Currently, the main transport link between Oxford and Witney is the A40, one of the most congested road links in the country. Every day thousands of cars use this road to get into Oxford. With the planned major housing expansion in Eynsham, Witney, Brize Norton, Carterton and Bampton the situation will get much worse. We desperately need an alternative transport system.
In the past several solutions have been advocated:
Doubling the A40
Resurrecting the disused railway line (either as heavy rail, or a light rail link)
- Something else, ranging from monorails, maglev, chairlifts etc… (yes all of these proposals have actually been floated in one way or another!)
The real problem is that we have had too many proposals on the table, but very little substance in terms of delivery.
The original railway
Many people ask us about the original railway line, opened from Yarnton to Witney in 1861 and then extended to Fairford in 1873. The whole line was closed west of Witney in 1962, during the Beeching era, but remained open for freight to Witney until 1970, when its mainstay, the blanket industry, was already declining. It was a very poorly used branch line, suffering from many years of neglect and above all the old line run south of the A40 in what was, and has always been, predominantly farmland with limited access from the main road as the map below shows:
Following the closure of the old line only some infrastructure remains (mainly bridges) and the branch into Witney has completely disappeared with the creation of the aptly named ‘Station Road Industrial Estate’
Nothing happened until the 2001 Mott MacDonald report…
In 2001 the Oxfordshire County Council carried out an in-depth study, commissioned to specialist Mott MacDonald, into the feasibility and possible costs for the reopening of the disused railway link. This study needs to be seen in the context that at the time the Council had already planned major works on the A40 itself, as well as agreed on the construction of a guided busway (like the one recently built in Cambridge for example).
The consultants concluded that having a guided bus route AND a railway link (especially a heavy rail one) would not have been feasible. In their report, however, the consultants suggested a number of other options, such as tram links with highly favourable projected ROI. Sadly, the report was shelved, no improvements were made to the A40 and no guided busway was ever built. Nearly 20 years later the A40 is more congested than ever, more housing developments are being planned alongside and there is no sustainable alternative on the table.
More benefits in the 2009 ATOC report
In 2009, the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) identified Witney as a town which had grown substantially since the Beeching closure and justified reopening the railway line. They indicated a possible Benefit to Cost Ratio of 1.8; re-openings elsewhere in the country have generated increases in passenger loadings orders of magnitude in excess of such predictions.
Since the ATOC report, the County commissioned further studies and of course, the district has been mentioned on countless occasions in the various reports prepared and commissioned by the Council. Frankly, the only difference is that each of those findings is merely a reflection of the situation prevailing at the time they have been commissioned. If times are bad, any major infrastructural investment with long term benefits is shelved in favour of short term, low resources investments, and so it goes on. Even our previous MP, in his maiden speech, had mentioned the lack of a rail link between Witney and Oxford a major issue and had pledged to support it.
West Oxfordshire’s economy includes a wide diversity of agriculture and small and medium-sized businesses. Witney was for years dominated by blankets, beer and its railway. There remains just one blanket factory, the beer is predominantly brewed elsewhere and the railway has been closed. I will always support moves to examine reopening our railway to Oxford and extending the line to Carterton.
The recent relocation of RAF personnel from Lyneham to Brize Norton has created additional traffic too, and, as the site expands, is likely to create even more. This traffic isn’t made up of the service personnel themselves engaged in active operational duties, as they are ferried for the most part outside commuting hours, but hundreds of contractors are employed by the base and ancillary services, as well as admin staff unable to live in Brize Norton or Carterton. The lack of alternative transport modes may negatively impact even the operation of this essential RAF base since none of the neighbouring roads is of high quality either.
In addition, several major housing developments have been proposed for Carterton, as well as more houses in neighbouring villages and a large developments within the perimeter of Witney (so large that a new A40 junction will need to be planned), plus the famous Eynsham Garden Village. In short, a massive increase in population and obviously car journeys given the modest size of the local economy. The key question is a simple one: where would the additional traffic go in another 10 or 20 years, without an alternative transport mode?
The effects of the pandemic have resulted in fewer car journeys, but it’s early days to judge if this trend will continue and in any event, the massive planned population increase will by necessity offset and traffic reduction caused by the virus.
Other areas of the country have benefitted from better transport investments. For example, the government approved the development of a tram-train route between Sheffield and Rotherham, enabling trams to run through the streets of Sheffield and Rotherham but use Network Rail tracks between the two towns. Hybrid systems have operated several countries around the world for a considerable time and given the suburban nature of our District, these solutions could be cost-effective and relatively low-cost.
With the upgrade of the Bicester to London railways, the possibility of reopening the Cowley branch and other rail projects around the District has become a reality. The time may have come therefore to ask for a new transport link from West Oxfordshire into Oxford and beyond.
Will you help us make this a reality?
- Residents fear rise in traffic if Carterton East homes go ahead (oxfordmail.co.uk)