East-West Rail link is ready to roll

When the first phase of East West Rail (EWR) is re-activated in December 2017, it will be the largest single railway re-opening project in England since the 1960s. Nearly 50 miles of track will be brought back into use, or upgraded, to connect Bletchley and Milton Keynes with Oxford, Bicester, Bedford and Aylesbury. It will connect some of England’s fastest growing towns and cities. John W E Helm reports.

The re-opened railway was originally conceived as a regional line but there is now a trunk route perspective to it too. The line will connect up three main lines – the Great Western (GWML), the West Coast (WCML) and the Midland (MML) – and opens up an alternative north-east/south-west route avoiding Birmingham and the West Midlands. In fact, Oxford-Bedford is expected to form a core part of the ‘electric spine’ connecting the three main lines, though this will push up the estimated cost of the project to £500m. The Oxford-Bletchley section could be electrified by 2019 – but, as explained later, there is still no firm commitment to doing so.

The project is unusual in that it was initially promoted by a local authority consortium, the East West Rail Consortium, rather than by Network Rail or a train operating company. It has since been incorporated into NR’s High Level Output Specification (HLOS) for Control Period 5 (CP5) covering 2014/15-2018/19. The Bletchley to Oxford section is the first phase of the consortium’s much more ambitious plan to restore services between Oxford, Cambridge, and the eastern counties.


The original Oxford-Cambridge railway – known as the ‘Varsity’ or ‘Brain’ line – was severed in 1967 when the Oxford-Bletchley and Bedford-Cambridge passenger services were withdrawn. Given its strategic significance in connecting so many important main lines, it seems strange that the Oxford-Cambridge line ever closed at all. Dr Beeching was not the culprit in this case – the line was not on his list – though British Rail had contemplated closure in 1959 (before his tenure).

The East West Railway project has three sections:

  • The (western) Oxford-Bicester-Bletchley/Milton Keynes-Bedford link (and its southern Aylesbury appendage);
  • The (mainly complete eastern) section linking Cambridge with Norwich, Ipswich, Felixstowe (and possibly Stansted Airport as well); and
  • The central ‘missing link’ between Bedford and Cambridge, which will require some new construction.

Government go-ahead for the £270m western scheme (or EWR (W) as it is known) came in the Chancellor’s November 2011 autumn statement. The business case for the project was easily met: the benefit: cost ratio was 6.3:1 (assuming 100% DfT funding), rising to 11:1 if third party funding involvement (of up to 15%) is factored in. This is an exceptionally high figure for a rail scheme. (‘Third party’, in this context, means local authorities, Network Rail or the private sector).

Chiltern’s Evergreen 3 plan (to provide a new Marylebone-Bicester-Oxford service) will complement those of EWR (see panel).

Seven local authorities – Aylesbury Vale District, Buckinghamshire County Council, Milton Keynes, Bedford Borough, Central Bedfordshire, Cherwell District and Oxfordshire County Council have collectively agreed to stump up £45m towards the cost of the East West Rail project. However, Oxford City Council has declined to contribute financially, but may provide ‘works in kind’. Bob Price, leader of the city council told the The Oxford Times:  “We see this is a project where the benefits for the city will be limited economically. We see the benefits for the north-east of the county, but for Oxford the East West link has no significant economic benefits.”

A spokesman for the EWR Consortium said that the other seven members would not be expected to make good the £4.7m shortfall that Oxford City Council had been expected to contribute.

The situation at Oxford is further complicated by the £70m station remodelling project, which is scheduled for 2019 completion.

The EWR Consortium has appointed a joint delivery board (consisting of elected local authority members plus DfT and Network Rail representatives) to oversee and facilitate the development of the project.

Faster trains and better connections

The western section currently lies in four disconnected pieces. These are, from west to east:

  • Oxford-Bicester Town, 12 miles of single track line, open to passenger & freight traffic (Ministry of Defence traffic to Bicester and waste traffic to a huge landfill site at Calvert in Buckinghamshire);
  • Bicester Town-Claydon Junction, 6½ miles, single track, freight-only (to access Calvert);
  • Claydon Junction-Bletchley, 12½ miles, out of use, track lifted in places;
  • Bletchley-Bedford, 16½ miles, double track, passenger & freight traffic.

Chiltern Railways provides the Oxford-Bicester town service, and London Midland operates the Bedford-Bletchley shuttle. At this stage it is not clear how the new services will be integrated into franchises. The details and timings of the proposed passenger services will be finalised in 2016, but the EWR Consortium of local authorities is envisaging core hourly services (each way) on three main corridors:

  • Reading-Milton Keynes via Didcot Parkway, Oxford, Bicester and Bletchley (taking 84 minutes, and requiring four, three-car diesel multiple units);
  • Reading-Bedford along much of the same route (taking 106 minutes, and requiring four three-car dmus); and
  • Marylebone-Milton Keynes via Aylesbury and High Wycombe (taking around 90 minutes, and requiring two three-car dmus, plus two additional sets for peak period workings).

EWR believes that these three corridors could generate 2.8 million passenger trips a year by 2025, of which approximately half are forecast to be transfers from cars.

The journey times is expected to be competitive with road. A trip from Milton Keynes to Oxford on the new line would take about 40 minutes, as against 70-90 minutes by car (and about half the time the current circuitous rail route takes via Coventry). Similarly, Bedford to Oxford by is expected to take about 60 minutes compared with 100-130 minutes by car.

Maximum train running speeds are expected to be 90/100mph between Oxford and Bicester Town; 100mph between Bicester Town and Bletchley; and 60mph between Bletchley and Bedford.

It is likely that the services will be provided by twelve, three-car diesel multiple unit Class 166 trains. The Atkins business case estimated the annual operating costs to be £26.8m in 2010 (at 2009/10 prices).  Class 166s are currently deployed on First Great Western Paddington services but could be cascaded to EWR following impending GWML electrification.

In addition to these regional services, EWR (W) could provide an alternative north-south trunk route. For instance, Manchester-Oxford and Manchester-Southampton journey times by rail could be clipped by 27 and 24 minutes respectively if diverted on to the EWR from the West Coast Main Line at Milton Keynes (instead of traversing the congested West Midlands). And there could also be time savings if some of the York-Bristol services were re-routed by the Midland Main Line via Bedford, according to the business plan, prepared by Atkins in 2010.

Infrastructure works

The scheme currently being taken forward is based on the ‘preferred’ option – one of many considered – laid down in the Atkins business plan in July 2010, and then costed at £211.3m. Some minor revisions have been made since (ie installation of bi-directional signalling) but it basically remains the same. The main work involves doubling the single track Oxford – Bletchley line (apart from a short tunnel section).

It is worth pointing out that the hardware costs (civil engineering, permanent way, signalling & station works) were calculated to account for nearly 60% of the above quoted total cost, whereas professional fees, contractors profits and contingency funds constituted the bulk of the residue.

A new station is to be constructed at Winslow (between Bicester Town and Bletchley), and others will be improved at: Bedford Midland, Islip, Woburn Sands, Lidlington and Aylesbury Vale Parkway (on the connecting Chiltern line).

High level platforms will be needed at Bletchley to connect a new EWR station with the existing one on the WCML. The famous – or infamous – Bletchley flyover built in the heady days of British Rail 1950s modernisation, but which has seen little use since, should now come into its own at last and serve the purpose for which it was originally intended.

Both the loading gauge and route availability are to be upgraded to take larger and heavier trains. Some of the 90 level crossings and rights of way that cross the line will be eliminated, and provision made for freight passing loops.

EWR will intersect with the proposed HS2 route near Calvert but there will be no physical connection between the two lines. However, it is likely that the EWR line will be used to supply materials during the construction period.

Despite press comments to the contrary, there is still some uncertainty regarding the electrification of the East West Rail line. A Network Rail spokesman told LTT: “The expectation is that Oxford-Bletchley will be electrified as part of EWR Phase 2. However, this is subject to a number of conditions: (a) the route being confirmed as a priority for the ‘Electric Spine’; (b) a robust business case being made for the undertaking the work at the same time as the other works; (c) resources being made available in the light of other electrification work being undertaken at the same time, and; (d) the funding being agreed.

“As for Bletchley-Bedford, this is inextricably linked with Midland Main Line electrification and will require far more extensive reconstruction of the railway than is currently contemplated under the ‘preferred’ scheme. It is likely that this section will be electrified as part of Phase 3, possibly during CP6 (Control Period) for 2019-24.”

The spokesman also added that the main construction contract for (the non electrified) phase 1 will be let later this month (December), but was ‘not at liberty’ to divulge the names of the contractors involved in the bidding process.

Even after electrification, the Marylebone-Milton Keynes section will remain diesel worked.

At the western end of the line, Oxford is set to become an even more important rail hub in the future: it will not only be playing host to EWR and Chiltern’s new London service when they commence, but it’s also an integral part of the GWML’s Paddington-Reading-Oxford-Bristol electrification, scheduled for 2016 completion. The station and surrounding area are to be extensively remodelled. Further details of this project will emerge early next year.

In time the East West Railway may become part of a ‘grand orbital’ route, or ‘rail M25’, around London and the South East. Surrey County Council has floated the idea of trains running over the East West Rail line, then on existing tracks from Oxford to Reading via Didcot and then onto an upgraded North Downs line between Reading and Gatwick Airport via Guildford and Redhill. Kent County Council has expressed some interest in extending the services further east from there into the county.

The central section – the missing link

The Bedford-Cambridge passenger service was withdrawn in 1967. However, failure to secure the trackbed – an all too frequent shortcoming with rail closures during this period – resulted in parts being built over or sold off, so new construction will be necessary if trains are to run between these two places again.

The Bedford-Sandy section (linking the MML with the ECML) is largely intact and survives as cycleway, but the disused trackbed between Sandy and Cambridge now plays host to the Ryle Telescope at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, parts of the Cambridge guided busway, and other several other developments as well.

EWRC is keen to take forward this next phase of the project and extend the line eastwards, but is still undecided on the route to follow. In March 2010 it completed a review and narrowed options down to a ‘central’ or ‘southern’ route.

The ‘central’ option would involve new construction between Bedford and Sandy, probably close to the old alignment, from where it would routed southwards onto the ECML to Hitchin, thence to Cambridge along the existing GN route.

The ‘southern’ option would necessitate constructing a new chord at Stewartby (south of Bedford) on the Bedford-Bletchley line to the MML, thence southwards to Luton from where a new line to Stevenage on the ECML would be built, and from there northwards to Hitchin to take the same route to Cambridge as the ‘central’ option.

However, both these options would involve some running on one or two busy main lines, which may have difficulties in accommodating the additional traffic.

At one stage a ‘northern’ option was considered as well. That would have entailed running northwards from Bedford and joining the ECML at Peterborough through Corby and Stamford. Although the cheapest in terms on infrastructure costs, this roundabout route was rejected as the least satisfactory option.

EWRC has commissioned Atkins to produce a conditional outputs statement (COPS) to advance the project (of what is to be done and how this is to be achieved). The process began in October and should be completed by next Spring. Network Rail will then establish a commission to examine its feasibility.

Cambridge will not be the end of the line, however. If and when EWR (C) is completed, it will open up an east-west cross country link avoiding London, and take passengers beyond to places like Norwich, Ipswich and Stansted Airport, as well as serving container fraffic from Felixstowe.

New Railway to Oxford

Chiltern Railway’s plans to develop an alternative London-Oxford route are entirely independent of EWR, but will augment services on the new line. Highlight of Chiltern’s Evergreen 3 Phase 2 flagship project is the installation of a new one quarter mile double-track chord at Bicester linking the EWR line from Oxford with the Chiltern Main Line (CML) to Marylebone via High Wycombe and Princes Risborough.

This will provide a rival route to London, 88 miles as against First Great Western’s 84 miles from Paddington. Chiltern says it is funding the £130m project without recourse to the public purse, and that it will be the first new railway between London and a British city for over 100 years.

Chiltern’s plans also include a new station at Water Eaton (a multi-modal facility on the outskirts to be called Oxford Parkway). Bicester Town station will be rebuilt and additional platforms constructed at Oxford. Marylebone-Oxford journey times will be 66 minutes, only slightly longer than those from Paddington. All trains will serve Bicester Town and Water Eaton, and most will call at High Wycombe.

Construction work is being undertaken by BAM Nuttall in association with Jarvis and W S Atkins. However, services between Oxford and Bicester Town will be suspended from February 2014 to allow reconstruction to take place. The new service is scheduled to start from Oxford parkway in Summer 2015, and from Oxford in 2016.

Evergreen 3 phase 2 complements phase 1 (upgrading parts of the Marylebone-Birmingham line to 100mph). Chiltern has a 20 year franchise (one of the longest) and previous Evergreen upgrades included redoubling lengthy single-track sections.

When complete four of Britain’s five main bus groups will be slogging it out on the London-Oxford corridor: Arriva-owned Chiltern will be going head-to-head with First Great Western, but they will also face stiff competition on the roads from the Go-Ahead-owned Oxford Bus Company and The Oxford Tube (a Stagecoach company).




638/Jan 14





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