Story So Far

Modern Oxford and Cambridge are world famous for their high-tech industries as much as for their historic universities. The 70 miles between them have also evolved into 'an arc' of of fast growing towns and cities, most notably Bicester and Milton Keynes, again with fast developing high tech industries. Travelling through this 'high tech arc' is not easy. The railway was dismembered years ago and the parallel road is heavily congested and journey times slow, just like its coach service.

Campaigning for East West Rail

Railfuture has been campaigning since 1995 to re-open the railway so that all the 'centres of excellence' along 'the arc' can be linked by a fast but sustainable form of transport, the train - a campaign that has finally paid off, although presure needs to be maintained to ensure that the railway is not de-scoped or delayed further.

An additional benefit will accrue from this new rail link, in that services will be able to continue onto the existing rail network to the outer extremities of 'the arc' at Ipswich and Norwich in the east and Reading, Swindon and Bristol in the west.

The new railway will have a high added connectivity value as it will make a network of the radial routes from London, thus creating many more easy rail journies to equally fast growing settlements such as Bath, Bristol, Northampton, Luton, St Albans.

Here's a little more information on the history of the campaign and the latest successes...

The railway across the South Midlands linking East Anglia to the West Country by way of the cities of Cambridge and Oxford was closed amid great controversy in the 1970s. An act that has been greatly regretted not least by the railway operators ever since.

Almost immediately after closure, plans were put forward to get the route reopened but it was not until Railfuture took hold of the idea in 1995 and put forward plans circulated to every County Councillor across the regions, that the idea of the reopening really got going. Out of this lobbying the East West Rail Link Consortium - a special group of local authorities - was created. Since then, various railway operators have become excited by the potential of the route circling London to the north, describing it as the railway's "M25". However, read the leaflet, download it, as it will tell you the potted history and the rationale for the reopening.

Western Section

Following an 18-month closure from February 2014, the route between Oxford and Bicester was completely re-built to create a 100mph two-track railway. The first stage opened on 25th October 2015 (see article). This included a brand-new link between the Chiltern Mainline and the East-West line, and saw the introducton of a new London-Marylebone to Oxford Parkway service. From December 2016 this will be extended into Oxford station.

But that is only phase 1 of the scheme and, apart from the London Marylebone element, is merely just an extra station and two substantially improved ones. The major scheme, classed as phase 2, is reopening the line from Bicester Village (the new name for Bicester Town station) and also Aylesbury Parkway onto Bletchley with onward services to Bedford and Milton Keynes. We are npw told that the so-called 'western' part of the route will reopen in 2025 - some six years later than the 2019 opening announced by the government back in November 2011 when funding was approved. However, the western end of the project is progressing, albeit at the early construction stage.

Network Rail and its approved suppliers have formed an East West Rail Alliance to construct phase 2, which like phase 1 will be a complete rebuild. At a public meeting in April 2016 which Caryl Jones and Charles Hurst from the EWR Consortium and EWR2 Alliance (respectively) spoke, Railfuture was told that it is now a DfT 'priority 2' scheme and they were waiting for Network Rail's new Delivery Plan, which was due to be published in December 2016. The new plan clarified the full scope and schedule for the Western Section, although in January 2021 the government announced that various parts of it would be 'phased'. HS2 will 'have a massive impact' as it requires re-routing of EWR and takes priority.

Charles Hurst said that engineering and environmental work were continuing towards submitting a Transport & Works Act Order application in late 2017. Allowing two years for approval means construction could have started in 2019 (in fact some prepartion work did) but it was not authorised by the government until January 2020. At the time he said that opening around 2021 was were achievable provided the scope could be decided and frozen. The design of the line and the new passenger and freight services were to have been as previously planned, except that passive provision for electrification would be confined to the Oxford - Bletchley section, so no Electric Spine to Bedford. Disappointingly the upgrade of the Princes Risborough to Aylesbury section is delayed indefinitely. Progress is being made on re-routing the road crossings between Bedford and Bletchley so that trains can run much faster, but the approvals needed for each are difficult and taking a long time. For example, a diversity assessment was needed for each one [Railfuture noted that a lot of minor road crossings of the A421 were closed a few years ago without any obvious problem]. A new design for a re-route of the crossing at Lidlington was to be out for consultation in June 2016. [Railfuture commented at the time that Lidlington was the scene of a bizarre anti-rail protest a few years ago, but constant reference by the authorities to 'closing crossings' rather than 'diverting' or 'replacing' did not help; at least the alleged health impact of the electromagnetic field of an electrified railway can now be discounted as electrification is cancelled.]

See: for more details as the project progresses.

Central Section

In the mean time, the routing of the 'central' part of the project is still unresolved. This is the section from Bedford to Cambridge, a very short gap (in fact, the only section of the whole route where the old track is built over). In the past the approach was seen as a way of linking up Bedford to the East Coast Main Line (ECML), probably either at Sandy or Hitchin, and then using existing railways to get to Cambridge. Whilst seen as cheaper, the journey time would have been compromised, and the benefits lower hence the struggle to make a business case. However, in recent years, as the government has come on board in a strong way, there is now a desire to build a 125mph high-quality inter-regional rail route. Finding the right alignment is essential to this.

Network Rail has now taken over from the EWRL Consortium in identifying route. It has been doing this by looking at a range of wide 'corridors' and then gradually ruling out certain ones. In autumn 2015 it has reduced this to just two: a "Hitchin" and a "Sandy" corridor (having earlier discarded ideas for a route via Luton - rather than Bedford - and a completely new route thence to Stevenage, presumably linking the Midland Main Line with the Marston Vale route at Millbrook). At the end of March 2016 Network Rail announced that a route would be found within the "Sandy Corridor", which some of the media interpreted as going through Sandy. In fact, the railway would be built between 15km south and 15km north of Sandy, so there is no certainty that it would go through Sandy. Railfuture's preferred route is via St Neots, which is within the Sandy corridor.

The EWRL Consortium's original plan was to the use the Cambridge to Hitchin railway as far as a new 'Stotfield Road Junction' just southwest of Letchworth, from where a chord would run northwest to the Hitchin to Peterborough railway. That would have used the slow lines to Sandy (there were concerns about using up valuable paths on the ECML) and then turn west onto the remains of the Sandy to Bedford railway, with some new routing here and there. Given that the Hitchin corridor has been ruled out that route will not be used. However, it will leave Cambridge station southwards, passing a new station for Addenbrooke's Hospital, take the line towards Hitchin at Shepreth Branch Junction. Where it will diverge is yet to be identified, though somewhere close to Shepreth has been suggested. That would allow it to pass south of the 'mega' new town of Cambourne and go via St Neots to Bedford.

In the very unlikely case that Network Rail cannot get powers to build a route within the Sandy corridor then it will revisit its decision to abandon the Hitchin corridor. The Hitchin flyover, which opened in June 2013 has created a 'Stotfield Road Junction' and could be used to combine the flyover route with the East West Rail Link route to the west side of the East Coast Mainline at Cadwell from where the flyover curves south to the Hitchin station area using the solum of the former Hitchin to Bedford railway.

The EWRL, having traversed the new flyover route from Stotfield Road Jct to Cadwell, could curve to the northwest and join/use the same solum to the Cardington area of Bedford, from where a short new spur can be forged to the route of the Sandy to Bedford railway mentioned above. This is but one of a number of options that could be used to make sure the East West rail link actually connects Cambridge with Milton Keynes and Oxford in the most economical way possible. We would urge a closer investigation into this route.

Railfuture has studied possible routes between Cambridge and Bedford, and has produced maps and an explanation for each - see Routes (24-page PDF).

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Page last changed on 4th May 2017.

About Railfuture

Railfuture is an independent, voluntary group representing rail users in Britain with 20,000 affiliated and individual members. It is not funded by train companies, political parties or trade unions, and all members have an equal say.

Railfuture campaigns for cheap and convenient rail services for everyone; better links for buses, bikes and pedestrians; policies to get more heavy lorries on to rail; new lines, stations and freight terminals. In short, a better rail service and a bigger rail system for both passengers and freight.

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