The Early Years
The first railway came to Oxford in 1844 when the Great Western Railway (GWR) opened a line north from Didcot, and this was extended north to Banbury and Birmingham from October 1852. The origin of the Bicester Link begins in 1838 when the London & Birmingham Railway opened a line from London as far as Bletchley, leading to the creation of two other companies in 1846.
The Oxford & Bletchley Junction Railway promoted a line between Bletchley and Oxford and the Buckingham & Brackley Junction Railway wanted a second line running north to Banbury from a junction near Winslow. They both came together to form the Buckinghamshire Railway in 1847. Priority was given to building the line to Buckingham and Banbury, and construction started on 20th April 1847 with work starting on the Oxford line on 13th June 1848. The line to Banbury opened on 1st May 1850 and the 16 mile section of the Oxford line between Bletchley and Islip opened on 1st October 1850.
The remaining section between Islip and Oxford was more difficult. The company has originally hoped to run into the Great Western station at Oxford using a new junction with the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway north of the city. The Great Western wouldn't allow this and the only solution was to build a parallel line into a new terminus at Oxford adjacent to the GWR station.
A temporary terminus at Banbury Road on the outskirts of Oxford was opened on 2nd December 1850 while negotiations were underway to acquire land for the extension into the city. The new terminus was built on the site of Rewley Abbey, a Cistercian Monastery that dated from 1287. It was built to the same style as the Crystal Palace, built for the Great Exhibition in London, using the same method of construction of prefabricated cast iron, bolt together sections which was a pioneering method of building at the time.
To reach Oxford the line had to cross the Oxford Canal on its approach to the terminus and the railway company was forced to build a number of bridges including a swing bridge over the Sheepwash Channel, a navigable link between the Oxford Canal and the River Thames. The final section of the line into Oxford was finally opened on the 20th May 1851.
The railway was operated by the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) from the outset and officially became part of the LNWR in 1879. When ‘grouping’ came in January 1923, the LNWR became part of the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS).
In 1854 a 1½ mile connection called the Yarnton Loop was built between the Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway at Yarnton and the LNWR at Banbury Road Junction. This was used by four trains each day between Worcester and London Euston that avoided Oxford. These ran until 1861 when the railway into London Paddington from Reading was completed and Cotswold Line (as we now know it) train ran via Oxford and Reading instead.
In 1905 steam railmotors were introduced between Oxford and Bicester to attract new commuters from the suburbs around Oxford. These were later supplemented by the 'Michelin', a prototype petrol railmotor with seating for just 24 people. Six new halts were built between Oxford and Bicester in 1906 at Port Meadow, Wolvercote, Oxford Road, Oddington, Charlton-on-Otmoor and Wendlebury; they all had low platforms and were unstaffed. The six halts were closed during World War One but were reinstated after the war but were closed again in October 1926 during the General Strike and with the introduction of new bus services the halts were never reopened.
A junction was built between the GWR and LNWR just north of Oxford in 1940 and this increased the amount of freight so much that new sidings had to be built at Port Meadow so train waiting to access the GWR did not block the main lines.
The Second World War intensified traffic on the line like never before. The largest single development of that period being the opening of the Bicester Ordnance Depot, which meant plenty of service personnel travelling to and from Bicester. The depot had its own internal rail system, the Bicester Military Railway and there were through trains from Oxford as far as Piddington that continued up until the lat 1950's. The internal railway system is still in use today.
With the return of peace and the nationalisation of the railway network, the newly formed British Railways Board was looking to close unprofitable lines.
Decline and Closure
The line has always been used by freight trains and most of Oxford's coal in the 19th and 20th centuries arrived at Rewley Road where it was distributed by local coal merchant's. Important freight included brick trains heading to the many brickworks between Calvert and Bedford, but the subsequent switch from rail to road for this traffic meant these trains stopped during the 1950's.
The terminus at Rewley Road was closed to passenger trains by the London Midland Region of British Rail on 1st October 1951 when trains we diverted into the Great Western station. After the station closed to passengers the main building was put to commercial use, firstly as a railway hostel and then as a tyre & exhaust centre from the late 1960's until dismantling of the station building in 1999. The Grade II listed station building was taken down and moved to the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre at Quainton Road where it was refurbished and re-erected, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, as a visitor centre and display building, opening in 2002. The goods yard remained available for use until 5th April 1984 and was used as a car park well into the 1990's before it was eventually cleared in 1998, and part of it has since been redeveloped for housing.
Passenger services varied little in frequency over the years, with around 10 trains per day including two through afternoon services to Bedford and Cambridge. In 1952 British Rail cut the number of trains to save money, but the introduction of new two-car diesel multiple units under the 1955 Modernisation Plan prompted a short-lived increase in passengers and trains during the 1960's. In 1954, the station at Bicester was renamed Bicester (London Road).
An attempt was made to close the Oxford line in 1959 but local pressure succeeded in winning a reprieve, and the line from Oxford to Bletchley also survived the “Beeching axe” of 1961 that led the closure of many rural routes. Dr Beeching recognising the potential of an East-West route. Alas British Rail disagreed and just one year later, the British Railways Board published closure plans for the whole route claiming the lines were uneconomic as passengers found it quicker to travel from Oxford to Cambridge via London. Closure of the line between Banbury and Buckingham came in January 1961, with the line between Buckingham and Verney Junction surviving until 1964. The Yarnton Loop was closed in 1966 and the Oxford to Bicester line closed on 30th December 1967.
After the withdrawal of passenger services, the line was mothballed but kept operational for rail freight travelling between the Western and Midland regions of British Rail., empty stock movements and occasional enthusiasts' specials. The intermediate stations were demolished or allowed to decay. In 1973 the junction at Oxford was moved half a mile further north to the present location of Oxford North Junction and the original double track was reduced to single track.
The line remained open for freight throughout the 1970’s, although by the 1980s, freight traffic was limited to aggregates and household waste trains and military supply trains serving the Central Ordnance Depot at Bicester.
Reopening the line - the 1980’s
In 1986 plans to reopen the line began to gain momentum, led by Oxfordshire County Council with backing from Cherwell District Council, Bicester Town Council and Oxford City Council. At this time the M40 motorway was still being planned north of Wheatley. British Rail's Railfreight sector agreed to a limited passenger service on the basis they would not transfer any of the track upkeep costs to the passenger operation provided that it could be fitted in around their existing freight services
Network SouthEast agreed to reintroduce an experimental passenger service from 11th May 1987, on the basis that it would be for an initial period of 12 months to see if there was sufficient demand. The timetable provided a morning and afternoon peak service in each direction and a late evening service from Oxford on weekdays, plus a midday shoppers’ service on Saturdays. Off-peak trains could not be provided on Mondays to Friday due to the volume of freight using the single track line (five per day) and the configuration of the signalling.
The service was reviewed after one year and although initially demand was good, the revenues failed to cover operating costs and the local councils had to make up the shortfall. This revenue support continued into 1988. Network SouthEast for its part began developed a scheme to modify the signalling to allow two trains to use the line between Oxford and Claydon, thereby permitting six departures from Bicester on each weekday (at 0725, 0845, 1147, 1525, 1752, 1854). These were introduced during 1988 and were further enhanced the following year with a late-night train.
On 13th May 1989, a station was opened at Islip. Throughout the 1990’s the level of service remained basically the same, until the introduction of a new Oxford to Bristol service in 1998.
The Oxford to Bristol Service
In exchange for agreeing the acquisition of Thames Trains by the Go-Ahead Group, the Franchising Director secured passenger benefits including a new through service between Bristol and Oxford via Bath, Swindon and Didcot. This started in Summer 1998 and was operated jointly with Great Western Trains, which had been acquired by Firstgroup in March 1998. Thames Trains provided the rolling stock and FirstGroup the staff, with revenue shared equally between the two companies.
It was designated an experimental service and was therefore outside of any performance regime, which often resulted in cancellations due to staff or rolling stock shortages. Inevitably as reliability declined so did passenger numbers, and in 2002 the number of trains was reduced in an attempt to make the service financially viable. In early 2003, the Strategic Rail Authority announced that the entire service would be withdrawn to improve reliability of other services in the Bristol area. The service was withdrawn in May 2003, just a few weeks short of the fifth anniversary that would have seen the service become a permanent part of the franchise.
By September 1999 there were 12 trains each weekday, and four of the trains operated beyond Oxford to Bicester Town for operating convenience. As a consequence of withdrawing the Bristol service, the number of trains serving Bicester Town was cut from 17th May 2003. Along with the Bristol trains, the evening and late night trains from Oxford and the return journeys were also withdrawn, although an early morning departure from Bicester to Oxford was introduced as part compensation.
Saving the line
Further cutbacks took place in December 2004 with the introduction of the First Great Western Link ‘consolidated timetable’. This resulted in the loss of the first train of the day from Bicester and two off-peak trains from Oxford and Bicester in the morning and late-afternoon. By Summer 2005 there were 7 trains in each direction on each weekday, which was actually one more than the franchise required due to a technicality over the interval between services.
In June 2005, in a consultation for the new Greater Western Franchise, the Strategic Rail Authority said the route was lightly used and did not represent good value for money. It proposed slashing the service to just two return trips per day, one in the morning between 0800-0930 and the other in the evening between 1600-1700. There was public outrage and this led to the formation of OBRAG - the Oxford Bicester Rail Action Group. The group joined forces with the County Council, local MP's and business leaders to oppose the proposed cuts. Campaigners celebrated when it was announced in December 2005 that the franchise had been awarded to Firstgroup, and the Department for Transport had retained the same level of service.
In December 2005, a new timetable agreed jointly between First Great Western Link, OBRAG and Oxfordshire County Council was introduced with times that better suited the needs of commuters, and was the foundation on which to develop the line.
The current era
Since 2000, Oxfordshire County Council has been negotiating contributions under the Town & Country Planning Act for upgrading the railway in exchange for the granting of planning permission from new housing and commercial development in Bicester. As a result, significant investment has been made on improving both stations in recent years and the introduction of an enhanced train service by First Great Western from December 2008.
In May 2011, the services transferred to Chiltern Railways in preparation for the upgrading of the line as part of their Evergreen 3 Project.
Funding by Oxfordshire County Council has enabled the enhanced train service to continue until the line is closed for upgrading later in 2011.
Here is the very first Chiltern Railways' train, 0936 Oxford to Bicester Town approaching Oddington level crossing on Sunday 22 May. (photo by Martin Loader)
Welcome to the Bicester Link!