One of the most short-sighted decisions in railway history was the decision to close the "Varsity Line" between Oxford and Cambridge at the end of 1967, just months after the founding of the city of Milton Keynes. Admittedly, the introduction of faster trains may have made the end-to-end journey faster via London, but intermediate journeys through Milton Keynes have ever since been the preserve of the X5 bus.
Regardless of what one might think of the only planned city in Britain, Milton Keynes's population of over 200,000 people deserves much better rail connections than it currently has. It has very good connections if you want to head south to London, or north to the likes of Birmingham or Manchester. And, indeed, to Northampton, Hemel Hempstead and Watford, because they lie on the same line out of London.
But if you want to head east or west - to somewhere on a different line out of London - you're stuffed. Bedford, all of 18 miles away from Milton Keynes, can be reached by train in an hour, if you change at Bletchley. (Driving, or even just taking the X5 bus, is twice as fast.) But you want to get to Aylesbury? Luton? Bicester? Stevenage? You'll need a bus (or a train via London). Or a car.
The Varsity Line (see map above) ran from Oxford to Cambridge, through Bicester, Bletchley (now incorporated into the southern part of Milton Keynes), Bedford and Sandy. Having served passengers for over a century, the Oxford-Bletchley section was closed to passenger trains in 1967, and the Bedford-Cambridge section was closed completely at the same time.
Somehow, the Bletchley-Bedford portion of the line survived closure, as did almost every intermediate station, meaning that the Bletchley-Bedford section has ten intermediate stations in 16 miles. In an urban area this wouldn't be unreasonable, but the largest village on the route is Woburn Sands with all of 2900 people. Ironically, Kempston - once the largest village in England, but now big enough to be a town - had a station, but it closed in 1941.
The campaign to re-open the whole Varsity line - now rechristened the East West Rail Link - has been ongoing for some decades, and until a few years ago seemed to be stuck in the mud. Then, out of the blue, the Chancellor announced in 2011 that £270 million would be spent on re-opening the line between Oxford and Bedford. This was subsumed in 2012 into the so-called Electric Spine, a plan to electrify a collection of routes linking the south coast to the north of England via a reopened Oxford-Bedford line.
This followed Chiltern Railways's plan to use the Oxford-Bicester line to run trains between London Marylebone and Oxford, via a new chord at Bicester to join the East-West Line to the Chiltern Main Line. Dubbed Evergreen 3, the plan would see Marylebone-Oxford trains taking just 66 minutes. More importantly, they would serve a new "Oxford Parkway" station at an existing park-and-ride site at Water Eaton, in the north of Oxford, which will provide much better access for much of Oxford compared to the existing station at the west end of the city.
Indeed, from the eastern end of the city, getting to the railway station at the west side of the city is difficult thanks to the traffic, so much so that Stagecoach run the Oxford Tube, an express bus service between Oxford and London. Even though it takes 1 hour 40 minutes on average, by the time passengers get to Oxford railway station, take a fast train (taking an hour or so) to Paddington, and get from Paddington to Victoria, the bus is probably quicker. Chiltern's plan for trains between Marylebone and Oxford Parkway should give the Oxford Tube a good run for its money.
Although it closed in 1967, the Oxford-Bicester line reopened as a single-track branch in 1987 (the track hadn't been lifted), with an intermediate station at Islip following two years later. And thus it has remained for nearly 25 years, with one train shuttling back and forth between Oxford and Bicester roughly every 90 minutes. But now Chiltern want to run trains to London on it, it would be a lot better if it weren't single track, and capable of more than 40mph. In order to facilitate the work, the Oxford-Bicester line is being shut for a year and a half, starting this Friday (14th February).
As a result, this past Sunday (9th February) Vintage Trains ran a charter train from Marylebone over what remains of the East-West Line (the light blue lines in the map above), for one last look at the lines before they close for over a year. This gave me and my three travelling companions a sneak peek of lines that are now just minor freight lines, but which in a few years will hopefully bring a true rail revival to the Chilterns.
The "Chiltern Champion" railtour was in two parts. The first part was simply a run from Solihull to Marylebone in the morning, and back to Solihull in the evening; essentially this was to get the train from its base in Tyseley (in Birmingham) to Marylebone to start the railtour proper. The second part was a round-trip from Marylebone via Aylesbury, Oxford and Banbury, traversing as much of the Oxford-Bletchley section of the East-West Line as it is currently possible to do.
The name "Chiltern Champion" comes from our locomotive, D1015 Western Champion, which hauled us most of the way, with 47773 The Queen Mother assisting. D1015 is one of an unusual class of diesel-hydraulic locomotives, usually known as Westerns, which served high-speed expresses on the Great Western Main Line for only 15 years in the 1960s and 1970s. It is believed this was the first ever visit of such a locomotive to Marylebone.
I did the run from Leamington to Marylebone (and back) on my own, joining Matt, James and Paul for the second part at Marylebone. On departure from Marylebone at 12:40, we headed north on the mainline as far as Princes Risborough, turning right to go through Little Kimble to Aylesbury. After a brief stop, we proceeded north on the little-used line from Aylesbury to Claydon LNE Jn, originally built by the Metropolitan Railway! This took us past the new station at Aylesbury Vale Parkway, the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre at Quainton Road, and a waste terminal for the landfill at Calvert.
The line north from Aylesbury was once the Great Central Main Line, the last main line in the country to be built, which ran from Marylebone through Aylesbury, Rugby, Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield across to Manchester. It was controversially closed in the 1960s, with only the section as far as Calvert surviving. At Calvert, we used one of the connections onto the Varsity Line to get to Claydon LNE Junction, the easternmost point of the open section of the Oxford-Bletchley line. (It is hoped this section between Aylesbury and Claydon LNE Jn will also be fully reopened to provide connections between Aylesbury and Milton Keynes once the East-West Line is open.)
At Claydon LNE Jn, the main locomotive D1015 Western Champion "ran round" the train: it was detached from the front, driven back past the train on an adjacent line, and then backed onto the other end of the train. Having left Marylebone with both locomotives at the front of the train (called "double heading"), the run-round meant we now had one locomotive on each end. This allowed us to proceed west along the East-West Line to Oxford.
What survives of the East-West Line is not a speedy line: 40mph is the maximum speed, and that only west of Bicester; east of Bicester the line is limited to all of 25mph. Nonetheless, this gave us the chance to admire the views of the fine English countryside, and to see the work already being done at Bicester to build the curve linking the East-West Line to the Chiltern Main Line. We had a brief stop at Islip where people could get out and take photographs, before continuing on to Oxford.
Due to engineering work at Oxford, it wasn't possible for the locomotive to run round again; hence, the class 47 locomotive that had been on the back of the train took over for the short run up the cross-country route to Banbury, where after a 35-minute break D1015 was back in charge for a fast run up the Chiltern Main Line to Marylebone, where we arrived at 18:06. I bade farewell to the others before heading back to Leamington on the return journey.
Both times the train arrived at Marylebone, the train was top-and-tailed with D1015 on the front (at the buffers) and 47773 on the rear; both times the train left Marylebone it had both engines on the front. Unfortunately running a locomotive round a train at a terminus is a bit more difficult: in the past there would have been a "loco release", a set of points allowing the locomotive to leave via the adjacent platform, but Marylebone no longer has loco releases.
So, what happened was D1015 was detached from the rest of the train, and 47773 dragged the eight Mark 2 coaches out onto the Up Main - the track on which we'd just come into the station - while D1015 shunted into the Tunnel Siding. 47773 then propelled the coaches back into the platform: meaning, the driver was driving the train from the back, with a bloke with a radio saying "you're alright, keep going..." looking out the front. Then D1015 came back from the tunnel siding and attached to the other end of the train.
All in all, the railtour was a lovely day out. The weather even played ball, with a brief let-up in our seemingly ceaseless parade of Atlantic storms giving a day of sunshine to admire the view of... flooded fields. As the review on the Western Champion website says, "[t]he view from the carriage windows often looked like the train was picking its way between large inland seas". Nonetheless, even a chill wind did little to damp our spirits, and we had a very enjoyable day.
This sneak peek at what the East-West Line gives only a vague idea of what the line will be like in a few years time. Sure, it will run along the same formation, but next time I travel east from Bicester Town it could well be on an electric train on a double-track main line to Bletchley. Alternatively, it could well be on a brand-new railway line linking Oxford to Marylebone.
After many decades of poor transport connections, the Chilterns are entering a golden age of rail travel - once, that is, the line reopens. In the meantime, passengers will have to endure a year or two of replacement buses... but it'll all be worth it in the end!