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.

WOT now has a second film

WOT now has a second film in its library on the need for a railway from Oxford to Witney and beyond. This one is entitled Taming the Car: Organising for Integrated Transport in West Oxfordshire. This, too, was made by 3rd Strike Films.

The film argues that integration of transport modes – and of access to them – is essential. Turning the A40 into a dual carriageway, the current strategy of Oxfordshire County Council, is not.

 

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.

Nul points for vision

Comments from our supporter Ian Meharg on the announcement by the District Council to bid exclusively for major road improvements:

traffic jam
More jams tomorrow…

The proposal to dual some of the A40 and add a bus lane, has zero imagination or vision. This thinking is completely locked into failed 20th Century approaches and dominated by the vested interests subsidised with OUR money.

Dualling the A40 from the current end of the Witney bypass to the Eynsham roundabout with the B4449, only moves the problem 3 miles east and compresses it further into the bottleneck that OCC has designed in at the Cassington junction. The recent changes to Wolvercote and Cutteslowe roundabouts (which took 18 months to build) have had zero impact on journey times into and around Oxford – in fact, have made them worse due to unnecessary waiting at traffic lights when the roads are empty. And the problems at Cassington/Eynsham remain as they have for the last 15+ years.

Furthermore, these proposals do nothing to address the demand for road / vehicle-based journeys. You can only achieve so much simply by tinkering with available capacity. A truly integrated approach that is fit for the 21st Century and the digital age is urgently required. I have summarised such an approach which is available.

Constantly tinkering with marginal approaches will fix nothing. In fact, it will make things worse, MUCH worse. It always has and it always will.

Until and unless there is a quantum shift in thinking – in the politics, in the funding, the blinkered vision and lack of ambition in those that spend our money – we will still be having this discussion in 20 years’ time. So, either we sit back and accept it and hope that maybe, just maybe, there might be marginal improvement, or we devise a properly integrated (not merely co-located) approach to ALL forms of transport, utilising technology that may seem to some to be cutting edge now, but which will be commonplace in 2-3 years’ time (but still forward-looking), as well as tackling the ever rising demand for physical journeys. Basing a policy on what has gone 20 years ago, and expecting it to function 20 years ahead, is a monumental waste of money and a huge missed opportunity to provide Oxfordshire and the rest of the UK with an infrastructure that is even close to the quality of our European neighbours – who will soon be our competitors.

More responses to the A40 statement!

Here is the full text of the responses received – strictly in order of receipt

Green Party Candidate Claire Lasko:

“Unpredictable congestion on the A40 is strangling social and economic life in West Oxfordshire The problem will only worsen when many more houses are built here.

Dualling the A40 is not a solution. Traffic reached saturation point years ago and more road capacity instantly attracts more traffic.

A public transport solution is required, preferably a train from Carterton through Witney to Oxford. It is extraordinary that a conurbation of the size that Witney-Carterton will reach in a very few years does not have a rail link to the outside world. Until it does, the area will continue in isolation and relative decline.

It is imperative that WOT continue its invaluable work if these aims are to be met.
Best wishes”

(Green Party / on behalf of Claire Lasko 18/05/17 14:52 (email))


Robert Courts, Conservative candidate:

Thank you for your email about the A40.  I am grateful to you for raising this matter and for all the work that you do to draw attention to problems on the road.
Let me assure you that I share your frustration about the congestion on the A40, and, if I may say, also share your determination to solve this matter once and for all.
Indeed, I have brought the Transport Secretary down to Witney to see the congestion on the A40 for himself, and have also raised this issue in the House of Commons.  Should I be re-elected I will continue to lobby central government to provide the funding and expertise necessary to end the congestion on the road.
You might to be interested to know that I am currently petitioning Parliament for this very purpose. I hoping to amass as many signatories as possible to ensure the Government takes notice of the widespread discontent over the A40, and, crucially, the need to address this issue as soon as possible.  Should I be re-elected, one of the first things I will do is present the petition to Parliament.  I hope that this will bring the Government to the negotiating table so we can press for the funding and expertise necessary to provide a sustainable, long-term fix to the road.
I would invite you to sign the petition, (www.robertcourts.co.uk/a40), and would be grateful if you could encourage others to do so too.
Many thanks again and I hope we can work together on this issue in the future.
Yours sincerely,
Robert

(received by email at 16:01 Monday 22 May 2017)


PS) the Witney Gazette wrote to all the candidates and published their views here


Response from Laetisia Carter, Labour Candidate
Comment: We all know our infrastructure needs prioritising and adequate investment, and that includes transport in West Oxfordshire.

Not only will investment create local jobs during construction; it will also shape our economic future and needs careful handling!

The A40 is a vital link between jobs, hospitals and homes. It needs investment and since Labour councillors were elected to bang on about it on behalf of their neighbours we have seen some improvements. The bus lanes are very welcome but not enough.

For a sustainable future we need to build more jobs in our towns and villages. Fast broadband will help, as will a fairer economy with lending for local businesses. Let’s face it, after seven years of Tory and Lib Dem rule, any sort of regional policy and government action would be welcome! Our regional investment banks will help.

But we also need major improvements in public transport. Labour councillors have supported this, particularly buses, and would like to see light rail or similar in the district. We support a strong local plan and have criticised the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats for their ill-judged reforms to the planning system.

We are very keen on the sort of rural regeneration programme you suggest. And we are also keen to support Carterton and the base to work together to develop a science centre for the District. As Labour MP I would work with my councillor colleagues to bring jobs and homes together, with the right infrastructure.

In Chipping Norton we have very similar challenges and we need mobile connectivity (the signal is really poor!) as well as high quality jobs and better roads (with lorries out of the centre) to make our town strong again.

Time: 30/05/2017 at 22:52


Response from Liz Leffman, LibDem Candidate  (responses to our questions in Italics)

1.    Would you support the creation of an alternative transport mode, either as a light rail or similar, to serve the area in question, joining it up with the rest of the network? Yes

2.    Would you be willing to look again at the development plans for the area, lobbying for the creation of a well planned and state of art housing approach, rather than a piecemeal one as we have now?  I do not believe that under present legislation this will be possible.  Rather, I would support a review of the NPPF as a whole.  I would also support a move to require councils to plan housing and infrastructure together, instead of the piecemeal approach that we have at present.

3.    Would you be willing to consider rural regeneration plans that would create affordable and sustainable carbon neutral communities instead of conventional housing through a partnership of the private and public sectors? Yes

4.    How would you support the growth of areas like Carterton and Brize Norton as high tech centres for the District? Clearly the first step towards this is to have a transport plan for the A40, without which we will not be in a position to attract businesses to the area.

Received 1/6/2017 17:30

A40 Election Statement Request

Today we have written to all man parties candidates.  Here is the copy of the message.  As soon as we receive a reply we’ll post it on this site – keep an eye!

 

Dear  (candidate name)

We are the Witney Oxford Transport (WOT) campaign, a cross party group set up in 2013 to address the issue of traffic alongside the A40 corridor, from Carterton and neighbouring areas into Oxford.

It will come as no surprise to you that traffic congestion on the A40 has increased over the last ten years making journeys between our district and Oxford unpredictable.  In addition, several thousand houses are planned in the area.  With Oxford acting as the main economic focus for the county and the cost of housing in that city being unaffordable to most people, it is natural to expect a substantial increase in traffic on the only main artery we have, the A40, which is already at breaking point.

We are fully aware of recent plans proposed by the County Council and the LEP to ameliorate the situation but we are of the opinion that although welcome they are insufficient to address the problem and a new more radical, sustainable and long-term vision is required instead.

We are now gathering information from all candidates in order to address these questions which are of interest to our members:

  1. Would you support the creation of an alternative transport mode, either as a light rail or similar, to serve the area in question, joining it up with the rest of the network?
  2. Would you be willing to look again at the development plans for the area, lobbying for the creation of a well planned and state of art housing approach, rather than a piecemeal one as we have now?
  3. Would you be willing to consider rural regeneration plans that would create affordable and sustainable carbon neutral communities instead of conventional housing through a partnership of the private and public sectors?
  4. How would you support the growth of areas like Carterton and Brize Norton as high-tech centres for the District?

I look forward to hearing from you and will be glad to share your views with other Witney voters through WOT (Witney Oxford Transport), the pressure group that campaigns for reliable transport from Oxford to the west of the county.

Yours sincerely

Maurizio

Maurizio Fantato FRSA FRGS

Chairman

WOT Campaign

WOT was that about?

Summing up the WOT “Unblocking the A40” Seminar, 10 November, Oxford

If you have been following our campaign you couldn’t have missed the seminar we organised a couple of weeks ago in Oxford.  Before, during and after the event we received a number of questions and we thought it would be useful to address some of these issues in a Q&A format (the questions have been re-edited as several were similar):

Why did you organise this event in Oxford and not in Witney?

Two fundamental reasons.  The first is that traffic alongside the A40 is both ways and it affects people in Oxford too.  The second is eminently practical.  We had speakers and guests travelling by train and there was simply no way they could have come to a public venue on time in Witney.  Those who commute from Oxford to Witney daily will know what we are talking about.  There was nothing more complex or sinister in the decision and the majority of our regular meetings are held in the Carterton/Witney/Eynsham areas.

How did you select the speakers?

We wanted to bring in a range of expertise and visions.  Ray provided the urban planner expertise, as well as his own joined up vision of a regional approach that might even go beyond our local stretch of the A40.  Roger came from one of our funders, Railfuture, to offer us his own perception of how these things work in terms of looking at strategic partnerships, as well as looking at opportunities in view of recent legislative changes.  Finally we couldn’t have wished for a better overall public transport expert with Stephen from CBT (Campaign for Better Transport) and his huge knowledge of these matters not only at local but also international level.

What did you want to achieve?

In a year which has seen fundamental shifts in this country’s political and economic landscape you could forgive our key stakeholders for taking their eyes off the ball, with the risk that more time would be wasted before anything was done to alleviate the situation.  A public meeting was our way of telling them that we are very much in the business of ensuring this problem should continue to be a top priority.  Furthermore, we also wanted to demonstrate that what we had brought to the table on previous occasions and in several semi-private meetings at council and district level was also backed by the public and by even more experts.   Lastly, we simply need the support of as many people and local organisations as possible to achieve our objectives.  It would have been unrealistic to have set more specific goals, like expecting to have total agreement for a specific solution.  The debate itself demonstrated the variety of interests and approaches.

Are the presentations available?

Yes, just go on the Past Events page and you will be able to download a PDF of each of the two presentations (there were no Powerpoint slides from Roger).

What are you planning to do next?

We are planning to organise a summit of all local parish councils in the new year during which we will discuss more specific details of our approach as well as exchanging information on some highly technical issues related to the proposed short term improvements to the A40

Do you favour a specific solution?

Many of us see a public transport option (rail or similar) as the best possible alternative.  We are not naturally opposed to the dualling of the A40, but we simply do not think that this alone could possibly provide a solution.  The travel pattern in our District is just too complex and, just as a mere example, even 15 years ago the County council wanted to dual the A40 *and* create a parallel public transport link all the way from Witney to Oxford.  If there was such need back then we could easily argue this is even more urgent now.  

Right now our main concern is that any land where the old rail link was sited is safeguarded.  Once the land is built up it would be much more difficult to reclaim it.   So it must be protected together with its essential infrastructure such as bridges and so on.

Why public transport?

There are two good reasons.  The first is strategic. You can’t just rely on a simple transport mode.  You couldn’t have just a few roads going from Bristol to London and no other form of transport. It would have engendered chaos and stifled economic growth.  So we need an alternative.  Public transport of the right kind, where vehicles follow their own independent tracks, is reliable by definition as a customer can plan a journey and reach their destinations within set times.  Everyone who uses trains, metros or the London river boats know this. You know the time your service will pass by your stop and when you will reach your destination.

Do you have any documentation?

We have amassed a very large library of documents, from the original Mott Macdonald report to more recent ones and more. Just drop us a line for information.

Are your regular meeting public?

Yes. We meet at least monthly and mainly at Freeland Parish Hall.  We publish the meeting dates on Facebook and on our website.  Everyone is welcome to attend.

How can we get in touch?

Easy.  Just drop us a line or follow us on our social media channels.