2 April 1998

Dick Helling, Oxford Bus Company, Oxfordshire County Council

Talking to The Millennium Debate

Oxford had until this last week-end electric buses. In fact the service has unfortunately just been withdrawn. But what it consisted of was four battery-propelled, eighteen-seat minibuses, which ran on a service from the railway station to the city centre and the university area. These buses were recharged overnight in the bus depot, and they also were opportunity charged during the day from chargers on the station forecourt. And they basically provided a short distance shuttle service within the city centre. They have been running for four and a bit years.

They have been withdrawn purely for financial reasons. The County Council has been paying subsidy to the service – quite a significant amount of subsidy, because they are more expensive to run than ordinary diesel buses. Because of increasing government restrictions on the County Council’s overall expenditure has been cut, the budget has been cut, in each of the last four years now, and there’s going to be another 17% cut in the financial year that starts in two days’ time. And eventually the decision was reached that we could not afford to continue to pay the subsidy for the service if it meant cutting vital rural services where there is no other provision at all.

The total subsidy bill was coming to something of the order of 120,000 a year. Most of what we were paying for was for the drivers of the service. The vehicles were actually provided free by Southern Electric, as was the charging equipment. The capital costs were met. The subsidy was to cover the operating costs of the service.

That particular service to and from the station is no longer running. There are other bus services that link the station with the centre. One of these services has been diverted to run through the University Science Area, so the overall effect is that there is a less frequent service between the station and the Science Area, and no service unfortunately between the station and the Radcliffe Infirmary. But there are other links between the station and other parts of the city centre. In fact the bus services to and from the railway station have been increased as a result of the Go Ahead Group having taken over both the Oxford Bus Company and Thames Trains. And they have actually been diverting quite a lot of the Oxford Bus Company bus services into the railway station, to connect with their trains.

The electric vehicles go back to Southern Electric, who are effectively trying to find the highest bidder or the most useful use for them. It’s really up to them what happens to them, and no doubt they will tell us but at the moment I am afraid we do not know.

What do you say to local residents, who regard this development as being little short of scandalous?

I would say it is very unfortunate, but does not represent any reduction in the County Council’s commitment either to linking the railway station with the rest of the city centre or to low-pollution transport. It is purely a consequence of the financial conditions which have affected all sorts of County Council services and unfortunately this particular service is not able to be immune from the consequences.

You said it does not represent a cut in the Council’s commitment to low-pollution transport, but to remove four electric buses that were actually given to you, effectively free of charge, and replaced them, either by yourself or by others, with diesel buses is scarcely a commitment to low pollution transport is it?

They are replaced by diesel buses with low-emission engines and catalysts in fact, and it is one of the successes of the Oxford electric buses, they have inspired the bus operators in Oxford to introduce buses with much better standards, much higher emission standards in fact than were actually required at the time.

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