Oxford to Bicester, Banbury and Worcester

Description of line

To understand fully the Oxford - Bicester line , one must place it in the context of the Varsity Line or , as it is now known , East West Rail Link , of which it forms part.

Varsity Line (or Oxford and Cambridge Line) is an informal name for the railway service which formerly linked the English university cities of Oxford and Cambridge , operated by the London and North Western Railway and then British Railways. A pun on the railway term main line was sometimes employed by describing the line as the "Brain Line."

Although not listed in the original Beeching report , the line from Oxford via Bletchley and Bedford to Cambridge was closed at the end of 1967.

The line forms a major portion of the proposed East West Rail Link (a project to establish a strategic railway connecting East Anglia with Central, Southern and Western England) and its present status presents a significant obstacle to the realisation of such a plan.

From Oxford to Bicester , the track remains open and in regular passenger and freight use. Since 1951 passenger trains have started from the former Great Western Railway Oxford station. From Bicester to Swanborne , the track is in place but overgrown. Within this the stretch between Bicester and Claydon Junction is used for regular freight trains full of refuse bound for the landfill site at Calvert. From Swanbourne to Mursley , the track has been lifted , but the trackbed remains and makes reinstatement feasible. From there1 to Newton Longville , the track is in place but overgrown. The stretch from Newton Longville to Bletchley was re-laid in spring 2006 and opened on 27 March 2006 for freight traffic , again of refuse for the Newton Longville landfill site. From Bletchley to Bedford , the track is open and in daily passenger use (as the Marston Vale Line.)

Between Bedford and Cambridge all of the track has been removed and some sections of the trackbed have been lost. At Sandy and Potton new housing occupies the former route. At Lord's Bridge near Cambridge the Ryle Telescope of Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory now occupies a 4.8 km (three mile) length of the former route.

A further problem is the lack of through platforms at Bletchley and Bedford. The current track layout at Bletchley means that , without the proposed new high-level station , through trains would have to go around the station without stopping. Similarly, Bedford St Johns station was rebuilt on a different site , and is no longer on the through alignment towards Sandy.

In May 2006 the Department of Transport announced specific plans for Bletchley station. The document states that "it is likely" that Bletchley area renewals and network simplification will take place by 2010 , "to include a high-level platform" for the Bedford trains. "The network will be suitable for the later addition of any 'East-West' link to and from Oxford and for the operation of through links from either Oxford or Bedford to and from Milton Keynes."

In the expansion plans for Milton Keynes , the area around Newton Longville is to be extensively developed. A new passenger station for Newton Longville is included in the "MK2031" strategic plan , with a spur to a new platform at Milton Keynes Central railway station. An upgraded line is already in place and a simple halt would not be expensive.

On 4 December 2006 , work began at Milton Keynes Central to prepare for a service connection from the Marston Vale Line , with completion scheduled for December 2008.

Chiltern Railways have announced that a new station , known as Aylesbury Vale Parkway, will be built 3 miles north west of Aylesbury town station , adjacent to the A41 and the major development at Berryfields. The existing track , currently only used by freight trains , will be upgraded and new signalling equipment will be installed. This line could be extended further north to reach a rebuilt Oxford-Bletchley line at Verney Junction and Chiltern Railways have long term aspirations to reach Milton Keynes.

Hopes for a revival of the Varsity Line rested on the proposed East West Rail Link. As well as upgrading the track from Bicester to Bletchley , this scheme was aiming to construct a new 9-mile trackbed between Bedford and Sandy on roughly the same alignment as the original. At Sandy , trains would then have joined the East Coast Main Line to Biggleswade - Arlesey - Hitchin and then switched north-east to Letchworth - Baldock - Ashwell and Morden - Royston - Meldreth - Shepreth - Foxton - Cambridge.

However little progress was made with the project and development plans were further dashed when , in 2001 , the Strategic Rail Authority rejected the option to reopen the stretch of line between Bicester and Bletchley. More recently (April 2006) the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister reported itself to be in favour of the principle of re-opening the link to Oxford but gave no indication of underwriting that opinion.

An alternative alignment for the line eastwards from Sandy has been proposed in order that East Coast Main Line line capacity is not affected by the new line. This alignment would continue from Sandy to the east along the original line , skirting Sandy Warren , before heading directly east with stations at Wrestlingworth and Bassingbourn before joining the existing railway network again at Foxton.

Despite the development opportunities for the fast-growing Oxford-Cambridge Arc, it is unlikely that the Varsity Line can be revived within the next 20 years. The problem of reconstrucing the Bedford to Sandy route is a particular obstacle. However , hope remains alive that the line between Bletchley and Bicester may re-open to provide an Oxford to Milton Keynes Central train service.

Unfortunately in summer 2006 it was announced that, in a bid to co-host the 2012 London Olympics , a large rowing lake would be built near the former station site at Willington in Bedfordshire , in return for a licence to extract gravel. The lake will cut through the route of the trackbed between Bedford and Sandy and any subsequent bridging costs would seem to be prohibitive , especially given the uninterrupted span that would be required to avoid obstructing the lake.

Bicester Town station is one of two railway stations serving the town of Bicester , the other being Bicester North railway station. The station was called Bicester London Road up until its closure with the rest of the Oxford-Bletchley section of the Varsity Line in December 1968. The station was used by several excursion trains through the 1970s and 80s until Network South East reopened it in 1987 as the terminus of the line from Oxford. The station has one platform and the line to the east of the station is still in use for freight.

There is another track in front of the platform aside from the passenger/freight running line. This is in fact the very long reversing siding for the Bicester Military Railway serving the local MOD depot.

Islip station was originally a double tracked two-platform station with a goods shed. However , in December 1968 it was closed to passengers , along with the rest of the Oxford to Bletchley and Bedford to Cambridge sections of the Varsity Line.

In 1989 Islip was reopened as a single platform unstaffed halt.

It has also been announced that the line from Oxford to Bicester Town railway station will be upgraded with funding from property developers as a condition of enlarging Bicester Village Shopping Centre.

Oxford - Banbury forms the northern part of the Cherwell Valley Line. There are intermediate stations at Tackley , Heyford (ideally located for visiting the Oxford Canal and Heyford Wharf which are both alongside) and King's Sutton (managed by Chiltern Railways.)

Oxford - Worcester (The Cotswold Line) has intermediate stations at Hanborough (sometimes called Handborough), Combe , Finstock , Charlbury , Ascott-under-Wychwood , Shipton , Kingham , Moreton-in-Marsh , Honeybourne , Evesham and Pershore.

The line is single track between the following locations :

Wolvercot Junction (5 km North of Oxford) and Ascott-under-Wychwood.

Moreton-in-Marsh and Norton Junction (5 km South East of Worcester) , with a crossing place at Evesham.

Other sections are double track.

Significant civil engineering structures on the line include Campden Tunnel (800 m in length.)

The line between Oxford and Worcester was constructed under an 1845 Act of Parliament and opened in 1851 as part of the Oxford , Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway.

The Act required the line to be built to Brunel's broad gauge but delays , disputes and increasing costs led to its being completed as standard gauge.

Service offered

Oxford - Bicester - 7 services each way Monday - Saturday only.

Oxford - Banbury - 10 services each way Monday - Friday , 11 services towards Banbury & 10 towards Oxford on Saturday. A special Sunday train service was operated during 2006 and will probably run again in Summer 2007.

Oxford - Worcester - 15 services each way Monday - Friday plus short workings. 14 services each way on Saturday plus short workings. 12 services towards Worcester & 11 services towards Oxford on Sunday. Most trains extend to London Paddington. Not all trains stop at Hanborough or Honeybourne. Shipton has 3 services towards Worcester & 2 services towards Oxford on Monday - Friday and 4 services each way on Saturday. Ascott - under - Wychwood , Combe and Finstock stations have 1 service each way on Monday - Friday only.

Peak flows

Known issues

Oxford - Bicester - The Greater Western Franchise Outline Business Case Report (Jacobs Consultancy) recommended the closure of the Oxford - Bicester Line and the SRA originally specified a reduction of services on the Oxford - Bicester Town route to morning and afternoon only , due to "low usage." Happily , this was successfully fought , and neither of the above options have (as yet) been implemented. Stakeholders aspire to an hourly service.

Oxford - Banbury - The Greater Western Franchise Outline Business Case Report (Jacobs Consultancy) recommended the closure of Tackley & Heyford stations but this has not (as yet) been implemented. Morning peak services are poorly timed.

Oxford - Worcester - The Greater Western Franchise Outline Business Case Report (Jacobs Consultancy) recommended the closure of Ascott - under - Wychwood , Combe , Finstock & Shipton stations plus reducing the Honeybourne service to peak hours only , but this has not (as yet) been implemented. There are also fears over the cost of providing extra platforms / footbridges to certain stations , should proposals to double the line become reality.


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