Updated: Feb 10, 2021
A train leaving Oxford station. Picture: Jon Lewis
A £760m fund will be spent to break ground on a new railway link between Oxford and Cambridge. The cash, from the Department of Transport (DfT), will be used to lay track along a disused railway line between Bicester and Bletchley, in Buckinghamshire, with services beginning in 2025. The whole project, known as East-West Rail, could be completed by the end of the decade according to a government minister overseeing it.
Chris Heaton Harris, the rail minister at DfT, said that it may also mean that the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway, a ‘paused’ project for a major road between the two university cities, remains ‘paused for a very long time’ if people ‘vote with their feet’ and choose to use trains to travel instead of private cars.
The funding, announced on Saturday, January 23, will provide better transport links across a region the Government calls the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, which it hopes will become an economic boom area due to the high number of science and technology jobs here. The railway works will also shorten journey times between routes outside of London. Travellers from Oxford for example, will no longer have take a train into the capital and back out again to reach Milton Keynes, but could travel there via Bicester.
Oxford railway station. Picture: Greg Blatchford
The Government said works between Bicester and Bletchley are expected to create 1,500 jobs. Work will include the construction of a new station at Winslow, as well as enhancements to existing stations along the route, including Bletchley. By 2025, two trains per hour will run between Oxford and Milton Keynes via Bletchley it is claimed.
Mr Heaton Harris acknowledged the project was on an ‘ambitious timetable’. He said, “A second section of track could be laid between Bletchley and Bedford by 2028, and the final stretch be completed by ‘the end of the decade.’
The minister was also asked by the LDRS about how this would affect the paused Oxford to Cambridge Expressway.
He said: “I think my secretary of state [Grant Shapps] was asked about this recently and he gave that answer that the road project was paused. I am quite hopeful if we can do this rail link – and the timescales we are looking at are doable: the first service by 2025, next to Bedford by 2028 – in that time we would have been able to demonstrate that if people vote with their feet that the paused road will be paused for a very long time.”
The Expressway project was paused as part of the Government's budget in Spring 2020. Campaigners across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and other neighbouring counties were worried about the western stretch of the road, which would have been a new dual carriageway built over the countryside. Eastern parts of the Expressway have already been completed, through upgrading existing roads.
When the East-West Rail project is complete, it will be the first time since 1968 that Bicester and Bletchley will be connected by rail.
The Government has also opened an ‘Ideas Fund’ which will run until March 5, and will give grants of £50,000 to applicants who make a case for reopening branch lines or railway stations mothballed in the past. Mr Heaton Harris said the Witney to Oxford line, long promoted as a potential commuter branch line, would be ideal for this fund. That is exactly the sort of thing we are looking at, areas where we can make a difference with not too big sums of money.”
The rail route between Oxford and Cambridge was traditionally known as the 'Varsity Line'. The new East-West Rail scheme also aims to extend services beyond the two cities to Norwich. The project has had a very long history, having been initiated originally by Ipswich Borough Council in 1995. The Government first adopted and started funding the project in 2011 under the then-Chancellor George Osborne.