£760m funding confirmed for next stage of East-West Rail line linking Oxford and Cambridge
By David Lynch, Local Democracy Reporter
Funding of £760m has been announced to break ground on East-West Rail, the new line that will link Oxford and Cambridge.
The cash from the Department of Transport will be used to lay track along a disused railway line between Bicester and Bletchley, in Buckinghamshire, with services beginning in 2025.
The aim is to complete the whole project by the end of the decade, according to the government minister overseeing it.
Chris Heaton Harris added that it may also mean that the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway, a ‘paused’ project for a major road between the two university cities, could remain “‘paused for a very long time” if people “vote with their feet” and choose to use trains to travel instead of private cars.
The funding, announced today (Saturday, January 23) will provide better transport links across the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, which the government hopes will become an economic boom area due to the high number of science and technology jobs here.
Simon Blanchflower, chief executive officer at East West Railway Company, said: “We are delighted that the Government has shown a big commitment to East West Rail and the Oxford Cambridge Arc with today’s investment decision.
“This funding will enable us to get on with the construction work that will connect communities who live on the East West Rail link.
“We are committed to improving connectivity across the Oxford-Cambridge Arc and fully recognise our responsibility to ensure that it is delivered in a way that minimises disruption, supports the regional economy, maximises benefits and supports jobs across the region.”
There remains much debate, however, over which route East-West Rail should take into Cambridge, with some campaigners favouring a route along the A428 corridor into Cambridge North, rather than the currently proposed route to the planned Cambridge South railway station on Cambridge Biomedical Campus.
Elsewhere, the new railway will shorten journey times between routes outside of London. Travellers from Oxford for example, will no longer have take a train into the capital and back out again to reach Milton Keynes, but could travel there via Bicester.
The government said works between Bicester and Bletchley are expected to create 1,500 jobs.
Work will include the construction of a new station at Winslow, as well as enhancements to existing stations along the route, including Bletchley.
By 2025, two trains per hour will run between Oxford and Milton Keynes via Bletchley it is claimed. A second section of track could be laid between Bletchley and Bedford by 2028, and the final stretch be completed by 2030.
Mr Heaton Harris, the rail minister at DfT, acknowledged the project was on an “ambitious timetable”.
Asked how it would affect the expressway project, he said: “I think my secretary of state [Grant Shapps] was asked about this recently and he gave that answer that the road project was paused.
“I am quite hopeful if we can do this – and the timescales we are looking at are doable: the first service by 2025, next to Bedford by 2028 – in that time we would have been able to demonstrate that if people vote with their feet that the paused road will be paused for a very long time.”
The expressway project was paused as part of the government’s budget in spring 2020.
Campaigners across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and other neighbouring counties were worried about the western stretch of the road, which would have been a new dual carriageway built over the countryside.
Eastern parts of the expressway have already been completed, through upgrading existing roads.
When the East-West Rail project is complete, it will be the first time since 1968 that Bicester and Bletchley will be connected by rail.
As part of the government’s new funding commitments announced today, £34m will also be spent on upgrading the Northumberland Line between Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and Ashington.
It has also opened an ‘Ideas Fund’ which will run until March 5, and will give grants of £50,000 to applicants who make a case for reopening branch lines or railway stations mothballed in the past.
Mr Heaton Harris said the Witney to Oxford line, long promoted as a potential commuter branch line, would be ideal for this fund.
The minister said: “One of my fellow transport ministers [Robert Courts] is the MP for Witney and he never ceases to bend my ear about the benefits that project would bring.”
He added: “That is exactly the sort of thing we are looking at, areas where we can make a difference with not too big sums of money.”
The rail route between Oxford and Cambridge was traditionally known as the ‘Varsity Line’.
The new East-West Rail scheme also aims to extend services beyond the two cities to Norwich.
The project has had a very long history, having been initiated originally by Ipswich Borough Council in 1995.
The government first adopted and started funding the project in 2011 under the then-Chancellor George Osborne.