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.
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.’
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'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.’
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 Rail, Disused Stations, Richard Lofthouse, World SkyCat Ltd.
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