Varsity Line

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Varsity Line
Water Eaton Grain Silo.JPG
Site of the future Oxford Parkway station
Type Heavy rail
System National Rail
Status Operational (Oxford-Clayton Junction and Bletchley-Bedford)
Mothballed (Clayton Junction-Bletchley)
Locale South East England
Termini Oxford
Stations 13 open
2 planned
Opening 1846–1851
Closed 1993 (mothballed Clayton Junction-Bletchley)
Owner Network Rail
Operator(s) Chiltern Railways
London Midland
Rolling stock Class 153 "Sprinter"
Class 165 "Network Turbo"
No. of tracks 1–2
Track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) standard gauge
Varsity Line
GER line to Ipswich
GER line to Mildenhall
Fen Line
West Anglia Main Line
(LNWR) Goods
Cambridge Line
GER line to Huntingdon
Note: Alignment west of
Cambridge is now track of
Mullard Observatory's
moving telescope
Lord's Bridge
Toft and Kingston
Old North Road
Great Northern Railway
former LNWR station
East Coast Main Line
Girtford Halt
River Ivel
former navigation
Bedford St Johns
former site
Bedford St Johns
current site
Bedford Midland
Bedford to Hitchin Line
(Midland Railway)
Kempston and Elstow Halt
Midland Main Line
Kempston Hardwick
Wootton Broadmead Halt
Bedford to Bletchley
operates as the
Marston Vale Line
Husborne Crawley
Aspley Guise
Woburn Sands
Bow Brickhill
Grand Junction Canal
Fenny Stratford
West Coast Main Line
Newton Longville
Newton Longville landfill
Verney Junction
Metropolitan Railway
to Aylesbury
to Banbury
Winslow Road
Reversing siding of
freight line to Calvert
Granborough Road
Great Central Main Line
Calvert landfill
Grendon Underwood Jn.
Quainton Road Junction
Marsh Gibbon
and Poundon
Quainton Road
open only on Bank Holidays
Great Central Main Line
Metropolitan Railway
to Aylesbury
GWR Bicester Cut-off line
Under construction Bicester chord
Bicester Town
current passenger terminus
Bicester Military Railway
Wendlebury Halt
Oxford and
Rugby Railway
Charlton Halt
Oddington Halt
Oxford, Worcester and
Wolverhampton Railway
proposed site of Oxford Parkway
former Oxford, Witney
and Fairford Railway
Oxford Road Halt
Oxford Canal
Junction Railway
Wolvercote Junction
Duke's Cut
Wolvercote Tunnel
Wolvercot Platform
Wolvercote Halt
Oxford Canal
Oxford North Junction
Port Meadow Halt
Sheepwash Channel
Rewley Road Swing Bridge
Oxford General
Oxford Rewley Road
Cherwell Valley Line

The Varsity Line (or Oxford to Cambridge Line) is an informal name for the railway route that formerly linked the English university cities of Oxford and Cambridge, operated successively by the London and North Western Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, and British Railways. A pun on the railway term main line was sometimes employed by describing the line as the "Brain Line".[citation needed]

Services were withdrawn from the OxfordBletchley and BedfordCambridge sections at the end of 1967, even though the line had not been listed for closure as part of the Beeching Axe in 1963.

The only sections still in regular passenger use today are the Oxford to Bicester Line from Oxford to Bicester Town, and the Marston Vale Line operation from Bletchley to Bedford. The Bicester – Calvert section still carries freight traffic but the Calvert – Bletchley section, though extant, is currently disused. There are well-developed plans to open a short section from Bicester Town to the Chiltern Main Line as part of Project Evergreen 3 and from Bicester to Bedford as part of the East West Rail Link.

In the absence of a through rail service, Stagecoach in Bedford's X5 coach service provides a passenger service by road between Oxford and Cambridge via Bicester, Milton Keynes and Bedford.


The line was built in two stages, the first by the Bedford and Cambridge Railway which opened in 1844, and the second by the Buckinghamshire Railway between Oxford and Bedford in 1845. The final link from Bedford to Cambridge was not however completed until 7th July 1862.

Bedford and Cambridge Railway[edit]

Proposed from 1844, the supporting and surveying engineers were George and Robert Stephenson. The engineers proposal to junction with the London and Birmingham Railway at Bletchley was eventually accepted by the shareholders, with construction starting in December 1945 and completed by September 1846. All operations were subcontracted to the LNWR.

Buckinghamshire Railway[edit]

The Bletchley and Bedford section was opened by the Buckinghamshire Railway in 1846. It then opened the section between Bletchley and Verney Junction on 30 March 1850 as part of its line to Banbury,[1] and the section between Verney Junction and Oxford on 20 May 1851.[1]


By the time that the B&CR had been built, the London and Birmingham Railway amalgamated with the Grand Junction Railway to form the London & North Western Railway (LNWR), who immediately took over the running rights to the line. The LNWR bought-out the B&CR in 1865. From 1 July 1851, the LNWR operated the Buckinghamshire Railway on a 999-year lease, then absorbing the company on 21 July 1879.[1]

However, much as though it now owned and operated the complete line, the LNWR choose to operate it as two separate timetables, using Bletchley as originally planned as an intermediate station, with separate trains running in two directions: east to Cambridge; and west to Oxford. It was not until it was amalgamated in 1922 that the London Midland and Scottish Railway started running complete services from Oxford to Cambridge.

During World War 2, the line carried many trains to and from the Bicester Military Railway. A junction between the line and the Great Central Main Line was built between Calvert and Claydon to improve connection.

British Railways[edit]

After nationalisation in 1947 into British Railways, an early attempt to close the line in 1959 failed due to large local opposition. The line was not listed for closure in the 1963 The Reshaping of British Railways report, but came under pressure from the road lobby and Minister of Transport Ernest Marples,[citation needed] who had appointed Dr Beeching. Patronage of the line fell[citation needed] when the introduction of fast trains from London to Oxford and Cambridge made it quicker for passengers to go via London. At the end of 1967 BR withdrew passenger services from the OxfordBletchley section and all trains from the BedfordCambridge section, a year after it had withdrawn passenger services north of Aylesbury on the Great Central Main Line.

In the 1980s the line between Aylesbury and Bletchley via Calvert was used for transfers of empty passenger rolling stock due to the closure of the London Marylebone depot, thus transferring the maintenance of the Chiltern Lines' Class 115s to Bletchley. This ceased with the opening of a new depot in Aylesbury and the introduction of the Class 165. During 1982 the entire length of the Bletchley-Oxford section, which was still double-tracked throughout, was used for diversionary passenger services while a bridge at Hill Wooton, between Coventry and Leamington Spa was replaced; all Birmingham-London Paddington services scheduled to stop at Coventry being diverted via this route for three days.[citation needed] Also in the 1980s, there were passenger specials to Milton Keynes from Marylebone via Aylesbury and High Wycombe, which picked up passengers at disused Winslow.[2] The last passenger train to operate on this section of the line was the Mothball Tour in 1993, just before the line was taken out of use.[citation needed]

Network SouthEast, supported by Oxfordshire County Council, reopened the Oxford – Bicester Town section to passenger traffic in 1987, and reopened Islip railway station in 1989.[3]

Present status of route[edit]

Swanbourne, showing the dilapidated condition of the track there (February 2006)

Between Oxford and Bicester the line was open and in regular passenger and freight use between 1987 and 2014 (see Oxford to Bicester Line), but was limited to 25–40 mph. It is currently closed for major upgrades, set to re-open as mostly 100 mph double track from 2015 (see Chiltern Railways#Evergreen 3). Since 1951 passenger trains have operated from the former Great Western Railway Oxford station. Between Bicester and Swanbourne the track is in place but overgrown. Within this the stretch between Bicester and Claydon Junction is used for regular freight trains carrying refuse to the landfill site at Calvert. Between Swanbourne and Mursley the track has been lifted but the trackbed remains and reinstatement is technically feasible. Between Mursley[4] and Newton Longville the track is in place but derelict. The stretch between Newton Longville and Bletchley was re-laid in spring 2006 and opened on 27 March 2006 for freight traffic, carrying refuse to the Newton Longville landfill site. Between Bletchley and Bedford the track is open and in daily passenger use as the Marston Vale Line.

Between Bedford and Cambridge all of the track has been removed and some sections of the trackbed have been lost. At Sandy and Potton new housing occupies the former route. Between Lord's Bridge and Cambridge, the Ryle Telescope of Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory now occupies a 3-mile (4.8 km) length of the former route. Between Trumpington Park and Ride and Cambridge Station the entire route has been converted to be part of the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway.

A further problem is the lack of through platforms at Bletchley and Bedford. The current track layout at Bletchley means that, without the proposed new high-level station, through trains would have to go around the station without stopping. Similarly, Bedford St Johns station was rebuilt on a different site, and is no longer on the through alignment towards Sandy.

Revival plans[edit]

Main article: East West Rail Link

Confirmed plans[edit]

In May 2006 the Department of Transport announced[5] specific plans for Bletchley station. The document states that "it is likely" that Bletchley area renewals and network simplification will take place by 2010, "to include a high-level platform" for Bedford trains. The network will be suitable for the later addition of any 'East-West' link to and from Oxford and for the operation of through links from either Oxford or Bedford to and from Milton Keynes.

In the expansion plans for Milton Keynes, the area around Newton Longville is to be extensively developed. A new passenger station for Newton Longville is included[6] in the "MK2031" strategic plan, with a spur to a new platform at Milton Keynes Central. An upgraded line is already in place (see above) and a simple halt would not be expensive.

On 4 December 2006, work began at Milton Keynes Central to prepare for a service connection from the Marston Vale Line, with completion scheduled for December 2008.[7][8]

Chiltern Railways has opened a new station, known as Aylesbury Vale Parkway, 3 miles (4.8 km) north-west of Aylesbury town station, adjacent to the A41 and the major development at Berryfields. The station opened on 14 December 2008, and the station building on 1 June 2009. Existing track, previously used only by freight trains, has been upgraded and new signalling equipment installed. This line could be extended further north to reach a rebuilt Oxford-Bletchley line at Verney Junction and Chiltern Railways has long-term aspirations to reach Milton Keynes.[9]

It has also been announced that the line between Oxford and Bicester Town railway station will be upgraded with funding from property developers as a condition of enlarging Bicester Village Shopping Centre.

In March 2008, a £2 million engineering survey into the state of the existing and removed track was launched.[10]

In his autumn 2011 budget statement of November 2011, the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced that the government would fund the re-opening of the rail link from Oxford via Milton Keynes as far as Bedford.[11]

In July 2012 the government announced that the line between Oxford and Bletchley would be reopened within an overall investment programme for trains between 2014 and 2019.[12]


A FGW Class 165 Thames Turbo leaving Islip railway station. In 1987 Network SouthEast reopened the Oxford-Bicester line, and in 1989 Islip was reopened as a single-platform unstaffed halt.
Tubbs Crossing in the west of Bicester on the Varsity Line in 2010. It is due to be turned into a bridge very soon for safety reasons. The line is used only by the occasional refuse train, a few spare stock movements and a roaming maintenance unit. The hedges were cut back in circa 2004 after a near-accident in 2002 and a fatality in 1999.

Hopes for a revival of the Varsity Line rested on the proposed East West Rail Link. As well as upgrading the track between Bicester and Bletchley, this scheme was aiming to construct a new 9-mile (14 km) trackbed between Bedford and Sandy on roughly the same alignment as the original. At Sandy, trains would then have joined the East Coast Main Line to BiggleswadeArleseyHitchin and then switched north-east to LetchworthBaldockAshwell and MordenRoystonMeldrethSheprethFoxton – Cambridge. However, a chord would have to be built to enable southbound trains from Sandy to reach the Cambridge Line, as the existing junction serves only northbound trains from London on to this branch. This would mean that trains would not actually stop at Hitchin and a new station might have to be built there unless another solution could be found.

However, little progress was made with the project, and development plans were further set back when, in 2001, the Strategic Rail Authority rejected the option to reopen the stretch of line between Bicester and Bletchley. Then, in April 2006, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister declared[13] itself to be in favour of the principle of re-opening the link between Bedford and Oxford but gave no indication of underwriting that opinion. Most recently, in March 2008, a £2 million engineering survey of the existing and removed tracks was launched.[10]

An alternative alignment for the line eastwards from Sandy has been proposed in order that East Coast Main Line line capacity is not affected by the new line. This would continue from Sandy to the east along the original line, skirting Sandy Warren, before heading directly east across relatively flat and open country, with possible stations at Wrestlingworth and Bassingbourn, before joining the existing railway network again between Royston and Meldreth.

Despite growth opportunities for the rapidly developing Oxford-Cambridge Arc, reopening of the complete Varsity Line remains uncertain. The problem of reconstructing the Bedford to Sandy route is a particular obstacle. However, hope remains that the line between Bletchley and Bicester may re-open to provide a train service between Milton Keynes Central and Oxford.

In summer 2006 it was announced[14] that, in a bid to co-host the 2012 London Olympics, a large rowing lake would be built near the former station site at Willington in Bedfordshire, in return for a licence to extract gravel. The lake would cut through the route of the trackbed between Bedford and Sandy and any subsequent bridging costs would seem to be prohibitive, especially given the uninterrupted span that would be required to avoid obstructing the lake.

In March 2007, a study (funded by the councils and other interested parties along the route) declared at p. 38, 5.1 A very good operating and business case exists for [a "base case" for a] two-trains-per-hour passenger service between Oxford and Milton Keynes, and an operating case also exists for the Aylesbury spur which would bring further economic and strategic advantages to the subregion. Capital cost for the base case is between £100m – £135m. The base case and the Aylesbury options should be further considered in the next phase of work.[15]

In January 2009 work began on clearing vegetation from the Bletchley-Claydon section of the line, to make way for a survey of the cost of reopening the line. The work was being progressed by Milton Keynes Partnership (which was disbanded in 2011), with the intention of resuming passenger services between Oxford and Bedford via Milton Keynes Central "in three or four years".[16]

In March 2008, those undertaking the engineering survey stated that a 100 mph link between Oxford and Bletchley could be achieved for around £190 million. Assuming construction was to start in 2009 as they then hoped, the upgraded / re-opened line could be in service by 2012.[10]

In April 2008, the Department for Transport responded to an e-petition for support by reiterating that they would encourage private funding.[17]

As already noted above, funded work began in 2014 that is planned to deliver an fast Oxford – Milton Keynes Central – Bedford in 2019.

The Varsity Line and the lines it meets. Disused or freight-only sections are in blue.

Future stations[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Awdry (1990) p. 63
  2. ^
  3. ^ Bevan, Alan (Ed). A-Z of Rail Reopenings. Warwick: Railway Development Society. ISBN 0-901283-13-4. 
  4. ^ Bridge at grid reference SP813306 on Whaddon/Mursley road, observed 31 July 2005
  5. ^ West Coast Main Line: Progress Report May 2006 (3MB PDF file)
  6. ^ MK2031 summary but see also MK2031 3.42 to 3.50
  7. ^ Transport Briefing — UK transport news, data and jobs
  8. ^ "New rail platform on time for 2008". MK News (Milton Keynes). 13 December 2006. Retrieved 27 April 2008. 
  9. ^ Network Rail 2006 Business Plan.
  10. ^ a b c Little, Reg (7 March 2008). "MK Rail Link Plan on Track". The Oxford Times. Retrieved 27 April 2008. 
  11. ^ "Autumn Statement: 35 road and rail schemes get go-ahead". BBC News. 29 November 2011. Retrieved 29 November 2011. 
  12. ^ "Rail network to see 'biggest investment' since the Victorians". Guardian Newspaper. 14 July 2012. Retrieved 15 July 2012. 
  13. ^ "Green light for rail link". Milton Keynes Citizen. 18 April 2006. Retrieved 27 April 2008. [dead link]
  14. ^ "'Olympic lake' backed by planners". BBC News Online (London). 20 July 2006. Retrieved 27 April 2008. 
  15. ^ "Guide to Railway Investment Projects (GRIP) Stage 2 Report Final Report" (Press release). East West Rail. 1 February 2007. Retrieved 27 April 2008. 
  16. ^ Marsh, Phil (March 2009). "Headline News: East-West Rail Link work gets underway". In Pigott, Nick. The Railway Magazine (London) 155 (1295): 10. ISSN 0033-8923. 
  17. ^ "East-west-rail – epetition reply". Retrieved 27 April 2008. 

Coordinates: 51°58′05″N 0°49′05″W / 51.968°N 0.818°W / 51.968; -0.818


  • Awdry, Christopher (1990). Encyclopaedia of British Railway Companies. Sparkford: Patrick Stephens Ltd. ISBN 1-8526-0049-7. OCLC 19514063. 
  • Butt, R. V. J. (1995). The Directory of Railway Stations: details every public and private passenger station, halt, platform and stopping place, past and present (1st ed.). Sparkford: Patrick Stephens Ltd. ISBN 1-8526-0508-1. OCLC 60251199. 
  • Jenkins, Stanley C. (2013). Oxford, Bletchley & Bedford Line Through Time. Amberley Publishing. ISBN 9781445617480. 
  • Jowett, Alan (March 1989). Jowett's Railway Atlas of Great Britain and Ireland: From Pre-Grouping to the Present Day (1st ed.). Sparkford: Patrick Stephens Ltd. ISBN 1-8526-0086-1. OCLC 22311137. 
  • Simpson, Bill. The Oxford To Cambridge Railway: Forty Years On 1960–2000. Witney: Lamplight Publications. ISBN 1-899246-05-3. OCLC 54047797. 

External links[edit]