or more accurately, COACH WARS: Oxford Espress vs. Oxford Tube
For the past half year, I’ve been commuting back and forth from Oxford to London every week (not every day, though). In that time I’ve been able to make a thorough appraisal of the best way to make the journey.
Oxford is approximately 56 miles from London and according to my roadmap, it should take about 1:15 to make the journey by car. On the other hand, a train takes about 55 minutes and, in theory, is less variable. Both of these times are rather optimistic estimates. The car time assumes that you encounter little to no traffic, while the train time doesn’t factor in commuting times to the station or the not infrequent delays on the rail service.
It wouldn’t really be worth me writing about the value of taking a car instead of the train or vice versa because firstly, I don’t drive, and secondly, they’re such different forms of transport that I don’t think anything I say would really matter to anyone. Some people are rail travellers and some are drivers; the two groups are separated more by ideology than reason, much like Apple and Windows users.
However, Oxford is an anomaly among cities near London in that it has not one but two highly frequent coach services that run 24 hours a day. These coaches offer a real alternative to both car and train by virtue of being right in the middle of the two; they are reasonably quick, cheap, regular and make multiple stops in the centre of both cities. The only problem is that the two services are, on the surface, almost identical. Or are they? Frequent commuters will know how important it is to pick a good service early on in order to get season ticket savings, so here’s a guide to which service is best.
Oxford is an anomaly for another reason. The two coaches are run by two bus companies – the Oxford Bus Company and Stagecoach. Both companies operate full and near identical local services in Oxford, with near identical pricing. The advantage of this is that Oxford has a very pervasive and frequent public transport system for such a small city. The disadvantage is that the two companies obviously do not take each others tickets and their route numbers are different, meaning customers often become confused. I don’t use local buses much but I haven’t been able to discern any real difference between the two companies.
The Oxford Espress, aside from having a horrible name, is run by the Oxford Bus Company. The coaches are normal single-deckers, whereas Stagecoach’s Oxford Tube service uses custom-made double-decker coaches.
You can find out the fare prices for both services from the links above. At the time of writing, on both services a single from Oxford to London (and vice versa) costs £10, while a return costs £12. There are discounts for concessions and students, and unsurprisingly, these are identically priced as well.
In fact, all the prices are identical. Occasionally one service might introduce a new fare, as the Oxford Tube did with its cut-price ‘Nightrider’ which offers discount return travel after 3pm, but within weeks the other service will copy the entire idea, right down to the name; the Oxford Espress isn’t fooling anybody with its ‘Night Owl’ service.
Both services start at Gloucester Green bus station in Oxford and end at Victoria. They make near identical stops in Oxford and they also stop at Hillingdon (a tube station 30 minutes out from Victoria) but the similarities end there.
The Oxford Tube tends to make more stops in general. About 30 minutes out from Oxford, it stops at a place in the middle of nowhere called Lewknor Turn. It’s a dark little lay-by that presumably serves people living in nearby villages. In London, the coach stops at Shepherd’s Bush, Notting Hill Gate, Marble Arch before getting to Victoria. The more perceptive of you will realise this can involve an awful lot of traffic in rush hour.
The Oxford Espress shuns Lewknor Turn and instead of diving straight into London, it takes the flyover and goes directly to Baker Street. This saves a little on the traffic.
Clearly there’s not much to distinguish the services in terms of routes, and your choice will no doubt be influenced by the stops in London and how close they are to where you want to go. For my part, I always go to Victoria so it makes no difference to me.
This is where it gets interesting. Since the Oxford Tube is a double-decker coach and generally attracts more passengers, it takes longer to load up and disembark at every stop. Furthermore, I find that its route, especially the Lewknor Turn stop, lengthens any given journey by approximately 10 to 20 minutes depending on the time of day.
The Oxford Espress’ route, with two fewer stops, combined with its smaller capacity, mean that it definitely wins on terms of speed. The quickest journey I’ve had from Oxford to London has been on the Espress and it took 1:15, while the Tube took slightly longer. In rush hour, both services can take up to 2:30.
Result: Espress wins
Both services run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. From Monday to Saturday they both run approximately every 10-15 minutes during the daytime and every 20 minutes in the early morning and late evening.
However, it’s at night when the differences emerge. The Oxford Tube runs coaches every 30 minutes during the wee hours from 2am to 4am on most days, while the Oxford Espress only manages a coach every hour. Both services run every hour from 4am to 6am or so. For most people this difference is really not an issue but if you go for any nights out in London, then the difference between waiting 30 minutes and an hour is very significant.
Result: Tube wins
In my experience, the Oxford Espress is slightly more reliable in terms of its coaches being spaced out evenly in time. This is probably due to the fact that it doesn’t take as long to load or have as many passengers. In terms of coaches breaking down, anecdotal reports indicate that the Tube suffers more, but that might be down to response bias. Still, I could well believe it since the Tube’s double-decker behemoths, though they may be brand new and well maintained, are inevitably more prone to breakdown than standard-issue single-deckers.
Result: Espress wins
Chances of getting a seat
Not the best of titles, but important nonetheless. Since the Espress, for some reason, has proportionately fewer passengers I find it easier to get a seat on board. I have never seen a full Espress coach while I often see full Tube coaches. This is very important for those people who place a high value on having two seats to themselves.
Result: Espress wins
For a long time, the Espress won this competition hands down by offering air-condition and power sockets where the Tube didn’t. With its recent fleet upgrade, the Tube now also offers air conditioning and power sockets for every two seats. All seats on both services recline (not a good thing in my opinion, I hate getting seats in my face).
While I haven’t actually measured the seating space (although I may do in the future), I am pretty sure that the Espress has about one or two inches more legroom. It also has leather headrests and the general state of cleanliness is higher. This is no doubt due in part to the higher passenger numbers on the Tube.
Result: Espress wins
Closely related to comfort are the type of passengers that travel on the services. Now you may think I’m being ridiculously picky and offensive by even including this section but no-one would choose to sit on a coach for two hours surrounded by noisy teenagers when they want to get some sleep if they could sit on a quieter coach.
Put basically, the Oxford Tube has every type of passenger, from tourists to students to workers. Generally people are well behaved although I have found that the Tube is occasionally host to people blasting out music or talking very loudly – in the night – for the entire journey.
The Tube’s passengers also span the full range in terms of how often the use the Tube. Some of them use it regularly and so don’t have to ask the driver about stops or fares and can whiz past using their fare cards. Others are less experienced and take longer. This contributes to longer boarding times.
In contrast, the Oxford Espress attracts what I would call ‘professional passengers’. I don’t mean that they they’re all workers – indeed, while the Espress is skewed more towards workers it’s still frequented by students and some tourists – I mean that they tend to know what they are doing. Either they’re regular passengers and know the stops and the fares, or they’re savvy tourists and they’ve taken the time to find these things out beforehand. This results in a quicker boarding process and makes for a profoundly peaceful journey.
Result: Espress wins
TOTAL: ESPRESS 5, TUBE 1
The Oxford Espress is definitely better than the Tube, in terms of speed, comfort, reliability and general experience. That doesn’t mean that the Tube is particularly bad, it’s just not as good. The Tube may still be better for you in terms of its stops but for most I would recommend the Espress.
The interesting question behind all of this is why, despite the Espress’ superiority, the Tube attracts more passengers. The simple answer is that the Tube has superior marketing and branding. It has a memorable name and colours and is generally more well known among the public. When people start using the Tube, it’s ‘good enough’ and so they don’t bother trying the Espress because they think it’s less frequent or more expensive (that’s what happened to me, anyway).
The reason the Espress hasn’t gone out of business is because it has built up a loyal following due to its quality. I have a few friends who won’t take the Tube any more and I suspect the same is true for many commuters. My advice to the Oxford Bus Company is to change the Espress’ name into something you can say aloud without feeling stupid, and to improve their branding and marketing. I don’t have any advice for the Tube aside from running more frequent coaches because it’s hard to see how they can change their demographic without changing their coach fleet again, and that’s not going to happen for some time now. I suppose they might want to consider missing off the Lewknor Turn stop.