The Oxford to London coach route is the most frequent long distance coach service in the United Kingdom.
Two companies operate the route. The Oxford Bus Company, using the brand name Oxford espress, runs 3 coaches an hour for most of the day. The other company, Stagecoach, using the Oxford Tube brand name, runs 5 coaches an hour. The two companies together run over 150 journeys a day in each direction. Both companies use the M40 motorway and stop at Hillingdon in west London. The Oxford Tube also stops at Lewknor. The two companies take different routes into London: the Oxford Tube via Shepherd's Bush and the Oxford Espress via Baker Street. The Oxford Espress terminates at Victoria Coach Station, the Oxford Tube in Buckingham Palace Road, Victoria.
As a comparison, there are 15 coach journeys a day from Cambridge to London.
In 1921 William Beesley of Oxford formed a company called South Midland and started excursions to London by charabanc. This became a daily service, and by 1928 it had become a regular coach service picking up and setting down passengers en route. South Midland had competitors. By 1930, 18 companies were running a total of 58 coach services between Oxford and London every day. After the Road Traffic Act 1930, the competitors quickly reduced to two: South Midland and Varsity Express. Varsity Express used the A40 via High Wycombe and Uxbridge, South Midland ran via Henley-on-Thames, Maidenhead and Slough. In 1933 the Eastern Counties Omnibus Company acquired Varsity Express (which also ran a service between London and Eastern Counties' base at Cambridge). In 1934, the Tilling Group (Eastern Counties' parent) moved the Oxford service of Varsity Express to a closer group company, United Counties.
In 1934, South Midland was running 7 journeys a day, and Varsity Express ran 8 journeys a day. The day return fare was 6/- (30p).
In 1942 the Government compelled coach operators to suspend operations. In 1945 South Midland was sold to Red & White. Operations resumed in 1946, but by 1950 both Red & White and United Counties had been nationalised and were controlled by the British Transport Commission. The BTC transferred control of South Midland to Thames Valley Traction, and in 1952 transferred the United Counties service to South Midland. During the 1950s and 1960s, South Midland ran coaches between Oxford and London about every hour, alternating between the High Wycombe and Henley routes. Non-stop coaches started in 1963, reducing the journey time to 2 hours 15 minutes.
In 1968 the Oxford Bus Company became state-owned when British Electric Traction sold its UK bus interests to the government. At the beginning of 1971 the state-owned Transport Holding Company merged South Midland with the Oxford Bus Company, which adopted the trading name Oxford South Midland. The two routes were combined with Oxford Bus Company's bus routes from Oxford to High Wycombe and Henley, and given numbers: route 30 (Oxford-Henley-London) and route 70 (Oxford-High Wycombe-London), changed to 390 and 290 in 1975.
The M40 motorway between London and Oxford was opened in stages from 1967 to 1974. Occasional non-stop services used the motorway, but in 1977 a regular non-stop service was started as route 190, later renumbered X90. In the 1980s a non-stop service, the X70, was also started between Oxford and Heathrow Airport.
In the 1980s the 290 stopping service was combined with Green Line's London to High Wycombe route.
Privatisation and competition
In 1983 Oxford South Midland was split into two in preparation for privatisation. The London services went to the Oxford Bus Company, which was sold to its management in 1987.
Competition reappeared in 1987 when Thames Transit opened up in Oxford and started its own express service to London, branded the Oxford Tube. The Oxford Bus Company branded its service Oxford Citylink. Since then competition on the non-stop routes has been fierce. Both companies have been taken over: Oxford Bus Company by Go-Ahead Group in 1994 and Thames Transit by Stagecoach in 1997. Both companies have continued to innovate, with better coaches, more frequent services, Wifi on board, and all-night services. The Oxford Tube brand has endured, whereas the Oxford Bus Company's London route was rebranded the Oxford Espress in 2000. The Heathrow service was rebranded the Airline in 2001.
In 2003 Stagecoach introduced Megabus to the route, using different termini in both Oxford and London. However, in November 2004 the Megabus service was replaced by seats on the Oxford Tube.
The stopping services to London declined. The High Wycombe service (290) ceased by 1990. The Henley service (390) was curtailed at Heathrow Airport, but the Oxford Bus Company could not make it pay and in 1996 it was taken over by Thames Transit, who renumbered it X39. Stagecoach later cut the route at Henley, and in 1999 it was taken over by Thames Travel.