The western section of the former Varsity Line, between Bicester and Bletchley, is likely to reopen to passenger trains 50 years after its passenger services were withdrawn in the Beeching Era.
The last train to cover the 12 line west of Bletchley to Claydon LNE Junction was a Network Southeast liveried DMU on May 31st 1993 promoted by The Branch Line Society (BLS). The last loco hauled train on the route was promoted by Hertfordshire Railtours on the same day as a shuttle service operated linking Aylesbury and Quainton Road. These lines were only used to seeing one train a day at most so the final day they were open saw the route used to their absolute capacity.
The busy scenes from 1993 were a poignant reminder of former busy route which included part of the Great Central Railway as far as Calvert and Metropolitan Railway to Quainton, over which regular passenger services ended in 1966.
It was announced in the Government’s Autumn statement on November 29 that these lines were to be reopened in 2017 at a cost of £270m subject to the business case being proved financially beneficial.
This reopening has followed years of campaigning significantly ramped up over the last five years when a huge amount of development work has been carried out the East West Rail Consortium. This included an environmental survey of the line starting in January 2009.
It took a significant amount of time to amass real detail about what was involved other than the headline cost and timescale – which generated the headlines in the national media. Details only became clear a month after the announcement.
The Government says it is committed to developing a new rail link between Oxford, Bicester, Aylesbury, Milton Keynes and Bedford for which, at £270m, the East-West rail consortium (EWRC) has demonstrated a strong case”. The cost was £135m when the last estimate was made five years ago hinting that the line could be opened in 2012.
That cost was for the minimum specification to run trains at 60mph and on a single line and the cost doubling is due to the revised and improved plan. This will see double track laid along much of the route and increased linespeeds to 100mph. Financial forecasting suggests a £4m operating profit annually meaning that whatever franchise operates the route, it will not require a subsidy from the Government.
Had the line opened this year as planned, it would have been a great celebration to mark the 150th anniversary of the Oxford to Cambridge 77 mile line opening. It is now very probable that passenger services will be recommence 50 years after closure on January 1 1968.
The 16 mile Bletchley to Bedford line was the only section of the Varsity line to remain open and this was almost closed in 1974 but rescued at the last minute by a change of law involving public subsidies for railways.
The route westwards from Bletchley was rationalised and single tracked in the 1980s but remained open for the Chiltern line’s Marylebone DMU fleet to be serviced at Bletchley. The construction of Milton Keynes saw a stone terminal built at Wolverton and this stone traffic also helped to keep the line used on a regular basis.
With the route modernisation of the Marylebone routes, class 165 Turbo trains were introduced based at a new depot in Aylesbury so the DMUs were withdrawn. So when the stone traffic ceased, the route was mothballed as there was no booked traffic and gates erected across the line at 1m 28 chains on the summit of the Bletchley Flyover, and at 12 miles near Claydon.
The section between Aylesbury, Claydon and Bicester remained open for waste trains going to the landfill site at Calvert and an extra siding was added in 2000 to allow more traffic there.
At privatisation, despite being closed, officially described as mothballed, the 11 mile stretch west of Bletchley was allocated to Railtrack. In 1999 they carried out a track and infrastructure survey with a view to re-opening the line for use as a test route in conjunction with the West Coast Route Modernisation.
It would have been testing moving block signalling using a radio system and trackside balises but this never happened. In fact today, this type of signalling is still only used on the Cambrian Lines as a trial system.
The EWRC business case forecast that up to 12,000 new jobs could be created by the link stimulating growth and building 70,000 houses on the route.
Iain Stewart MP, who established and chairs an All Party Group on East West Rail and is a member of the Transport Select Committee, said:
“I am delighted that the Chancellor has recognised how vital the East West Rail Line is in stimulating economic growth in our region. As a long standing champion of this project, I am thrilled that we could see trains running on this line by 2017”.
Network Rail will develop the scheme with the EWRC and depending on proposals to be made within six months, when the Government could approve the scheme. Planning Consents will then be required before construction starts with new stations at Water Eaton Parkway, Winslow and Bletchley high level.
Hourly services between Milton Keynes to Reading via Bicester and Oxford and Reading to Bedford calling at Woburn Sands and Lidlington will run over the double track line using a second platform at Bicester.
Another hourly limited stop service would run from Milton Keynes to Aylesbury calling at Bletchley and Winslow probably carrying on to Marylebone via Princes Risborough achieved by extending existing services.
Freight and Cross-Country services could also compete for paths on the new line easing congestion on existing routes and saving 30 minutes on some journeys to and from the south coast. HS2 will cross the line at Calvert, now what price an interchange there in due course?
Services have been planned using a Class 172 DMU via Oxford but could be a Class 165/166 to start with depending on electrification progress on the Great Western Main Line. Linespeeds of 90mph to 100mph are envisaged between Oxford and Bletchley, 90mph to Aylesbury and the Bedford branch upgraded to 70mph.