We can’t see any progress…

Leaving aside the obvious temporary lull caused by the pandemic, we frequently come across people living in our district asking us why there has been no progress concerning more sustainable long-term public transport of the kind we have been advocating. There are several reasons for this and we hope to shed some lights in here.

Political landscape

The political landscape in West Oxfordshire is a complex one but let’s start from the top down. Our recently elected MP, unlike his predecessor, David Cameron, who even mentioned the need for a railway between Carterton/Witney and Oxford in his maiden speech, is at best lukewarm about the prospect of opening new railways. His approach has been consistent – as far as he is concerned most efforts should go in the development of the existing Cotswold line. The line serves tourists and London commuters without disturbing our pretty Cotswold villages. This is wholly inconsequential for the vast majority of West Oxfordshire’s population and for virtually all of those who will occupy the thousands of new houses being built in West Oxfordshire – all well to the south of the quaint little Cotswold line.

This leaves us with West Oxfordshire District Council. Developers are supposed to pay for the infrastructure their housing requires. They renege and WODC counts itself lucky if they pay enough for a roundabout, never mind a railway. So, there is little or no support in WODC for a railway. Some of the councillors are even of the opinion that it’s way better to stick to the current heavy traffic situation to dissuade people from moving into our area as if this had ever been a significant factor for people not moving into areas with marginally lower housing costs. Given a choice between spending a lot more for a house in Oxford and somewhere more affordable, such as Carterton, people put up with the longer commute and set off earlier. The A40 is often packed to a standstill by 6.30 in the morning and by 4.00 in the evening. 

At County level, the situation is more complex and more varied, but it is fair to say that the westward A40 corridor isn’t as significant from an economic perspective as the A34 north/south one, which is where the bulk of the resources is aimed.

Those new developments

Regardless of the political landscape or maybe because of it, more houses are being built in our district. Carterton is due to double in size and Witney to increase by probably another 40%. The proposed development of the euphemistically called ‘Garden village’ outside Eynsham will graft another 2000+ houses on a 530 acres site and though the WODC Area Action Plan mentions in passing additional traffic it’s rather vague in relation to its volume. Yet anyone who lives in our District is well aware that these days each house will have at least a car, if not even 2, so the rule of thumb potential for that development alone is for at least another 1500 car journeys daily. Meanwhile, further smaller developments are being built as we speak across the area, particularly next to small villages like Aston or Bampton, with even more demands on poorly maintained roads.

You don’t need to be a transport guru, therefore, to understand that with all these huge developments being planned demands on the existing infrastructure will be massive, even post-COVID with a greater emphasis on remote working and simply because the infrastructure was already at breaking point before the pandemic.

What to do?

The pandemic has made people suspicious of public transport. It has done nothing to slow the growth of huge new housing estates in West Oxfordshire, all designed for cars. Congestion on the A40 before the pandemic was intolerable. Post pandemic, it may be that car transport will become simply impractical. Of course, some people will be able to work from home, but this is a poor basis for a West Oxfordshire transport strategy. WOT is not against private cars, but private cars as part of a transport strategy that integrates private and public transport, including cycling, walking and bus. Rail is an absolutely essential part of this mix.

Ultimately, political opinion can be changed if there is demonstrable public support. So, our strategic approach is precisely that. While we may not be able to see a new rail built in the next five years, we can still make progress for the planning of new rail links and especially for the setting aside of the required land, protecting it from rapacious development. The future for rail, especially in semi-suburban areas like ours, has probably never been brighter.

Transport in times of elections

These are peculiar times and this is a very peculiar election as we all know, dominated principally by Brexit (and that’s the only mention of it in this post!) rather than the more run of the mill items we have grown accustomed to in normal times.  Transport therefore is relegated at the bottom of the political agenda, despite the fact that some of the local candidates have made some attempt in their propaganda at least to mention some of their so called achievements or aspirations.

Nevertheless we decided to ask each of our local candidates a set of question which we are now publishing here

Nitrogen dioxide levels in central Witney remain dangerously high and illegal. Do you agree this is an urgent problem and how would you seek to tackle it?

In 1960 you could catch a train from the centre of Witney at 7:28am and be in the centre of Oxford at 7:56.  The same journey by car or bus can now take up to two hours. Do you see this as progress?
 
Why spend £10s of millions of taxpayers money on increasing capacity for motor vehicles using the A40 carriageway when we are in the midst of a climate crisis?
Do you think appropriate measures should be taken to ensure that housing developments in the District are planned to incorporate future rail/cycle transit links?
Do you think that existing housing developers’ contributions are adequate in order to ensure the provision of well funded public services in those areas?
We shall publish their responses if we get any in due course!

Most important election issues
What people feel are the most important general elections issues

The Great Cable Car Delusion

From time to time, in response to the worsening traffic affecting Oxford and surroundings, fanciful solutions are aired as a cure all to afford a quick and (preferably) cheap solution to the problem.   A couple of years ago we had the monorail, this year we have another craze, the cable car.  According to a variety of sources (including alas the Oxford Civic Society) we should visualise the Oxford skyline crisscrossed by gondolas, linking together various park and ride lots with the hospital for example.

You don’t even have to be a transport engineer, or an urban planner to perceive what complete and utter folly this would be.   First of all there is no evidence (except for very special conditions like the cable cars linking the Rio’s favelas or similar) that cable car work in urban areas.  Take a look at the London one, painfully bleeding money and carrying a handful of commuters a day.   There are also all the practical problems related to its siting, particularly given the aggressive history of nimbyism in Oxford.  Who would want a gondola full of people overlooking their back garden, or college ground?  How would you transport the sick and infirm to and from the hospital?  The list of impracticalities is almost endless.

The problem is that after decades of underfunding there is really no easy solution than a large injection of money aimed at creating an integrated transport infrastructure with massive road improvements, subsidised buses and enhanced railway links (including new ones).  This will cost a lot of money.  But if you stopped maintaining your home for several decades you’d soon find out that putting things right before the whole edifice fell down will turn out to be much higher than if you had spread it over the years.  Why should it be so different for public infrastructure?

Time to roll up our sleeves and start addressing those pressing Oxfordshire traffic problems with pragmatism, however expensive those solutions may appear to be.  We are now well past sticky plaster times;  yet we can confidently say that returns on right infrastructural investments could quickly turn out to be very high indeed.

I need to go now or I’ll miss the next airship from Witney to Oxford.

Unanswered questions

Robert Courts must have received an avalanche of letters from constituents impressed with the huge benefits the revamped Bicester to Oxford rail link has generated. Nonetheless, he now declares that “Rail may not be the answer to A40 chaos” (Witney Gazette, 14 February).

Some of his assertions are based on inaccurate premises. Reopening of the old railway line from Oxford to Witney is a non-starter. It was built to transport agricultural produce, not commuters, so the old track reflected the economic needs of 150 years ago. A new route is needed instead, one that joins Cowley to Oxford and Witney and beyond, linking with the proposed park and ride along the way and providing transport interchanges for those who use cars, buses and bikes. We envisage an integrated transport system to serve the whole district, not simply tinkering with the A40.

Much was made of ‘evidence’. For a clear example of the very rapid economic benefits that the reopening of a railway line brings one can look at Scotland, at the Border extension in particular. A year 1 report estimated that there were 40,000 fewer car journeys with improved access to job markets, greater tourist influx and overall beneficial effects to the local economy and to the environment. As for commuter satisfaction you don’t have to go as far as Scotland, just look at the revamped Oxford to Bicester line.

When representatives of Witney Oxford Transport Group met Mr Courts last August, we supplied him with detailed plans of our proposal, supported by an imaginative private/public funding scheme. We presented him with an integrated vision of a regional transport system that was not circumscribed by problems faced by cars on the A40. Mr Courts promised a considered response. Six months later we are still waiting for his response. Now it seems that he never did have the interest and imagination to see any further than the traffic jam on the A40.

Dismissing a rail link will continue to cripple the local economy of West Oxfordshire, turning large parts of our district into unattractive dormitory towns where the only possible transport mode is the car, and generating more traffic, more pollution and increased misery. Try harder, Mr Courts.

If you would like to follow this conversation online you can join our Facebook page.

A tale of two roundabouts

Almost simultaneously to the start of the Wolvercote Roundabout improvement works Swindon Borough Council started working on one of the town’s major roundabouts, the Greenbridge one.   To all intent and purpose it’s a very similar layout to the Wolvercote one, see picture, and the cost is more or less the same (£4m ca for Greenbridge and £9m for two roundabouts in Oxford).  

Greenbridge roundabout
Greenbridge roundabout plans

But there is a huge difference. If you travel into Swindon at rush hour you’d barely be affected by the works.  Lanes have been left open in all directions and repairs proceed at lightening speed.  As early as 7 am there will be workmen beavering away and progress is noticeable from one day to the next.

Try travelling at rush hour using Wolvercote roundabout… and as for work progress many people have taken the trouble to write to the Council and to the local papers describing the speed of work as an embarrassment.

Before you ask, both authorities are Tory led , so there is no difference in their political make up either.   When it comes to transport infrastructure we must be down at the bottom of the pile.  People often complain to us of how poorly maintained roads are once they get into Oxfordshire, as for buses and other public transport we all know well the kind of predicament we are in. 

Draw your own conclusions…

More than 20,000 extra cars?

 

Will our roads cope with the estimated traffic that additional housing developments planned for parts of our District could bring?

WOT officials have mapped potential housing developments alongside the A40 corridor.  We are aware that while some of these are certain to go ahead, others are still very much in planning and may therefore not even be developed, but the situation is certainly very worrying.

Even assuming that ‘only’ half of the developments in the map below went ahead this represents approximately 8000 new dwellings, or, 12,000 extra cars on our roads. How can we expect the existing infrastructure to cope with such surge in demand?  

A great deal of these new developments are sited close to the A40 (take Carterton, or West Witney for example) and are therefore fully reliant on that road.

We have little doubt in our minds that we need a long-term, reliable public transport solution.  If we just waited for the houses to be built it would way too late and would also end up costing us a lot more.  Why can’t we start planning long-term now?

A40 housing developments planned
Possible housing developments

Had you heard of the Cotswold Necklace?

Ray Hall has been a member of WOT for a while and has a distinguished career in architecture and planning. You can read more about his career and experience on Ray’s website but in the meantime, Ray offered us his own pearls of wisdom, or rather, a Cotswold Necklace instead, and you can read more below. What matters most is that our District isn’t short of idea, but we desperately need the resources and the political will to make some of these long-term plans a reality.


Six years ago, my wife and I moved from our home of 38 years in southeast London to live in Witney, as a gateway to the Cotswolds. We were welcomed by many and now feel a precious sense of belonging in this very special place. For, which we are very grateful.

I led for 34 years a small Architecture, Planning and Interior Design practice based in southeast London. For ten years, we also had a property arm in Westminster, focused on rail related projects.

Soon after arriving in Witney, I began sitting attending Town Council meetings as a member of the public. My goal was to understand the issues being faced. It soon became apparent that population growth was a dominant concern, without the infrastructure needed to cope, quite apart from thrive. As a result, my own arrival was, in a sense, part of the problem now needing to be addressed.

It was not long before the then Mayor of Witney shared his deep concern that the special character of a town, loved by so many, could be undermined. He then said, ‘Ray, as a volunteer, can you help us?’ I was surprised, but pleased. I agreed on the basis that the ideas I tabled would be remain mine.

I then stepped back to see a much bigger picture. 

For, Witney is part of the Oxford City region that, in turn, is part of a ‘golden triangle’ with Cambridge and London. Together, they are a ‘powerhouse’ of innovation in the UK. Witney is also a rurally focused market town at the gateway to another region at the heart of England, the Cotswolds. It then became clear that a new relationship was now needed between those two seemingly conflicting contexts, identities and roles. The key missing component was a strategic approach to infrastructure and especially transport. I then asked many questions and talked with many people. The outcome was a substantial Discussion Paper dated 14.03.2016 that I presented to Witney Town Council. It was entitled “A new future for Witney and The Cotswolds”. As part of a bigger and more detailed picture, there were two core proposals:

  1. That the very evident investment interest in housing in the region is harnessed as part of one business plan; and
  1. That, at its heart, there must be a future-back-to-the-present infrastructure strategy, focused on transport and utilities, including green energy generation and recycling. 
Diagram of the Cotswold Necklace proposal

The drawing above hosts three diagram maps that summarize my overall masterplan. It was tabled before the Eynsham Garden Village was proposed, but anticipated substantial new villages north of the A40. 

Hanborough station would become a multi-modal transport hub, accessing a new eco-based rail line serving a region focused on Eynsham, Witney, Brize Norton and Carterton. With an opportunity to extend westward to a second transport hub near Swindon. I called it ‘A Cotswolds Necklace Line’.

New residential schemes would enable its delivery. Each would be local in character and green energy based. The rail line would be pivotal to a network of pedestrian, cycle and bus routes to minimize a dependency on cars, even when electrified. One goal was that the Lower Windrush Valley is accessible for recreational enjoyment by all ages and abilities from across the region. 

This strategy would then enable all of the existing towns, villages and hamlets to consolidate, free from the pressure of future development interest. There would also be long term clarity. For, other eco-villages could be added as the rail based ‘Cotswolds Necklace Line’ extends towards Swindon. Carterton would then become pivotal in the region, potentially as an energy + air-focused, innovation based counter magnet to Oxford, accessible into a national rail network.

As a sub-regional transport hub, Carterton could also have substantial park-and-ride provision off the A40 west of Witney. Clearly, locations such as Burford and Bampton would also be beneficiaries As can be seen, my goal then is a ‘Cotswolds Circle Line’. It would embrace a region that at the heart of a nation that has a challenging, as well as an exciting, future ahead. 

The direction of these proposals was formally welcomed by Witney Town Council. It has taken no further action.

A national, regional and local context is, however, now shaping that can could enable its’ themes to be explored further. As a result, through colleagues, there have been discussions with a credible rail operator, with the goal of being able to implement an eventual scheme. If it was possible, gaining a more detailed response locally and regionally could, therefore, be timely. For, it could help me discern whether and how to proceed further.

Roads at breaking point – don’t panic!

So Ian Hudspeth the Chairman of the County Council is now saying that “We are at breaking point” and that “we should use public transport more”.  This is quite  something coming from a Council that has in the past consistently ignored public transport.

For years, and despite comparatively modest subsidies, the Council has silently been chipping away at public transport routes, particularly rural bus links, as well as neglecting long term strategies on the grounds of costs.  Now we are simply reaping the rewards of this strategy.  Our roads can’t cope any longer, the A40 in particular.  Yet hundreds of houses – apparently – will need to be built outside Oxford, thus adding to existing traffic and to the misery of daily commuting in and out of the city, without any additional infrastructure, except perhaps the odd junction improvement.

Suddenly the Leader of the Council has realised that you could reduce congestion by using public transport and has urged us to use what little of it we have got left.  Pity though that buses have to share the same congested space as cars and that there are as yet no real alternatives, like light railways or tramways, to relieve overcrowding and provide reliable transport links.  As for suggesting to use Long Hanborough station the newly extended car park is virtually full, its platform couldn’t cope with additional passengers at peak times, neighbouring roads would require urgent improvements  and, without substantial rail investment, no further trains could be run on that line.  So much for a viable alternative.

So what to do?  Well, for a start we should stop burying our heads in the sand, recognising that at least for the sake of good transport planning anything within a 15 miles radius of Oxford (give or take a few miles) should be classified as being part of a unified metropolitan area.  This approach would require a dramatic paradigm shift, but could focus planners and politicians into creating a truly integrated transport network.

In some parts of this ‘greater Oxford area’ a variety of actions may be required, from road improvements (perhaps more Park and Ride facilities), to newly built dedicated public transport links.  This can be done.  It just needs the humility to admit that we can’t continue as now and that we desperately need a long term strategic approach, backed by substantial investment of course.  And on this final point it seems that we can always find money to fund new ways of killing each other, or find very large sums to deliver massive infrastructural projects like HS2 when we really want to. Why can’t we find adequate resources for decent public transport, when we can demonstrate that  these investments could even encourage a more thriving local economy? Beside, as polls have consistently shown, if you provide full clarity, apportion taxation fairly and allocate these funds to specific schemes people are willing to pay more for this kind of long term solutions.  It just needs guts and long term vision.

Maurizio Fantato

(my own opinions not necessarily those of WOT)

Tunnels and all

No light at the end of the tunnel

In a desperate attempt to placate public opinion in the light of the currently dire transport situation in and around Oxford some of our local politicians are throwing around ideas on massive infrastructural schemes almost similar in scale to the proposed (and aborted) Thames estuary airport.   From ‘futuristic’ tramways cutting into St Giles, monorails criss-crossing swathes of our beautiful countryside and leading nowhere, to the latest idea – tunnelling under Oxford – there is no limit to a politician’s imagination at times of trouble and quite close to a general election.

The idea of boring under a city which, as the Oxford Field Observatory describes as placed on “…shallow, highly permeable alluvial sediments … rivers and streams that flow across it are well connected to the groundwater within the sediments. Groundwater levels are generally no deeper than 2m below ground level.” is quite frankly mind boggling.  While it isn’t of course impossible to tunnel underwater, it’s definitely horrendously expensive.  Why can’t we think of spending less on much more pragmatic solutions?

Anyone who has lived in Oxfordshire for a number of years has noticed an increase in commuting times in and around the main urban areas.  The causes behind increased traffic congestion are complex but range from lack of planning, demographics, the economic situation and, as we have just noticed, topographical.  If to all this we add bad planning (like scheduling major improvements simultaneously in order to make use of central funds by the end of a fiscal year) we can see that we have in our hands a recipe for disaster.

So in the light of all this could we please, please, for once take the trouble of consulting with experts, urban planners, architects and transport specialist first, so that we could really create long term plans, rather than running around fire-fighting and advocating, when cornered, implausible solutions?

Quite how Oxford and surrounding areas could cope with what Councillor Ian Hudspeth, leader of Oxfordshire County Council mentioned when interviewed recently forecasting 85,000 new jobs and 100,000 new homes up to 2031 remains a mystery, unless common sense and proper  long term planning returns to the table.