Oxford to Cambridge is a distance of only 66 miles as the crow flies. So why is it so infernally difficult to get from one to the other?

The proposed new rail route map from Oxford to Cambridge

by Olivia Gordon

For academics such as Professor Daphne Hampson, an Associate of Oxford's Theology Faculty and Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge, the dearth of direct public transport between the two major university cities has long been an irritant. ‘I have never fathomed why Oxford and Cambridge do not set up satisfactory travel arrangements between them,’ says Professor Hampson. ‘There must be many, like myself, who know every turn of the road on that tedious bus ride between the two. I can only conclude that those who run universities are possessed of cars. While younger people, students, and many older people must use the bus.’

The notorious Stagecoach X5 bus journey that Hampson refers to takes an excruciating three hours and forty minutes, stopping and starting its way through Buckingham, Milton Keynes and Bedford (the Megabus takes around the same time). By train, the fastest route is via London, with one-and-three-quarter hours on two mainline trains plus a tube journey between Paddington and Kings Cross which could take anything up to half an hour, given that Circle line trains routinely end at Edgware Road station. The whole topographically nonsensical rail journey costs £52.70 - one way. At least the new Oxford Parkway to Marylebone route makes for a slightly easier underground connection. Reconnecting the varsity railway

The old route from Oxford to Cambridge declined in use in the 1960s when faster trains meant that more people went into London to get to Cambridge rather than heading cross-country

The only alternative is to drive. According to Google Maps, it is around 83 miles if you take the same route as the coach, and can take as little as two hours without traffic. This is an entirely theoretical proposition unless you travel in the dead of the night, and even then the million-roundabouts-of-Milton-Keynes will slow progress.


In 1923 Oxford became part of the Varsity Line service from Cambridge via Bletchley 

There is hope on the horizon, though. A major rail project, East West Rail (eastwestrail.org.uk), is underway, which could one day link Oxford and Cambridge directly, as used to be the case. For just over a hundred years, from 1862 to 1967, one could travel on the ‘Varsity Line’ from Oxford to Cambridge via Bletchley and Bedford. Even after the line was closed to passengers in the 1960s, the idea of a link between the cities didn’t lie dormant for long. In 1995 the East West Rail Consortium formed with an aim to re-link East Anglia directly with Oxfordshire, Reading and beyond. The Department for Transport finally backed the project in 2012 with funding and a first round of public consultations took place in 2015.  

The reconstruction of a link between Oxford, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire is relatively straightforward - 2015’s new line between Oxford and Bicester has made a start - and Caryl Jones, from the East West Rail Consortium, reckons that ‘services between Oxford, Bedford and Milton Keynes are likely to start operating by 2020 or 2021.’  first train from london

Oxford is now much better connected to London with a new service that arrives at Marylebone in under an hour

But it will take more time to link these services with Cambridge, Jones warns. ‘The former line between Bedford and Cambridge no longer exists. The track has been dismantled and sections of land have been sold and developed for other purposes. It is therefore complex, and expensive, to re-introduce a Bedford to Cambridge railway, because it will involve identifying the most beneficial route and constructing a brand new railway. The East West Rail Consortium is now working with Network Rail to identify a single preferred route, so that it can be considered for future investment. At this stage, two broad corridors between Bedford and Cambridge – via Sandy or Hitchin - are being evaluated. The aim is to identify a single preferred route by September 2016, for inclusion in the rail industry’s ‘Initial Industry Plan’, meaning it can then be considered for future investment.’

Ultimately, completion ‘will be subject to development of a robust business case and securing investment to construct the new line’. Jones adds: ‘It is too early to say what the journey time between Oxford and Cambridge would be, as this would depend on the route, the number of stops and the line speed.’

On the roads, too, things may well improve. A new ‘Brain Belt’, an Oxford to Cambridge ‘expressway’ via Milton Keynes and Bedford, is being considered by Highways England, with a half-million pound study exploring options to be completed this spring. Oxford station
Oxford's station as it was in 1974

Highways England’s specification report for the study, published in August 2015, recognises that ‘transport connections between cities such as Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Oxford are notably poor and create an artificial barrier between hubs of knowledge-based growth. With better links between Oxford and Cambridge the synergies between these cities would be stronger. In turn, improved connections for the communities alongside this corridor could further…drive growth in other towns alongside this route, such as Bicester. Some of the fastest growing towns in England are located in a belt to the north of London, and improved infrastructure can support the growth of these towns, bringing wider economic benefits to the UK as a whole.’

Nigel Edwards, divisional director of strategic planning at Highways England, says ‘An expressway could be created through improving the existing road network; however we have some gaps, particularly between the M1 at Milton Keynes and the M40 near Oxford.’ The specification report explains: ‘traffic travelling the 30 miles between the two cities by dual carriageway has to take a 60 mile route. Filling this gap should be the main focus of this study.’    

The ongoing study, Edwards says, ‘will assess where the slow speeds and delays are currently being experienced and study the housing growth in the area which will subsequently increase traffic congestion.’

World SkyCat Ltd.Hopefully the rail and road improvements won’t fall flat, like the ‘Don Air’ Oxford to Cambridge airship unveiled in 2007. World SkyCat Ltd., (pictured right) run by a Wytham businessman, aimed to transport up to two coach-loads of people between the cities in a cross between a helium balloon and a hovercraft. The journey would take under an hour, for £10 each way. Sadly, it appears the company never got the funding and airspace permissions needed to get off the ground. 

Another failure came in 2006, when the airline Sky Commuter launched a 22-minute commercial plane route flying between Oxford and Cambridge. It cancelled the service after four weeks, says Tony Farmer, Oxford Airport’s head of route development, due to lack of demand. ‘It bears out our conclusion that you can’t make a viable opportunity for an air service,’ says Farmer. Even the airport’s popular business charter jets, he adds, have never flown between Oxford and Cambridge. ‘I’m sure there is demand between the two cities,’ he says, ‘but by the time you’ve checked in for the flight and flown the 35-40 minutes, the time saving versus the cost isn’t value for money – these aircraft are not cheap to operate’.

For Professor Hampson, and no doubt many other fellows, a key feature in a successful public transport venture is the ability to bring a bicycle on board. ‘An airship - or any other form of transport - is little use to me if it doesn’t take bikes,’ Hampson notes. 

Hampson’s solution consists of an ‘inter-Oxbridge bus’ – a minibus which would run directly between Cambridge and Bedford, the stretch of the coach journey which is so circuitous. Hampson thinks ‘a minibus all the way between Oxford and Cambridge would be better still…Surely it would be possible to have a minibus which went two, possibly three, times a day in each direction. I gather that many departments have minibuses which regularly make the journey. Could they not let it be known on a website when they have spaces? Likewise one could perhaps set up a system for private cars. 

‘Through some such system we should be ecological, save people much time and effort, and the ride - I do not doubt - would foster many congenial conversations.’

Images: East-West RailDisused Stations,  Richard Lofthouse, World SkyCat Ltd.

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By John Bradbeer

I guess that more informed railway buffs would tell you that the picture is not of Rewley Road (ex LNWR and LMSR) station in 1970 but the GWR station. And that station was a pretty unimpressive structure and hardly a gateway to the dreaming spires. Not that the present station is wonderful but still a vast improvement!

By Philip Hewitt

A very interesting and informative article. Unfortunately the first station picture does not show the LNWR/LMS terminus at Rewley Road in 1970, which was already a tyre depot when I went up in 1965 (and which had an all-over roof). It is obviously the same Great Western through station shown in the next picture but one.

Perhaps you could amend the illustration.

Best wishes,

Phil Hewitt

By Peter Bolwell

I'm all for improved raliway links wherever we can get them, but I am a little puzzled to know how many people actually want or need to travel between Oxford and Cambridge on a regular basis, and why?

By Stephen Scott

In the sixties I enjoyed on a few occasions the rail service from Oxford to Cambridge through Bletchley,-- before Bletchley Park became famous as the location of the wartime cryptanalyst operation.

In the seventies, after I had begun teaching at McGill, I enjoyed summering in Oxford each year, using Bodley for my work. On one occasion I had to take the bus to Cambridge to use Squire, and then to return on the same day,-- the seven-hours-plus journey exceeding my trans-Atlantic flight time. Does this not seem incongruous?

By Malcolm Davies

A useful although tortuous line which I remember taking in 1961 to play hockey against Clare or Downing.

By Elisabeth Jay

I remember being so grateful for the Oxford-Cambridge rail link when being interviewed back in 1965, especially since I only knew about the Cambridge interview when I got to Oxford, having come to Oxford straight from an interview in Birmingham (and thus having little more than one change of clothes with me).I really loathe the drive to Cambridge- I think it is about 57 roundabouts en route - and the coach is a real bone-shaker. So good luck to any firm prepared to restore a west-east link.

By Dan

This will seem overly joined up for UK transport, but given the missing link between Bedford and Cambridge, why not have a service by train from Oxford to Bedford meeting a coach from Bedford to Cambridge?

By Hubert Pragnell

Since it will have taken over a year from the opening of the new service from Marylebone to Oxford Parkway to be extended into Oxford, a distance of about four rail miles, it is frightening to calculate how long it might take to open a service throughout to Cambridge. The sticking problem and perhaps cause of indefinite delay will be between Bedford & Cambridge. HS2 may be up-and-running some decades earlier.

By David Roberts

Yes, both old photographs of Oxford stations illustrate Oxford General (the present) railway station. The adjacent Oxford Rewley Road station closed in October 1951. The through route from Oxford to Cambridge was available as early as 1862 (rather than the Grouping in 1923), and remained so until December 1967. In my first term at Worcester, and the last month of passenger service, I travelled to Cambridge on a through train to see a school friend.

By Christine L. Smith

The possibility of a renewed rail link between Cambridge and Oxford will come too late for me... Back in the 60s when I set out from my home town of Cambridge to get to my Oxford college, the quickest way proved to be hitch-hiking, which was a little risky on my own. Yes, it was a long and winding
ride, even when I was able to borrow a car to ferry my stuff!

By Michael Taylor

My memories of visiting my aunt in Cambridge involved a gut-jostling four-hour coach ride on Crapper's Coaches in the very early 1970's. I assume from the earlier comments that they are no longer in business.

By Nancy Hyman

Perhaps a system that notifies private cars on an app where the driver agrees to pick someone up to take them as a taxi does would help. Students could earn a little extra money!

By Peter Alexander

Both photos of the old Oxford station are a delight to see and bring back many memories of using that station. However, the date of 1974 is not correct. Those photos are of the station in 1970 when construction of the temporary footbridge was being done. This was used as a replacement for the undertracks subway which used to link the two sides of the station. Work on demolishing the old station and building the new started later that year. The undertracks subway was modernised and refurbished, although it made it slightly narrower and that proved to be a problem during busy times. In 1989 a new and permanent footbridge was constructed over the tracks to replace the subway. By the way, trains to and from Bletchley and Cambridge used the old Rewley Road station next door until the early 1950s, after which they started using the existing Oxford station. Anyway, so good to see those old photos, thanks!

By Tony Kerrison

Whilst serving in the RAF In early 1965, I made a journey from Waterbeach, just north of Cambridge to Hereford, & because I had hitched a lift into Cambridge, thereby not exchanging my rail-warrant until I got to the station, the ticket-clerk exacted revenge by routeing me along the line to Oxford. I had set off from Waterbeach in the early afternoon, & after a trip that involved at least two changes of train, I finally got to Oxford around 8.30pm, to find that the last train to Hereford for that day had already departed. I felt that I could probably have walked faster than the train on some stretches! I just hope that any modern resurrection of the service will get passengers from end-to-end a little faster.

By Brian Robertson

An Oxford - Cambridge rail link would be excellent. For me the most useful would be to add a cycle super highway beside the train track. This could be similar to the track beside the guided Cambridge busway except it would need to be better by being: segregated, and non-stop with no barriers or breaks in the route.

Faired cycles (HPVs) are now able to average 40 mph. By maintaining this speed throughout the journey transit times of 2 hours between Oxford and Cambridge could be possible.

I recently cycled from Oxford to Cambridge on a route which had been extended to a twisty 100 miles. This took me 6 hours and 40 mins (of cycling). Now this was on a cycle which can only average 20 mph. If I was to attempt this in my velomobile which can average 30 mph then on a route of 80 miles following the gentle gradients of a train line then ...

OK that does not get down to 2 hours but at 62 years old I would at least beat the coach.

By corp0686@ox.ac.uk

Ed note: we all salute Brian Robertson!

By Scott Peacock

It's such a ashame the Bedford to Cambridge rail line was left abandoned back in 1967 due to disagreement between the two Bourogh Council Bedford and Cambridge on who was going to be involve in upgrading the line, i feel there is a demand for the line to be re instated for those unversity students who want to travel between the two University Centres or for those who are on business meeting or on a day trips, Now that part of the rail line at Cambridge has been lost for the Guided bus way outside Cambridge Rail Station, i now think the line will go south toward Stevenage just outside Letchworth across the field just missing Hitchin station via onto Gamlingay past Henlow Camp onto Old Warden tunnel new link just missing Shefford town onto Bedford that way.

By Tim

The millions of roundabouts in MK move traffic a lot faster that the chaotic traffic lights and queues in Oxford city!