A BUS operator has defended its decision to axe return tickets, leaving passengers with a steep hike in fares.

Stagecoach has removed the option of buying return tickets on its services within the Oxford SmartZone area, which includes Kidlington and Wheatley – forcing passengers to buy either two single tickets or a more expensive SmartZone 24-hour pass, allowing all-day travel.

The change, introduced in March to cover the rising costs in running services, only affects Stagecoach users within the city. It has left those who just want to travel to and from the city centre, or another single destination, paying up to 50p extra for their journeys – a 13 per cent increase.

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While the city’s other bus operators, Oxford Bus Company and Thames Travel, continue to sell return tickets, Stagecoach has stopped accepting return tickets issued by the two operators.

Despite complaints from passengers, Stagecoach claims most of its regular users now pay less.

The change comes as the cost of living crisis continues to deepen, with householders hit by rising prices for everything from energy bills to food and fuel. It also comes as Oxford City Council proposes expanding its controversial Zero Emission Zone across much of the city centre, which would next year see motorists forced to use buses to avoid a charge of up to £10, at current prices.

The Stagecoach website states drivers will provide bus users with the best value ticket for the journey they wish to make. However, passengers say they are still having to pay more.

A Stagecoach bus driver, who did not want to give his name, said he and his colleagues were opposed to the scrapping of return tickets, and sympathised with passengers forced to pay substantially more for a simple two-way trip.

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Hugh Jaeger, chair of Bus Users Oxford, said the changes would hit regular bus users the hardest.

He said: “It depends on your pattern of bus use – are you commuting four or five days a week, or just a couple of days for leisure and shopping?”

“We all use buses in different ways, with different patterns of bus use. People’s habits have changed during the pandemic too. We’ve gone from working in an office five days a week, to only being in two or three days a week, which makes season tickets useless too. There’s a shift to part-time commuting, which hasn’t been adjusted to.

“We’re still not up to pre-pandemic bus passenger numbers, and the recovery from the pandemic has been different across the country.”

Oxford Mail: Hugh Jaeger, chair of Bus Users Oxford. Picture: Richard CaveHugh Jaeger, chair of Bus Users Oxford. Picture: Richard Cave

Construction worker Shakim David, 22, said he had no need for an all-day ticket and said the changes have left him out of pocket.

He said: “I use public transport every day and I’ve noticed the price increase.

“I don’t need an all-day ticket because I get a bus to Bicester and back. There’s no need for me to pay extra to go to other places. 

“Everything else is going up, with rent and food prices, and fuel prices have put me off buying a car. Now public transport prices are going up too. 

“If I was going elsewhere, it would make sense financially, but that’s not the case for me. I get two singles now instead of a normal return.”

Oxford Mail readers said the change had hit them in the pocket.

Ashley Maguire said: “When I bus to work, I don’t need a day ticket. I travel to Oxford and then home again to Witney – there is no need for a day pass.”

However, Wiktoria Staniek said: “It’s still cheaper to buy a day ticket than two singles.”

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Rachel Geliamassi, managing director at Stagecoach West, defended the scrapping of return tickets.

She said: “We are committed to offering our customers the best local bus travel and consistently deliver some of the lowest ticket prices in the country. The ticket and fare changes made across the region in March are the first in almost two years and reflect the rising costs of running bus services.

“Where fares have increased, this has been kept below the annual rate of inflation of 7.5 per cent.

Oxford Mail: Rachel Geliamassi, managing director at Stagecoach WestRachel Geliamassi, managing director at Stagecoach West

“We have also taken this as an opportunity to simplify our ticket range to make it easier for passengers to find the best value for their journeys.

“For most of our frequent travellers, this means that the cost of their regular journeys has actually decreased.

“Our new Flexi 5 ticket offers better value for those planning to make several return trips a week.

“Plus, the price of single fares within the city has been frozen, ensuring that Stagecoach continues to offer value for money options for one-way trips in Oxford. Return tickets remain available outside of Oxford city centre.”

Phil Southall, managing director of Oxford Bus Company and Thames Travel said: “We continue to provide return tickets as we always have.

“However, Stagecoach has unilaterally decided to cease issuing return tickets within the Oxford SmartZone area and has advised us that it will no longer be accepting Oxford Bus Company and Thames Travel tickets in this area as a result.

“We have no choice but to accept this commercial decision by Stagecoach.”

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