East-West Rail once completed promises to transform rail travel across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. This step-change in connectivity will be achieved by upgrading and re-building railway lines between Oxford and Cambridge, which were either downgraded or in the case of the section between Bedford and Cambridge, removed altogether.
The first tentative steps towards the delivery of the full East-West route were taken in 2016 when a major upgrade of the existing railway line from Oxford to Bicester was completed. The upgrade involved doubling the railway between Oxford and Bicester and the construction of a new section of track between Bicester and the Chiltern Mainline. The project also involved the construction of 2 new stations, one at Oxford Parkway and another at Bicester Village.
The upgrades and new infrastructure allowed Chiltern Railways to begin operating Oxford to London Marylebone services on the Chiltern Mainline. Services initially began operating from Oxford Parkway in October 2015 and then from Oxford in December 2016.
This first phase of what has since become East-West Rail was funded through a partnership between Network Rail and Chiltern Railways, with Network Rail providing the initial £250m funding, which was to be paid back via a “facility charge”. The charge was to be paid over a period of 30 years, initially paid by Chiltern Railways which is owned by Arriva UK. However this franchise is due to come to an end in 2022 and it is uncertain if the railway will be re-franchised, as the outbreak Covid19 has forced the government to look again at the franchise system as a whole.
Work on £760m second phase began in 2020 when Network Rail started to undertake preparatory works along the corridor from Bicester to Bletchley. Phase 2 involves building a new station at Winslow, partial re-building of Bletchley flyover, construction of new high-level platforms at Bletchley and installation of new tracks on part of the old Varsity Line between Bicester and Bletchley via Claydon Junction.
A key element of phase 2 which is now well underway is the partial rebuilding of the Bletchley Flyover. Built in 1959 to carry the Varsity Line over the West Coast Main Line, it was later closed to passenger traffic in 1968 and then to goods traffic in 1993, since then the flyover has remained unused.
Now Network Rail is replacing 14 of the 37 spans which make up the flyover in order to bring the structure up to modern standards. Since April 2020 Network Rail has been working to remove sections of the flyover, some of which weighed 295 tonnes. 8 sections that crossed the WCML required the closure of the railway in May 2020, however, the remaining spans were dismantled without the need for any further closures.
Speaking in May 2020 Tim Shoveller, managing director for Network Rail’s North West and Central region, said: “This is a major milestone for East West Rail - a new railway which will transform connectivity and journey times across the heart of the country. It promises to provide a greener, low carbon transport system which will bring huge benefits to passengers and businesses - driving economic growth and creating opportunities for housing and new jobs.”
Work will continue through 2021 to rebuild sections of the flyover and build new high-level platforms at Bletchley, It is expected that this will be completed by 2022. Once the works at Bletchley have been complete Network Rail will focus on the installation of new tracks between Bicester and Claydon Junction. Then in 2023 new tracks will be laid between Claydon Junction and Bletchley.
East-West Rail: mothballed section of railway between Bicester and Bletchley
Source Network Rail
Work to install and upgrade signalling and communications systems will begin in 2023 and be completed by 2024. Once this is complete Network Rail will be able to move on to the testing and commissioning phase, when it is hoped that train testing will begin.
Phase 2 is estimated to be completed by 2025 allowing services to operate between Oxford and Bedford for the first time since sections of the Varsity Line were closed in the 1960s. It is proposed that there will be 2 trains per hour from Oxford to Milton Keynes, 1 train per hour between Oxford and Bedford and 1 train an hour between Milton Keynes and Aylesbury.
The next phase of East-West Rail will be the most costly and challenging to complete, as parts of the Varsity Line between Bedford and Cambridge which was closed in the 1960s have been built upon.
In January 2020 Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps announced that the preferred route between Bedford and Cambridge had been selected. The preferred option which was chosen will run from Bedford Station heading northeast to a new station at Tempsford, the route will then head east to another new station to be constructed at Cambourne, from there the route will head south of Cambridge where it will connect into the existing line into Cambridge railways station.
The preferred option (route E) has now moved to the public consultation stage, those wishing to have their say can do so here. Once the final route has been decided detailed design work carried out and then funding will have to be sought. There's no firm date for the start of construction, but it is hoped that the line could be open by 2030, allowing passenger trains to operate directly from Oxford to Cambridge for the first time since 1960s.