Branch Line could enable business locations like Oxford Science Park (pictured above)
Oxford City Council has approved a £4.56m package to fund the detailed design and feasibility works required for the reopening of the Cowley Branch Line to passengers. The proposal was agreed by its cabinet at a meeting on 14 December.
This next stage of work will culminate in the production of what is called a Full Business Case (FBC). The FBC, delivered by Network Rail, will set out, amongst other things, how the project could be implemented, how it could be funded, including any proposed Government funding.
Completing this FBC work gives the best chance of the Cowley Branch Line project being funded – without it there is no guarantee that the project will move forward.
As such, the move to fund this next stage of work is essential if the long held ambition to reopen the line is to be realised.
The FBC, which would include the approved designs for the rail infrastructure, new stations, and plans for walking, cycling and public transport connections to the surrounding neighbourhoods (existing and planned), is therefore a vital step in making the case for future funds to deliver the scheme.
Reopening the Cowley Branch Line to passengers is a key project identified within the Oxford Local Plan, the Oxfordshire Local Transport and Connectivity Plan and the Oxfordshire Rail Corridor Study.
Over a number of years Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council have been working with Network Rail, the Department for Transport, local land owners, and other stakeholders, on the plans.
These seek to reintroduce passenger services along the Cowley Branch Line, including two new stations in the south and east of Oxford, services which will significantly enhance rail connectivity to Oxford and beyond to Bicester and longer distance destinations. The line is currently used for freight services to and from the BMW Mini plant but has not had passenger services for decades.
The first proposed station would be next to the Oxford Science Park, Littlemore and the Ozone Leisure Complex, and would be called Oxford South. The second proposed station, called Oxford East, would be next to ARC Oxford (formerly Oxford Business Park), Oxford Retail Park and Blackbird Leys. Both stations would also be ideally located to serve new developments being planned in South Oxfordshire adjacent to the Science Park and at the nearby Northfields site.
While any future funding bid to deliver the Cowley Branch Line scheme will face considerable competition from other national infrastructure projects, the benefits from the scheme are considerable, including vastly improved connections for existing communities in south and east Oxford to central Oxford and beyond, as well as linking up major employment areas at Oxford Science Park, ARC Oxford, Oxford’s West End and city centre, and the new emerging life science quarter at Oxford North (near Oxford Parkway).
The project will also improve connectivity to London from these areas, which include some of the city’s most economically deprived wards, as well as key areas of employment, research and development and new housing/employment sites.
It is estimated trips between the new stations and Oxford station will take under ten minutes. The current planning proposal to be worked up through the next phase of work is for the introduction of a half-hourly direct service from the new stations to London Marylebone via Oxford, possibly utilising the existing Chiltern Railways service.
The local landowners which are proposing to contribute towards the £4.56m FBC funding total are ARC Oxford, Oxford Science Park and the Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine. Funds are also being contributed by Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council.
Nigel Tipple, Chief Executive, Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (OxLEP), said: “In terms of the wider economic picture, potential future investment in the Cowley Branch Line can bring positive economic and societal impacts for the city, county and the UK too.
“Oxfordshire’s economy has huge potential to drive local and national economic recovery, following the Covid-19 pandemic. Future investment can enable many of our globally-significant businesses, sectors and emerging transformative technologies – based in this part of the city – to better connect and ultimately grow for the benefit of local communities and the wider economy.”
Councillor Louise Upton, Cabinet Member for Health and Transport at Oxford City Council, said: “Reopening passenger services along the Cowley Branch Line would transform the lives of thousands of Oxford’s residents and workers, increasing the affordable options for sustainable travel into and around Oxford.
“The scheme is a positive step towards Oxford’s goal of zero carbon by 2040 and reducing traffic in the city. It will also contribute to building a fairer local economy by providing fast transport connections and job opportunities in a part of the city where it is really needed.
“We are facing considerable competition against other national infrastructure projects for government grant funding, so we’re giving the Cowley Branch Line the best chance of being implemented by bringing together local partners to fund the work to produce a full business case.”