British Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond has committed central government support of £120 million for the re-opening of the Varsity Railway.

Oxford's station as it was in 1974Oxford's station as it was in 1974
By Richard Lofthouse

We wrote here a few months back about the plan to reconnect the Varsity Railway, closed in 1967. Now it really is to happen, except that we still don’t know by when, only that central government has put an extra £120m behind the scheme. 

In his Autumn Statement, delivered on November 23, 2016, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced that the government would back the interim finding of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) to re-open the railway that once ran between Oxford and Cambridge. He spoke of a ‘transformational tech corridor’ that would ‘draw on the world class research strengths of our two best known universities,’ committing £110m to East West Rail, as well as promising an Oxford-Cambridge Expressway – some sort of fast trunk road but presumably not a full motorway.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-countryThe old route from Oxford to Cambridge declined in use in the 1960s when faster trainsmeant that more people went via London rather than heading cross-country

A week earlier, the Commission had urged government to urgently support successive phases of a scheme that had been thrown into doubt as recently as the summer.

The first such phase is all but complete. Numerous Oxford residents and University members have already boarded a train at Oxford Parkway (Water Eaton/ Kidlington), running all the way to London Marylebone in about an hour. The route recently celebrated its first birthday. The final piece of track between Oxford Parkway and Oxford is expected to open on December 12.

Phase Two, now back on track, is expected to be completed by 2024. It will slash travel times from Bicester to Bedford and Milton Keynes to Princes Risborough. The really big prize is the last bit from Bedford to Cambridge. There is still no official guidance on timing for this, only a note in the Commission recommendation that the eventual scheme ‘integrate construction of the East West Rail Western Section with work HS2’, a reference to the High Speed rail link that will now be built between London and Manchester.Oxford is now much better connected to London with a new service that arrives at Marylebone in under an hourOxford is now much better connected to London with a new service that arrives at Marylebone in under an hour

Deputy Chair of the Commission, Sir John Armitt, identified the corridor between Oxford and Cambridge as ‘Britain’s Silicon Valley – a globally recognised centre for science, technology and innovation,’ but he warned that a golden future wasn’t guaranteed. He spoke about a ‘twin failure’ – not just of poor transport but also of unaffordable housing in Oxford and Cambridge.

Armitt continued, ‘This area can become greater than the sum of its parts with better strategic planning which radically improves its transport connectivity whilst securing the tens of thousands of new homes it so desperately needs. East West Rail and the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway, can be a catalyst to bring the region together to deliver the housing and connectivity it will need to compete with the best in the world.’ He ended his report, ‘This is a once in a generation opportunity – we must grab it with both hands.’

Hammond noted that the government would work with the Commission to consider delivery model options ‘in due course.’ Oxford is now much better connected to London with a new service that arrives at Marylebone in under an hourPhilip Hammond read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at University College, and graduated with a first-class honours

Not everyone wants a massive road between Oxford and Cambridge, and it remains to be seen what this will amount to. 

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.  

Then in August 2016, there was a mini-panic among eight local councils along the proposed route, part of a dedicated consortium. They expressed concern that the 2024 deadline for Phase Two was in danger of slipping. They at least should be reassured by this latest development, having poured an estimated £45 million into the scheme already.

Images: Oxford University Images, Shutterstock, Richard Lofthouse


By Geoffrey Wilson

Is the picture of the GWR station or of the adjacent LMS station which was in use when I went up in 1942?

By Sue Dawes

How do I sign up to be on the first train from Oxford to Cambridge, please? Sue Dawes

By Edmund Blackie

Two years ago, a delightful walk with John Henderson and his friends along the old track, Bedford to Sandy.....a mere 54 years since, odd baba crossbred, I travelled it by train. 2024 for Phase Two? Well, super-ish....but shall one never again stop off at Blechley, sink one's remaining teeth into an Individual Fruit Pie (or equivalent)?

Economically, yes all agree, good sense: please please let's speed things up!

By Brian Roen

I always love a to hear about new or revived railway line, but I think the old version was a seriously slow and uncongenial meander through the fens. In spite of being at Wadham 1961-64 and having close friends in Cambridge, I never used it to go and visit them, and didn't know many people, if any, who used it either. This was a probably a factor in its closure (which wasn't due to Beeching). Hope the new one will be faster in spite of all those potential stops on the way, and will provide a viable option to the proposed new road. After all, parking is all but impossible in both Oxford and Cambridge, whereas the two main stations are at least inside their respective city limits.

As for our 'public good, private bad' Government, It always makes me smile when they cough up big public money for infrastucture schemes, though some might argue, it's simply subsiding the 'privatised' railway network. As is often pointed out, private funding is rarely forthcoming or sufficient on its own for major infrastructure schemes .

Aside from the 'Silicon Fens' argument for this line, I note from a previous Oxford Today item ( that no fewer than 11 of the present Conservative Cabinet are Oxbridge graduates, including both Hammond and May. A sneaky thought - if they had graduated, say, from universities in Wales, would they have been keener on, say, providing a proper rail link between N/S Wales? (and, no, I live in London and I'm not Welsh).

By Richard Mellish

How on earth can they take another 8 years to re-instate services between Bicester and Bedford? The track between Bicester and Claydon Junction carries no regular passenger service at present but remains in use. The track between Claydon Junction and Bletchley remains in place, though mothballed. And there already is a service between Bletchley and Bedford.