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.
East West Rail Consortium
With concern over poor east west transport links the East West Rail consortium of local authorities was formed in 1995. However it wasn’t until around 2006 that East West Rail (EWR) began to be taken seriously. The Consortium’s sole aim was re-introducing a rail link between East Anglia, Central and Southern England.
This is a strategic railway connecting East Anglia with the rest of the country via Milton Keynes. It is much more than just connecting professors and academics in Oxford with those in Cambridge. And it has become more than just improving communication links. The government now sees the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor as a strategic corridor for economic growth. In particular an area with massive potential for house building which will be ‘unlocked’ through the combination of the railway and a new ‘Expressway’ road.
East West Rail has three sections, Western, Central and Eastern. The Western Section has been split into two phases – the first phase from Oxford to Bicester being completed in 2016. Phase 2 will reconnect Bicester and Aylesbury with Bletchley, Milton Keynes and Bedford.
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 already exists. The routes from Cambridge to Norwich and from Cambridge to Ipswich via Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket are open to traffic but have 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,
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. It was a key factor in the award of Chiltern’s second franchise beginning in 2002 for 20-years. In 2003, a report by Chiltern Railways for the Department for Transport (DfT) examined options for the service.
On 1 August 2008, Chiltern Railways submitted to the Secretary of State proposals for the “Evergreen 3” project comprising the Oxford Line via Bicester and line speed and capacity enhancements for the London Marylebone – Birmingham line (removing speed restrictions through Bicester North and the reopening of two additional terminating platforms at Birmingham Moor Street).
In 2009 Chiltern began consultation on Evergreen 3 (EG3). By that time synergies between EG3 and EWR were realised as both schemes involved upgrading the route between Oxford and Bicester. In January 2010 the DfT, Chiltern Railways and Network Rail agreed to Project Evergreen 3 – a project which itself had 2 phases. Chiltern Railways took the lead in seeking the necessary permissions for both schemes. In 2010/11 there was a Public Inquiry into the combined scheme but at that stage the government had yet to commit to funding EWR.
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.
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+electrification 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
In Bicester we have mainly been concerned with the Western Section. 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. EWR is not now due to be electrified.
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 which, since January 2018, is also the terminus of electric commuter trains from Paddington. The Great Western electrification project is massively over budget and delayed.
There was much to do at Oxford, some of which impacts on East West Rail. Re-signalling and capacity improvements which affect the track layout were necessary before electrification could sensibly proceed. These Oxford Corridor Improvement works included re-doubling of Oxford North Junction and were completed in summer 2018. However, electrification between Didcot and Oxford remains paused.
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 had 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. Or the latest idea seems to be running hydrogen powered trains – a concept which is still largely untried (also unproven and expensive).
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 – at least until they can get hold of some class 769 units. Since it is “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.