held on “Trams in Oxford”, which explores the issues in more detail.

12. Linked to this is the question of city centre bus/Rapid Transit routeing. Greater use of public transport without a high capacity Rapid Transit system will mean even more buses on the streets, and using up scarce space in the centre for bus terminals/layovers. There is a clear conflict between the desire for more pedestrianised areas in the centre of the city and good access by public transport within and through it. The proposal for east-west and north-south tunnels beneath the centre by 2035 is one solution, though the cost and other aspects in a city centre lined with listed mediaeval buildings seems likely to be prohibitive.

Contributions from Rail services

13. We regret the absence of a serious attempt to evaluate the existing and future contributions from rail services to the overall public transport scene. These would include:

  • Longer distance journeys (say, >20 km), where the speed of rail gives it a huge advantage
  • Intermediate distance journeys (say, 5-20 km), where reserved tracks and controlled access enable rail (and light rail) to bypass the congestion found on many roads in the county
  • Short distance journeys (say, <5 km) where a rapid transit system with priority on on-road sections gives shorter and more reliable journey times than buses, coupled with greater capacity

14. We believe that the closer combination of rail and bus services with easy interchange (in the widest sense, including through ticketing) has huge potential to change commuting habits along rail corridors. We believe that the County should be leading the development of such services, and putting more pressure on Network Rail (now fully owned by the government and part of the Department for Transport) and the Train Operating Companies to provide the necessary infrastructure and services. The outlook for rail services in the Oxford area has changed dramatically during the past five years, with the following new projects either completed, under way or under consideration:

  • Electrification of the Great Western main line to Oxford (and to Bristol and Swansea), allowing faster long distance and more and better stopping services through faster acceleration
  • Gauge enlargement from Southampton to the Midlands, which already has allowed a huge increase in rail freight, reducing the amount of road freight on the A34
  • New services from Water Eaton parkway and later Oxford city to London Marylebone (Chiltern Rail)
  • Electrification allowing through electric-hauled freight from Southampton to the Midlands
  • The re-opening (and electrification) of the East-West rail line to Bedford, Milton Keynes and ultimately Cambridge
  • Redoubling of much of the Cotswold line to Worcester (and possibly to Stratford), with potential advantages to Oxford commuters
  • Possible use of the Cowley branch for passenger trains
  • A larger station at Oxford to cope with the extra planned services. We still believe that this should be built at the Oxpens to take advantage of the greater development opportunities there that will help to finance it, and to avoid much of the disruption to road traffic that would be caused by rebuilding and expansion on the present site.
    Some indication is given of possible rail contributions in the diagram for the Science Transit, but the choices between rail, light rail Rapid Transit, bus Rapid Transit, and ordinary bus need to be examined in more detail.

Science Transit

15. We believe that the setting up of the Science Transit will make a major positive contribution to the commercial attractiveness of the whole Knowledge Spine for those looking to set up R&D facilities and high-technology industries in the Central Oxfordshire region, and should be pursued vigorously, rather than being presented largely as a topic for R&D, with piecemeal implementation. Oxford University has already indicated that travel between various campuses (especially Harwell) and long commuting times from areas of lower housing cost is a major concern for their employees. Use of the existing rail corridor as the spine of the Science Transit, which follows the Knowledge Spine between Bicester, Oxford, Culham, Didcot, Milton Park, Grove, together with possible extensions, should be pursued. Four-tracking between Didcot and Oxford, already suggested by Network Rail, would make this possible.

This summary is accompanied by more detailed comments on individual parts of the Strategy.