Above: The first train at Oxford Parkway arriving from London Marylebone after just 56 minutes
By Dr Richard Lofthouse
It meant the alarm clock going off at four-something in the morning. However I was enthused with the idea that there would be cachet in riding the first train on the first new mainline for a century connecting London to a major city. I’m referring to the Chiltern Railways line from Marylebone to Oxford Parkway, a ‘station in the middle of nowhere,’ notionally identified as Water Eaton or Kidlington, or actually just a big, wind-swept car park. Take your pick.
Above: A poster for the new Chiltern Railways line from London to Oxford
So I cycled from home across London in the complete darkness of pre-dawn, on 26th October 2015 in search of the 06.09 service, a train so early that it still counted as off-peak.
Given the enormous row that surrounded the coming of the railways to Oxford in the nineteenth century, with dons firmly against any railway for fear of industry and noise and riff raff, I was in search of my historical moment and curious as to who else would be there with me.
At Marylebone station, I discovered that the AMT coffee kiosk opens at 05.15. There was already a small queue forming. I joined in and obtained the obligatory almond croissant and white Americano. It turned out that very few of these people were in search of my train.
Above: The new service will see two fast trains per hour throughout the day between Oxford Parkway and Marylebone
Just two minutes before departure time, the platform was suddenly announced, and five of us made our way to Platform 3. What we found was a cross-country style train, and the stained carpet announced that it wasn’t new. Provision for bikes was limited to two, in the area that accommodates a toilet and wheel chairs. My fellow cyclist Stephen Daley turned out to be a DPhil student in law. Later, a spokesman for Chiltern trains took the view that generally speaking, travellers might hire a Boris bike upon arrival at Marylebone, or carry a folder, like a Brompton. There’s no move afoot to get people transporting bikes, unlike in the mid-twentieth century, when there were special guard’s vans with racking for a hundred cycles.
Above: Outside Oxford Parkway, which is part of the first new rail link between London and a major British city for over 100 years
On board and rolling away almost immediately, I walked the train in search of stories. I spied a man in a shiny black kagool. I introduced myself as a journalist and asked him if he knew about the rumour I’d heard, that there would be brand new rolling stock instead of stained carpets. He stared at me languidly, and then hit me with it. “They’ve been re-conditioning 168s and 172s, and they’re going to run a single silver.”
Shazam! A true anorak in our midst, in all senses! Translation: used rolling stock from Trans-Pennine, of the cross country ‘no guard’s van’ variety, and for the plumb commuter service that leaves Oxford at 07.24 every morning, a real locomotive pulling real carriages.
The Victorians would have sniffed at this! They would also have disputed the idea that it’s a new mainline because manifestly, it is not. What’s new is ten miles of track from Bicester, and three stations – Bicester Village, Islip and Oxford Parkway. 2016 will see the final link to Oxford centre, but only when Network Rail obtains final permissions from the City Council. The overall cost is £320 million.
Above: Graham Cross (Oriel, 1993) Chiltern Railways' Business Development Director
For a manifestly English train experience, it was startling to get to Bicester Village and have all the train announcements in Arabic and Mandarin, a nod to the shopping Mall of the same name, which lies immediately by the station.
Apart from that sliver of globalization, the whole experience remained one of dewy countryside and bovine grazing, freshly built bridges and multiple set-aside zones crammed with all the machines and vehicles that you use to build a railway.
We arrived to piercing, late autumnal sunshine and free coffee, and the very beginning of a buzz of officialdom that would later bring VIPs to a more formal opening. Whatever it’s pricing structure and never mind the carpet, the train beats the car for civility – I speak from experience. The same day saw the introduction of an average speed limit on a long, London section of the A40, another blow for the ever more ludicrous notion of unfettered freedom, the private motorist and the open road.
Above: The majority of the trains are geared to business with free Wi-Fi, sockets and spacious seating
Images © Richard Lofthouse