TWO bus operators – one receiving £80,000 of public money – are now vying for passengers on the same Witney route.

The “bus wars” between RH Transport, of Downs Road, Witney, and Worths, of Enstone, started on Monday. Today, two buses arrived within five minutes of each other at around 9am at Witney’s Market Square to pick up just one passenger.

From December 27, the rivalry becomes even more intense, as both companies switch to virtually the same timetables on the Witney to Charlbury and Chipping Norton route, taking in the villages of Finstock, Ramsden and Hailey.

It has come about because the county council has just switched its route subsidy of £80,000 a year from one operator to another. The new subsidised service, X9, is being run by RH Transport, which started operating on Monday.

Worths, which previously had the subsidy, has decided that it will also continue to run buses on the route with its 69 service, because it thinks it’s worth the business even without public money.

Passengers include students at the Witney campus of Abingdon and Witney College, as well as commuters from villages needing to get into and out Witney. Peak demand is into Witney in the morning and out late in the afternoon.

Paul Worth, director of Worths, said: “We have been running bus services since 1926, and on this route for some time now.

“Even though our bid for the renewal of the subsidy wasn’t successful, it’s a commercial decision to continue.

“We have knocked off the Chipping Norton end of the route on some of the service throughout the day, because we don’t think it’s commercially viable. But on peak services, it has been standing room only.”

The council awards subsidies on selected routes on a four-year rolling programme. It ensures that there is a guaranteed service if operators decide it is not commercial.

Throughout Oxfordshire, the county’s bill is £5m a year.

Since the deregulation of bus routes in 1985 to open competition, there is no licensing or regulation to prevent multiple operators, even when a subsidised service is involved.

Mr Worth added:”It is an hourly service. We have been running from Witney at five past the hour, but decided to change it some months ago to on the hour.

“I think RH issued a timetable to the county to run on the hour to be ahead of us. Yes, it now looks like both buses will be arriving at exactly the same time.”

The Gazette has contacted RH Transport four times this week, but the company has so far declined to comment.

Paul Smith, spokesman for the county council, said yesterday: “The awarding of the subsidy on this route was done through the normal tendering process.

“We are contributing £80,000 a year to guarantee it continues.

“The operator cannot go above a maximum fare we set. They can charge less, only as long as it does not undercut an existing service.”

Worths charge a fare of £2.20 for a single to and from Witney and Charlbury (£3.75 return).

The maximum fare that RH Transport can charge, under subsidy rules, is £2.60.

Neither operators, nor the council, could give details about the number of passengers using the route.