Posted 9th April 2015 | 7 Comments

Government rules out North Cotswold Line upgrade

THE government has ruled out upgrading the North Cotswold Line – linked with proposed restoration of the former route line between Stratford-on-Avon and Honeybourne – as a strategic alternative to the route in South Warwickshire recently closed by a 350,000-tonne landslip.

Transport minister Clare Perry has told Jeremy Wright, who is Attorney General and was Kenilworth and Southam’s MP until the pre-election period began, that redoubling 17km of the line between Charlbury and Wolvercott, near Oxford, would cost £160 - £200 million “before a diversionary route of sufficient capacity between Birmingham and Oxford could be created.”

This price range is around twice the reported cost of redoubling almost twice the distance of the Cotswold line further west five years ago, but is significantly less than the options being actively considered by the government to provide a strategic alternative to the Dawlish route after last year’s disruption.

Of the North Cotswold Line, Ms Perry stated: “There is no strategic case for this to be done” – adding that reopening the line from Stratford to Honeybourne (known as S2H) was “a matter for local authorities to consider”.

However, a report already commissioned by the local authorities from Arup has forecast that, with demand growing on the North Cotswold Line by 6.1 per cent a year, S2H reopening could have a benefit/cost ratio of up to 2:1.

Following the landslip-enforced six-week closure of the main line during February and March at Harbury, between Leamington Spa and Banbury, many freight services to between Northern England and the Midlands and the Port of Southampton had to be found alternative routes, mainly over the already-congested West Coast Main Line – where essential overnight maintenance work, and a major engineering project at Watford Junction, had to be postponed.

One of the campaigners for S2H re-opening, Fraser Pithie, proposed to Network Rail’s chief executive Mark Carne on 6 February that the restored Stratford-Honeybourne route and an upgraded North Cotswold line could provide a strategic alternative to the route through Harbury – which has been afflicted by poor ground conditions ever since it was built by Isambard Brunel 160 years ago.

In a reply on 23 February, signed by Network Rail’s Community Relations Executive Daniel Coles, Mr Pithie was told: “We did not foresee the situation we now face as a result of the landslip and we need to consider carefully if the value of the (Cotswold) route as an alternative in events such of [sic] this can be assigned a value. To that end I have been advised that our Group Strategy Team will look at this example and consider if these matters would make any material difference.”

He added: "This will form part of the West Midlands and Chiltern route study process that has just commenced.”

But Mr Pithie has now learnt that just a month later, on 27 March, Transport Minister Clare Perry replied to Jeremy Wright MP, saying: “I am afraid that doing this as a safeguard against future unforeseen unplanned blockages of the Chiltern Main Line is limited against very high costs.”

In a comment to Railnews, Mr Pithie complained that the Minister’s dismissal of the proposal “effectively negates Network Rail’s undertaking to review the situation.”

He added: “S2H is not getting a fair hearing and is certainly not being seen in terms of the asset redundancy it would provide towards the national network.”

Furthermore, he said, the North Cotswold Line had produced some of the highest passenger growth for the FGW franchise.

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • Michael Bates, Chipping Campden

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  • Martin Grizzell, worcester

    As a resident of Worcester I would like to see more of the north Cotswold line redoubling take place , so the section from Wolvercott to Charlbury would be a good addition to the work already done, and then redouble the Evesham to Norton section. So that we have a full twin track main line between Oxford and Worcester once again ! Also I am in favour of reopening the Stratford on Avon to Honeybourne line, (this line should not have been closed/lifted in the past). But yet again as these schemes are not a new main line or London based they aren't important and will cost far too much we are told !!

  • John Harper, Edinburgh

    The proposed access from the west to Heathrow may change the numbers particularly if Heathrow gets it's third runway. A service LHR - Reading - Oxford - Stratford on Avon - Shirley - Moor St could be attractive to tourists and people from the West Midlands wanting to go to the airport. Other routes could be LHR- Cardiff - Cardiff Airport , LHR - Bristol , LHR - Plymouth , LHR - BHX via Leamington Spa , and LHR - Reading - Southampton and Poole. AT 300's would be ideal albeit perhaps 6 car to allow for the airlines to offer checked / air container baggage areas. With airline passengers checking in at major stations such as Bristol TM & then only having to pass through security at Heathrow.

  • Cchris Jones-Bridger, Buckley Flintshire

    A setback but those campaigning for the reinstatement of this link should redouble their efforts in proving the strategic merit of rebuilding this route.
    While the advantages were apparent as a diversionary route during the Harbury blockage a sound business case for day to day services has to be shown to exist. Recent improvements to the Cotwolds route have resulted from dogged support from the routes supporters over the years.

    Perhaps the most important lesson to be learnt from the Harbury closure is how the train operators respond to the lose of a strategic route. All credit to the freight operators who excelled at showing the flexibility to divert services via alternative routes in order to meet their customers demands. However again the inflexibility imposed on franchised passenger operators was exposed with an inability displayed by Cross Country to provide a core framework of through services between the South Coast & the Midlands over available alternative routes or relying on customers excepting a bus transfer or making their own arrangements through other operators.

    As with recent major engineering works the lack of resource flexibility to provide acceptable rail services is an area that is in urgent need of addressing.

  • Graham Wickenden, Basingstoke

    Just because a scheme costs less than HS2 it doesn't mean that it is worth doing,

    Also given that HS2 will not be fully open for getting on for 20 years, it doesn't mean smaller schemes which are currently not being considered for a shorter time frame may not be built or planned to be built in that time frame.

    As a case in point East West Rail was first proposed in 1995 by local authorities, in 2006 the government said that they were in favour of the principle of it and by 2012 it was in the HLOS for development during CP5. Which means that from first proposal by local authorities to finishing (assuming it is built by the end of CP5, which is the end of 2019) will have taken 25 years, yet for the first 10 years of that time there was no government support at all for it.

  • John Band, Guildford

    200 million looks a bargain - especially in comparison with HS2, HS3, Crossrail and Thameslink billions. Clare Perry is presumably playing to local Nimby sentiment rather than network logic. God save us from politicians.

  • Tony Pearce, Reading

    I am really sad that 'small' schemes like this one, the Brighton By-pass through Lewes and the Cornish one through Okehampton aren't regarded as important and will 'cost too much' but there is always money for HS2.