The Varsity Line: Connecting Oxford and Cambridge

The Varsity Line connecting Oxford and Cambridge is due to re-open in 2030. Bidwells cites it as a new line, however, there was a Oxford-Cambridge connection until closed in 1968 due to the beeching cuts. This line while not following the old route (a lot of it has been built over) is neither old or new. The line is reopening (or being built anew) due to poor policy decisions fifty years prior.

This line out of many suggested in the South East is the most promising in terms of reducing inequality. This owes much to housing which is a major part of the National Infrastructure Commissions strategy (Bidwells, 2018).

As Bidwells puts it, “The Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford (CaMkOx) Knowledge Arc is of vital economic importance in the UK; home to leading international universities and science and technology companies” (Bidwells, 2018).

Western Section from Oxford to Bedford

Phase 1 – of this section included upgrading the line from Oxford to Bicester Village. Chiltern railways has run regular services from Marylebone to Oxford since December 2016 on this section.

Phase 2 – will require upgrading and rebuilding the routes from Bicester Village to Bedford and Milton Keynes to Aylesbury (due to open in 2022 and 2024, respectively).

The Western Section will also provide a link between Milton Keynes and London Marylebone via Aylesbury, and services may also extend to Reading in the future via existing rail lines. A connection such as this can only be positive. Reading is a large town with strong business and manufacturing sector, connecting these routes up to cities where the research is conducted in the case of Cambridge, Oxford and Milton Keynes with less well off towns such as Sandy and St.Neots.

The case for the Varsity line is strong. Linking the Great Western (branch), Chiltern, Great Eastern, West Coast and Midland Mainlines (Rail, 2020). It also links manufacturing and fast growing pharmaceutical and tech towns such as Bedford and Milton Keynes with cities that have two of the best research universities in the world.

Central Section (Bedford to Cambridge)

Network Rail carefully considered 20 different potential routes between Bedford and Cambridge before deciding that the corridor via Sandy offered the best overall value. This includes potential economic benefits, reduced journey time, local population growth and employment, operating costs, and forecast passenger demand.

The old railway line between Bedford, Sandy and Cambridge was closed in the 1960s and some of the land has since been sold and developed. This makes the Central Section the most costly and challenging part of the new Varsity Line.

Inequality and Economic Opportunity

The line has potential to increase the distribution of income and wealth along several counties and poorer towns such as Sandy. This coupled with investment in housing (of which has begun in the Claydon area), particularly the increase in social housing in towns on the line would provide economic opportunity to social housing tenants.

On that note, it is promising that the goal is to deliver one million new homes in the Arc by 2050, through settlement expansion and the development of up to five new towns or villages (Bidwells, 2018). In agreement with the NIC on recommending that the government takes a lead on new settlements through a single delivery masterplan (Bidwells, 2018). This clearly is a long term goal, but will need to be checked through outside independent non-governmental organisations (NGOs), lobbyists and by policymakers. As it passes from government to government, through the years it can easily fall off the policy agenda. However, it takes the political pressure off local authorities.

Bidwells have done some work on how this can delivered and implemented effectively. Which will be covered in another article.

Interconnectedness and future-proofing for capacity is the key

As previously mentioned the proposed route connects to seven mainlines these being; the Chiltern main line, West Coast Main Line, Midland Main Line, East Coast Main Line and the West Anglia Main Line.

This interconnectedness is great and should be applauded but why not increase this to HS2? As long as speeds are max 100mph this may mean additional services from Cambridge/Oxford to the North via HS2 could be operated? Fanciful but its an option to increase the connectivity between the North and South of the country.

Building new lines is all well and good but they need to be connected to existing mainlines to allow for the introduction of additional services. Along with this future-proofing for increased capacity must to be taken into account. It will create an increase in cost now but the potential savings could be significant. A double track may be suitable now, for instance, but if long distance connections are made through using HS2 or other mainlines then will it be suitable 20 years later?

The cost may may be much higher building this in from the beginning, rail infrastructure needs to be future-proofed. It makes sense to consider connectivity and capacity when building new rail lines.

The green light has been given for the phase 2. We await to see what, if any impact the COVID-19 pandemic will have on the timeframe of this much needed infrastructure project. Policymakers should not shy away from making bold policy decisions in a post-pandemic world in order to keep people employed and future proof the economy.

Next up: Using behavioural science to increase economic growth and the sustainability on the Varsity Line.

References and useful links

Bidwells – Well informed (20/08/2019) Varsity Line Stations-Infrastructure [Online]. Available at (Accessed 29 April 2020).

Rail Magazine (February 12th – February 25th 2020) – East West Rail gathers pace.

To help England’s north, link it up – The Economist

To help England’s north, link it up” was published in The Economist’s Leaders section in the Dec 18th 2019 Edition. Focusing on Boris Johnson’s northern strategy, with a sub-headline “Public spending on transport in the north is barely half what it is in the south-east. That must change.”

The article begins by stating that Boris Johnson “relies on the north like no recent Tory leader” (The Economist, 2019). In relation to the recent Conservative victory at the December 2019 General Election, that saw the party take seats in the North that had been held by the Labour party for decades.

“Although it is closer to Manchester than Brighton is to London, the trains take 20 minutes longer and are a quarter as frequent. Inter-city connections in the north are a mess. By train, it is quicker to travel 250 miles (400km) to Newcastle from London than it is to get to Newcastle from Liverpool, just 120 miles away” (The Economist, 2019). This highlights the glaring inequality the North faces in comparison to the South. What this suggests is that along with HS2 investment in other parts of the rail infrastructure is needed.

With the exception of reopening of lines closed by the Beeching cuts of the 1960’s, electrification is one solution as diesel trains are heavier and involve more moving parts then electric trains thus they are more unreliable. However, another speedy decision as recommended by the economist does not involve rail at all. To please new conservative voters the Johnson government can focus on improving country bus services.

As the predicted costs of HS2 surpass £100 billion it is important that policymakers see the broader picture. The West Coast Mainline (WCML) is currently operating over capacity. Years of lack of investment and neglect in British rail infrastructure has created this problem. Building a high speed rail link may have been cheaper in years gone by under a nationalised rail system, however, that was the past.

Arguments regarding the capacity of the WCML have centred on whether a capacity issue exists. However, as the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMECHE) states “Over the past 20 years rail passenger traffic has doubled, and it seems certain to further increase.”(IMECHE, 2019). Later going on to further state that “the alternative of increasing capacity by giving existing lines additional tracks would be hugely disruptive and probably cost about the same” (IMECHE, 2019).

The important thing the IMECHE article notes is that HS2 phase one is not just about a link from London to Birmingham, which the media and commentators often focus on. It is an integrated line in itself. HS2 will run on the existing railway and on HS2 phase one, the high-speed line from London Euston which will join the West Coast Main Line (WCML) near Lichfield with a spur to Birmingham (IMECHE, 2019). Once completed, only three of its 10 trains per hour from London will go to Birmingham (IMECHE, 2019). This will allow for more capacity out of London Euston.

The IMECHE then argues that the extra capacity released will provide Euston with 11,300 peak-hour commuter seats compared with the present 6,400 seats and that it will also provide more freight train paths (IMECH, 2019). Thus, the citymetric claim that there is not integration with the rest of the network, does not hold true.

In Conclusion

Linking the North up requires an improvement of bus and rail services, along with HS2. Increased platform lengths, new rolling stock, better disability provision, electrification and more integration with local bus services so the plusbus scheme can really come into its own in the North. These joined up efforts will aid everyone in the North and may even get some to ditch their cars.

Most of this will be expensive but for too long investment in public transport in the UK has been neglected (not just rail) meaning high costs come at once and will be higher then any incremental investment would have been over a period of time.

However, Policymakers should not shy away from this and should take this bold step to transform not just rail, but public transport services in across the country.

Be sure to check back in on the rail infrastructure and inequality section of my blog.