The past week has seen a couple of indications that the east-west project, effectively recreating the old Oxford to Cambridge line, is progressing.
The announcement that two routes had been identified for further investigation as the missing link between Bedford and Cambridge allied to the news that Buckinghamshire County Council had spent £1 million on land acquisition at Winslow suggest that, in the medium term, the much opposed closure of the 1960s will eventually be reversed. Allied to this, work on the upgrade of the line from Oxford to Bicester and the new curve at Bicester is drawing to a close, with the last trackwork virtually complete, in time for the launch of the new Oxford-Bicester-London Marylebone service in October.
The line between Oxford and Cambridge — the ‘Varsity’ line — opened in four stages. The first of these was the Bedford Railway which resulted from a visit from George Stephenson in 1844 (following on from an earlier scheme in the 1830s for a line from Bedford to Cambridge). The Bedford Railway was authorised on 30 June 1845 to construct a line between Bedford and Bletchley; constructed by the London & Birmingham Railway, the line opened on 17 November 1846 and was operated from the outset by the London & North Western Railway (which had been formed on 1 June 1846 through the merger of the L&BR with the Grand Junction and Manchester & Birmingham railways). The Bedford Railway was not, however, formally dissolved until 21 July 1879.
The next two stages were promoted by the Buckinghamshire Railway as successor to the Buckingham & Brackley Junction and the Oxford & Bletchley Junction railways. This railway was authorised on 22 July 1847 to construct two railways: from Bletchley to Oxford and from a junction at Verney Junction to Banbury and Brackley. The line opened from Bletchley to Banbury on 30 March 1850 with the line from Verney Junction to Oxford on 20 May 1851. The new railway opened its own station — Rewley Road — in Oxford on the same day. The Buckinghamshire Railway was operated by the LNWR from the start; leased by the LNWR from 1 July 1851, the smaller company was formally absorbed by the LNWR on 21 July 1879.
The final link in the line came through the Bedford & Cambridge Railway. This was authorised on 6 August 1860 to construct the 29½ miles between Bedford and Cambridge. The line opened on 7 July 1862. The new railway incorporated the line of the privately-promoted 3½-mile long Sandy & Potton Railway. Promoted by Sir William Peel, this line had not been authorised by a parliamentary act as it was constructed on private land and had opened to passenger services on 9 November 1857. The B&CR was operated by the LNWR and formally absorbed by it on 5 July 1865.
With the completion of these links, the LNWR now had a 76½-mile railway linking England’s two oldest universities. The importance of the was in many ways that it effectively offered the railways the equivalent of a ring-road, providing a route from East Anglia to the Midlands and the West Country that bypassed London. Strategically its importance was increased immeasurably during World War 2 with the construction of a massive military depot at Bicester and the opening of the Bicester Military Railway. The importance of the line was further increased through the opening of three wartime spurs: at Sandy (where a line to the East Coast main line was added), at Bletchley (where a curve to the south and the West Coast main line) and at Calvert (where a link to the Great Central main line was added). Of these three, the curve at Calvert is the only one still in use.
That the line was deemed to have an ongoing importance, particularly for freight traffic, was demonstrated by the construction of the Bletchley Flyover. The Beeching Report of March 1963, however, indicated that the passenger service was at risk and, on 1 January 1968, services were withdrawn between Bedford and Cambridge and between Bletchley and Oxford. The section from the power station at Goldington to Cambridge closed completely from the same date and was subsequently dismantled, whilst the line from Oxford to Bletchley remained open to freight traffic (the section from Bicester to Bletchley remains intact; some has recently been upgraded whilst the balance has been mothballed pending refurbishment as part of the East West project). The section at Bedford was further cut back on 6 April 1981 with the closure of the line from Bedford St Johns to Goldington and, on 14 May 1984, with the closure of the original Bedford St Johns station and the diversion of services to Bedford Midland.
At the western end, however, passenger services were reintroduced from Oxford — not the original Rewley Road station that had closed on 1 October 1951 (the remains of which were eventually transferred to, and rebuilt at, Quainton Road) — to Bicester Town on 11 May 1987 with an intermediate station opening at Islip on 15 May 1989. This service was suspended on 15 February 2014 to permit its upgrading as part of the plan for an Oxford to London Marylebone service via a new south-west curve at Bicester.
The original impetus for the reopening throughout of the line from Cambridge to Oxford came in the mid-1990s. It was not, however, until 2011 that the project became government policy with £270 million committed to the work. The project is effectively in three parts. The western part will see Oxford and Aylesbury linked to Bedford and Milton Keynes. This is expected to be completed by 2019.
The central section — and the most complex to be completed — is that between Bedford and Cambridge. The original trackbed is no longer available throughout; just to the west of Cambridge, for example, the moving telescope of the Mullard Observatory occupies the original alignment. The announcement this week of the two options — either via Hitchin or via Sandy — show that progress is being made on the central section.
The eastern section from Cambridge to Felixstowe and Norwich requires the upgrading of existing lines and includes the doubling of part of the Felixstowe branch, already completed, and the construction of a new curve at Ipswich (the Boss Hall Junction to Europa Junction link that opened in 2014).
The eventual completion of the West-West route will reverse perhaps one of the more unfortunate closures of the 1960s and will demonstrate that the Victorian engineers were perhaps right — albeit unconsciously — in seeing the necessity for a high quality route that bypassed London.