Richard Lofthouse reports on the latest upgrade to Oxford’s transport link to London.
Anyone alighting at Oxford railway station in the last few weeks of 2016 was treated to scenes of almost apocalyptic demolition, with vast piles of rubble and furiously working bulldozers framed against the backdrop of Saïd Business School.
One result is a new platform and terminus for trains running up and down from London Marylebone.
For a while, it was difficult to believe that a brand new platform would be made ready in time for Chiltern Railway’s self-imposed deadline of Monday 12 December. In the event the rail franchise ran its first service to Oxford a day earlier.
For the past year Chiltern Railways, a subsidiary of German rail giant Deutsche Bahn, has operated trains between London Marylebone and Oxford Parkway, a brand new station built by Network Rail and opened in October 2015 by then-Prime Minister David Cameron.
It then took another year for Network Rail to complete just three miles of additional track to central Oxford. As with virtually anything to do with Oxford, the last bit of track was embroiled in a furious controversy about anticipated noise pollution on the new line and how it might interfere with the quality of life of residents of north Oxford.
This row remains unresolved, with residents accusing Network Rail of reneging on an earlier promise to implement a special ‘silent’ track through residential areas including Wolvercote. Rail Minister Paul Maynard was reported recently in the Oxford Times as writing to Network Rail on behalf of both the City Council and furious residents. His letter is reported to state, ‘I am writing to Network Rail asking them to review their mitigation plans and outline to me how it is ensuring it is operating as a considerate neighbour, as far as is reasonably practicable, and why the mitigation it has implemented differs between sections.’
Aside from these hitches, Chiltern insist that the new platform constitutes the first new rail connection between cities since 1899, effectively reversing a century of railway decline in the UK. The opening of the new platform at Oxford also marks the completion of so-called ‘Phase One’ of the eventual reopening of the old Varsity line between Oxford and Cambridge. Phase Two will see trains running out to Bedford via Bicester and Bletchley by 2024. Phase Three (Bedford–Cambridge) is subject to an uncertain timetable but recently received the financial support of Central Government, to the tune of £120 million. Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond spoke in his autumn, 2016 budget of a ‘transformational tech corridor’ that would ‘draw on the world-class research strengths of our two best-known universities.’ The old Varsity line connecting Oxford to Cambridge was closed following the ‘Beeching Cuts’ in 1967, after its author Dr Richard Beeching.
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All photos and video by Richard Lofthouse for Oxford Today.