The Story So Far…
For Oxfordshire residents, East West Rail is the project that will restore train services between Bicester and Bletchley. Re-opening of the so-called “Varsity Line” linking Oxford and Cambridge had long been talked about, but the project only came together fairly recently. The route was axed 50 years ago. Ironically, it was not closed by the infamous Dr Beeching – he evidently thought the line had potential – but by British Rail!
The MK Factor
The railway closed just as the new town of Milton Keynes came into being. Railways were seen as being on the decline. Back in the 60s, the car was king. Despite being on the West Coast Main Line linking London with Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, Milton Keynes itself wasn’t planned with a station, although it has grown to encompass the existing towns of Wolverton and Bletchley. And it has since gained its own mainline station – Milton Keynes Central – opened in May 1982, 15 years after the new town was designated.
Equidistant between London and Birmingham; London and Leicester; Oxford and Cambridge, Milton Keynes has a population pushing 250,000 and is a major centre for employment in its own right. It is set to grow further but it is constrained by poor east-west communications.
The line between Bedford and Cambridge closed completely in December 1967; Oxford to Bletchley became freight only while Bletchley to Bedford remains open to passengers. Oxford to Bicester Town reopened to passengers in 1987 whilst the section between Bicester and Claydon Junction (where the line from Aylesbury joins) remains open for freight. Between Claydon and Bletchley the line is officially mothballed, the last train having run in 1993.
What is East West Rail?
East West Rail has three sections, Western, Central and Eastern, which, when completed, will establish a strategic railway connecting East Anglia with Central, Southern and Western England via Milton Keynes. It is much more than just connecting professors and academics in Oxford with those in Cambridge.
We have mainly been concerned with the Western Section which has been split into two phases. The Central Section is more complex. The track bed of the former Bedford – Sandy – Cambridge line has been partly built on – there is some housing, but also a radio telescope and now a guided busway. The line was only ever single track. So a completely new alignment will be needed. By contrast, the Eastern Section is open to traffic, but has some capacity constraints.
That the government gave backing East West Rail at all is thanks in part to Chiltern Railways and the Evergreen 3 project to create a new link between Oxford and London Marylebone, a project which itself was not secured until 2010. But for once the synergies between East West Rail and this project were realised.
While the process of obtaining the legal consents for Evergreen 3 was ongoing the government confirmed its backing for the East West Rail (EWR) project in July 2012. Then in October 2012 Chiltern Railways received permission under the Transport and Works Act to start construction. In the event, Phase 1 of East West Rail was delivered alongside Evergreen 3.
In 1996, when Chiltern Railways took the first franchise on privatisation, one of the main aspirations was a new, fast service between London and Oxford. The aim was to reduce traffic on the M40 and in 2003, a report by Chiltern Railways for the Department for Transport (DfT) examined options for the service.
In January 2010 the DfT, Chiltern Railways and Network Rail agreed to Project Evergreen 3 – a project which itself had 2 phases. Evergreen 3 had begun with further line speed improvements to the Chiltern Main Line, including removing speed restrictions through Bicester North and the reopening of two additional terminating platforms at Birmingham Moor Street.
EWR Phase 1 / Evergreen 3 – Oxford and Bicester to London
Phase 2 of Evergreen3 (£130M) involved constructing the Bicester South West Chord – a short connection between the Chiltern Main Line and the East-West line which will eventually run between Oxford and Milton Keynes. The new chord railway opened to passengers in 2015. Bicester Town and Islip stations were rebuilt and a new station at Oxford Parkway constructed alongside the Water Eaton Park & Ride.
The track was in a poor state and required major rebuilding to transform it into a 100mph main line. By working in partnership, the additional infrastructure required for East West Rail (e.g. W12 gauge enhancements, double track throughout, 775m loops for freight and a second platform at Islip) was delivered at the same time. Doing so, before the new route to London opened would minimise future disruption to Chiltern Railways’ customers.
This was all possible by a £320M joint investment by Network Rail and Chiltern Railways. Following extension of the train service between Oxford Parkway and Oxford on 12 December 2016, the project was completed.
EWR Phase 2 – Reading, Oxford and Aylesbury to Milton Keynes and Bedford
Despite only having been given the go-ahead in 2012, it had been originally anticipated that the East West Rail link between Oxford and Milton Keynes would be open in 2017. In recent railway terms this would have been amazingly quick; and so it has proved.
By 2014 it became clear this wasn’t going to happen – basically due to Network Rail having insufficient resource. They had over-promised. There were simply too many projects to be delivered simultaneously. Planning resources were spread too thinly and costs perhaps not adequately scrutinised. The anticipated schedule for completion was put back to 2019, which co-incidentally tied in to the CP5 (Control Period 5) railway funding period.
What also happened was that Network Rail’s debt was reclassified back on to the government balance sheet. When costs over-ran generally, Network Rail could no longer borrow the extra money easily. It prompted a major review of Network Rail’s spending and appointment of a new chairman, Sir Peter Hendy.
Electrification De-scoped or Cancelled
Following the Hendy review, some projects were de-scoped, others cancelled or delayed or shifted into the next CP6 funding period from 2019-2024.
In particular, the so-called ‘Electric Spine’ – which would have seen extension of 25kV AC overhead wires between Oxford and Coventry/Nuneaton; Oxford and Bedford; between Sheffield and Doncaster; and from Reading to Southampton – has been cancelled. It would have linked in to the Midland main line electrification – which itself had been planned to go to Nottingham and Sheffield – but is now being cut back to Kettering/Corby.
Oxford and Beyond
Electrification to Oxford, which should have been completed with electric trains running by 2017, has not been rescheduled. Currently the wires only go to Didcot and electric commuter trains to Paddington will start in January 2018. The Great Western electrification project is massively over budget and delayed.
There is much to do at Oxford which impacts on East West Rail. Re-signalling is necessary before electrification and capacity improvements are ongoing. There is also a project to rebuild Oxford station – it needs more through platforms – but it is as yet unfunded.
With electrification de-scoped, I have been told that East West Rail will receive bi-mode trains. These trains, which can run either on diesel power or from overhead electric wires, are likely to be a new build. GWR does not have any bi-mode commuter trains so it will have to retain some diesel units for local stopping services from Oxford for the time being. As it will soon be “All-change” at Didcot on stopping services, will East West Rail end up serving local destinations south of Oxford?
The completion of EWR Phase 2 is likely by 2024, so within CP6 but the political pressure to do things quicker remains.