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.

On the futility of dualling roads

More road building?

At long last our politicians have awaken to one of the major problems affecting our District: there can be no further economic development around Witney/Carterton unless something is done to alleviate congestion on the A40 to to Oxford.

In between the totally insane (like providing monorails or cable cars) there has been some decent debate too, but it’s disappointing to hear that our own MP has come out in favour of ‘dualling the A40’. (Note that in his maiden speech in 2001 Mr Cameron said “I will always support moves to examine reopening our railway to Oxford and extending the line to Carterton…”)

You don’t need to be a transport engineer to understand that even if you quadrupled the A40 you would only just get to the Wolvercote roundabout and then abruptly stopped there.  Any solution, no matter which, is only as good as its weakest link.  In the case of transport in and around Oxford the city itself is that weakest link.  Whether because of historical neglect or bad planning – there is no time to discuss this matter in such a short blog – you can’t easily drive through the city of Oxford, in fact not even around it. So what would be the point of attracting even more car traffic to it (as this is what dualling roads create, by the way)?

No, what we really need and deserve is something much more intelligent and cost-effective.  We don’t need a bigger road, we need an alternative.  We need to offer people the ability to commute knowing that their journey will take a set amount of time, every day and regardless of weather or anything else, except real force majeure.  We need to enable people to reach the main hospital on time for their appointment and without having to park there. We need to be able to connect with the rest of the country. We can achieve these many goals through fast and efficient public transport, but not of the kind that has to share the same space with cars as this would be pointless.

A few weeks ago we met up with representatives of the CPRE.  One of them, a retired architect, had spent some time planning a number of alternative tram/trains routes joining the Cotswold line from the north of Eynsham with a number of ‘hubs’, or convergence points, where commuters from neighbouring villages would drop their cars or get off local buses, or bikes, and jump on the tram/train to Oxford and beyond.  This is the kind of solution we need (but extended to Carterton of course).  A solution that encompasses multi modal transport, not just a single one.  For those who live in rural areas cars are still essential, but they should not be used to reach congested urban areas.

So the argument for dualling the A40 is a specious one.  We have no time here to discuss evidence, cost benefits and so on  though in the short span WOT has existed we have already amassed a vast amount amount of information.  All we need now is the support of the people of our District and to get a few heads around the table, with an independent study aimed at joining up the dots, as well as using new evidence to back up our argument.  This is what we at WOT are now fighting to achieve.  As we say in our publicity – doing nothing is not an option.

This blog was written and edited by Maurizio Fantato and it therefore expresses his own views and not necessarily the official ones of WOT