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