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 (Bletchley-Bedford)
Being rebuilt (Oxford-Bicester Town)
Rebuild planned (Bicester Town-Bletchley)
Closed Bedford-Sandy-Cambridge
Locale South East England
Termini Oxford
Stations 13 open
2 planned
Opened 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
West Anglia Main Line
Fen 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
East Coast Main Line
Great Northern Railway
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 landfill
Verney Junction
Metropolitan Railway
to Banbury
Winslow Road
Reversing siding of
freight line to Calvert
Granborough Road
Great Central Main Line
Marsh Gibbon
and Poundon
Calvert landfill
Grendon Underwood Jn.
Quainton Road Junction
Great Central Main Line
Quainton Road
open only on Bank Holidays
Metropolitan Railway
to Aylesbury
GWR Bicester Cut-off line
Bicester chord
Bicester Village
Bicester Military Railway
Wendlebury Halt
Oxford and
Rugby Railway
Charlton Halt
Oddington Halt
Oxford, Worcester and
Wolverhampton Railway
Oxford Parkway
former Oxford, Witney
and Fairford Railway
Oxford Road Halt
Oxford Canal
Junction Railway
Wolvercote Junction
Dukes 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 used to link 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. It was sometimes called the "Brain Line",[citation needed] a pun on main line.

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 Oxford – Bicester section reopened in 1987 until mid 2014, when it was closed again for reconstruction.)

As of October 2014, the only section still in regular passenger use is the Marston Vale Line operation from Bletchley to Bedford. Work is under way to reopen an upgraded Oxford to Bicester Line from Oxford to Bicester Town and open a newly-constructed 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. The Bicester – Bletchley section, though extant, is disused. Work has begun to reinstate this section. Network Rail anticipates that the complete Oxford – Bedford route will be ready for use by 2019, although electrification east of Bletchley will have to wait for a later phase. In May 2014, Network Rail announced that the electrified section of the line will be opened to 125 mph (200 km/h) running, the current top speed for InterCity services. It is proposed that CrossCountry services, along with Chiltern Railways and London Midland services, will use the route.[1]

In the absence of a 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 Buckinghamshire Railway between Oxford and Bedford in 1845.[citation needed] and the second by the Bedford and Cambridge Railway which opened on 7 July 1862.[citation needed][dubious ]

Bedford and Cambridge Railway[edit]

Proposed from 1844, the supporting and surveying engineers were George and Robert Stephenson.[citation needed] The engineers' proposal to junction with the London and Birmingham Railway at Bletchley was eventually accepted by the shareholders, with construction starting in December 1845 and completed by September 1846.[citation needed][dubious ] All operations were subcontracted to the LNWR.

Buckinghamshire Railway[edit]

The Bletchley and Bedford section was opened by the Buckinghamshire Railway in 1846.[citation needed] It then opened the section between Bletchley and Verney Junction on 30 March 1850 as part of its line to Banbury,[2] and the section between Verney Junction and Oxford on 20 May 1851.[2]


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.[2]

However, although it now owned and operated the complete line, the LNWR chose 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 II, 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 owing to 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.[3] 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.[4] From 15 February 2014, this link closed again for a major upgrade as described below.

Present status of route[edit]

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

The Oxford to Bicester Line closed in 2014 for major upgrades and re-opened (as far as Oxford Parkway) in October 2015. The rebuilt line is mostly 100 mph (160 km/h) double track (see Chiltern Railways#Evergreen 3): work to extend the line fully into Oxford is underway. Between Bicester Town and Newton Longville the route is in place but derelict. Within this stretch (starting 1 February 2014), Network Rail began clearing vegetation that had grown over the abandoned track.[5] 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, until any eventual new high-level station is in place, through trains would have to go around the station without stopping or operate via Milton Keynes Central. Similarly, Bedford St Johns station was rebuilt on a different site, and neither it nor Bedford ('Midland Road') are now on the direct alignment towards Sandy.

Revival plans[edit]

Main article: East West Rail Link

Confirmed plans[edit]

In May 2006 the Department of Transport announced[6] 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[7] 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.[8][9]

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.[10]

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.[11]

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.[12]

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.[13]

Prognosis for Eastern section[edit]

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

With the section from Oxford to Bedford funded and scheduled, hopes for a revival of the complete Varsity Line rest on the proposed East West Rail Link. This scheme aims 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.

An alternative alignment for the line eastwards from Sandy has been proposed[who?][citation needed] 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.

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.[14] As of October 2014, a similar business case for extension to Cambridge and beyond remains to be made.

Future stations[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hellier, Alex (14–27 May 2014). East West Rail develops into 125mph inter-regional route. Peterborough: RAIL. p. 13. 
  2. ^ a b c Awdry (1990) p. 63
  3. ^
  4. ^ Bevan, Alan (Ed). A-Z of Rail Reopenings. Warwick: Railway Development Society. ISBN 0-901283-13-4. 
  5. ^ Work starts on clearing line for East West Rail – Buckingham Today, 1 February 2014
  6. ^ West Coast Main Line: Progress Report May 2006 (3MB PDF file)
  7. ^ MK2031 summary but see also MK2031 3.42 to 3.50
  8. ^ Transport Briefing — UK transport news, data and jobs
  9. ^ "New rail platform on time for 2008". MK News (Milton Keynes). 13 December 2006. Retrieved 27 April 2008. 
  10. ^ Network Rail 2006 Business Plan.
  11. ^ Little, Reg (7 March 2008). "MK Rail Link Plan on Track". The Oxford Times. Retrieved 27 April 2008. 
  12. ^ "Autumn Statement: 35 road and rail schemes get go-ahead". BBC News. 29 November 2011. Retrieved 29 November 2011. 
  13. ^ "Rail network to see 'biggest investment' since the Victorians". Guardian Newspaper. 14 July 2012. Retrieved 15 July 2012. 
  14. ^ "Guide to Railway Investment Projects (GRIP) Stage 2 Report Final Report" (PDF) (Press release). East West Rail. 1 February 2007. 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]