Featured image: Oxford Parkway station shortly after opening (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Whilst all the media attention over the last few months has been on HS2 (see my previous blog article on #WhyHS2), the second phase of a regionally-important major infrastructure project is also quietly getting underway. East-West Rail (EWR) is a project to ultimately connect Oxford and Cambridge (gaining it the nickname ‘Varsity Line’) via Milton Keynes and Bedford, using a mix of existing lines, re-opened lines and brand new railway, and will be an important east-to-west link.
As well as serving as a direct connection between two important university cities and the towns in between them, it will also be the only route south of the Leicester/Nuneaton/Peterborough corridor connecting all three current major arterial routes between London and the North: the West Coast Main Line (WCML), Midland Main Line (MML) and East Coast Main Line (ECML).
The project will eventually link the two university cities of Oxford and Cambridge and is being completed in three phases:
Phase 1 – Oxford to Bicester Village (Already open)
The first phase of the EWR project, focusing the western end of the route, was completed in 2016. The main objective of the first phase was upgrading the line to double track throughout between Oxford and Bicester via a new station at Oxford Parkway (serving the village of Kidlington and the northern suburbs of Oxford itself) in preparation for the increased rail traffic that EWR will bring once Phase 2 is completed. There are already services utilising the Phase 1 improvements, running between Oxford and London Marylebone via Bicester and High Wycombe.
Phase 2 – Bicester Village to Bedford (Due to open 2024)
The second phase of the project involves re-laying the track on an old rail alignment linking Bicester with Bletchley then using the existing Marston Vale route to Bedford, calling only at a couple of the busier Marston Vale stations. This is currently in progress and is currently estimated to be completed in 2024. Once opened, this will allow direct hourly services between Bedford and Oxford, with an additional plan to route services from Milton Keynes via the new section of line to Aylesbury and London Marylebone, which will also provide additional diversionary capacity for the West Coast Main Line.
Phase 3 – Bedford to Cambridge (Expected to open by 2030)
The final phase, for which the route is yet to be fully confirmed, is between Bedford and Cambridge, via a new station between Sandy and St Neots on the East Coast Main Line and Cambourne, a small town around 10 miles west of Cambridge.
The exact alignment for Phase 3 is set to be confirmed next year, with timescales beyond this unclear at present – however East West Rail aim to have the route fully open by 2030 (and on that basis, I’d anticipate construction starting in earnest probably around the time Phase 2 opens). At that point, they aim to run up to 4 trains an hour, with a journey time of just over half an hour, between Bedford and Cambridge – which also means that, as part of this final phase, Bedford station will be significantly upgraded to create new platform capacity for the new services.
The pandemic has brought some uncertainty around whether this final phase is still going to proceed – but subject to passenger numbers returning over the next few years I’d still expect the full route to be completed (even if it ends up slightly delayed).
So why East West Rail?
As alluded to in my introduction, the primary benefit in my view is providing a key East-West link, opening up a wide array of journeys which are currently only realistically possible travelling via London or using other forms of transport.
Replacing current road options
Particularly of note is the X5 coach service, which runs every half hour and connects Oxford and Bedford via Bicester and Milton Keynes – a similar line of route to the second phase of the railway line once fully operational. However, particularly for end-to-end journeys it’s quite slow – Bedford to Oxford takes 2 hours 20 minutes by coach currently, whereas the new rail link will connect them in around an hour. Even taking into account the required change of train at Bletchley, Milton Keynes will still benefit also, with end-to-end journey times being around 45 minutes to Bedford (which is around the same as currently, but significantly more reliable than the coach, particularly in the peaks) and similarly, 45 minutes or so to Oxford rather than the current 1 hour 25 minutes.
The X5 probably still has a place though – at least initially, the end-to-end service will likely only be hourly compared to the half-hourly frequency of the X5 for most of the day (and off-peak from Bedford, if you’re going to the shopping/entertainment areas in the centre of Milton Keynes rather than the station, it will usually still be quicker by coach). It also serves the town of Buckingham which doesn’t have its own railway connection, and is used by commuters from Buckingham to both Milton Keynes and Oxford.
Creating new connections
EWR opens up a wide range of connection opportunities – once the full route is open, being able to connect from East Anglia via Cambridge to Bedford, Milton Keynes and Oxford (plus possible future service extensions to Reading) becomes possible. Airport connectivity benefits too – Stansted Airport (via Cambridge) and Luton Airport (via Bedford) will both become viable options for a large number of potential travellers where realistically driving or choosing a different airport would be the current choices.
Finally, I just want to mention the diversionary opportunities. At present, if there’s a major issue at the southern end of either the WCML, MML or ECML, diversion opportunities can be quite limited – being able to reroute via one of these, without either going considerably further north or relying on replacement transport, will be of benefit when disruption does hit.
There is also the possibility of rerouting a small number of WCML services into Marylebone via the new connection during planned closures of the line between Bletchley and Euston – though this does have difficulties in that the line into Marylebone isn’t electrified so would rely on diesel-based traction.
I hope this article has given a general overview of the East West Rail project – it’s an exciting regional project which will open up a large number of regional journeys without needing to go via London or use a different mode of transport as per now (and for me, living in Bedford, hopefully the catalyst for a long-overdue station upgrade too!)
Per HS2, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the current pandemic should (hopefully!) no longer be actively influencing demand, particularly in terms of leisure travel, by the time EWR Phase 2 opens in 2024 – and with the ever-growing need to safeguard the environment for future generations, encouraging cross-country travel out of cars and onto rail should be a priority, arguably even more so than London-based passenger flows which are already more geared towards rail.
You can read more detail about the project as a whole on the East West Rail site – if you do have any specific questions or comments, I’d welcome them in the comments below, as always!