Two weeks ago, Grandpont Rec in my constituency of Oxford East was home to one of a number of celebrations of the arrival of the railways in Oxford. The rec lies close to Oxford’s first ever railway station, which was just off the Abingdon Road, close to Folly Bridge. Initially the railway was viewed with suspicion by many, including Oxford University, as local storyteller Ciaran Walsh explained to a rapt audience during the celebration.
175 years on, and it’s barely possible to imagine life without the railways. Sadly, however, the promise of additional rail services has stalled for too long.
First, we desperately need the Cowley Branch Line to be opened up to passengers, linking Blackbird Leys through to Cowley, Littlemore and the city centre. Opening the line to passengers would radically reduce the amount of time it takes local residents to get around, with the journey from Littlemore into the centre often taking at least 45 minutes during busy periods.
It would also link the Oxford Science Park and Oxford Business Park more easily to each other and into the rest of the city, reducing congestion and pollution. This Monday I visited Oxford Science Park and was pleased to see how they are taking account of the need for platforms and other infrastructure for the railway line, in new developments at the Park.
Representatives from both Parks were amongst those who undertook my ‘Cowley Branch Line Walk’ last October, highlighting the need for the connection. It was good to see Chiltern Railways and Great Western also taking part, as well as a number of local Councillors. Although the line is currently used by BMW Cowley for freight, it has been encouraging to see their willingness to expedite developments in this area, too.
Now, however, we really need action to get the rail link moving. The so-called ‘Oxfordshire Rail Connectivity Study’ is being undertaken to examine all of the county’s rail needs. While it’s important to view the Cowley Branch Line in a wider context, longer-term projects (like the redevelopment of Oxford station) should not be allowed to hold up progress. I will continue to urge Government ministers to do all they can to get the Branch Line up and running with passenger services as soon as is feasible.
Secondly, we also need to see faster progress on the East-West rail link which would link Oxford to Cambridge and beyond. As the Railfuture campaign group has stated, the ‘National Infrastructure Commission have taken on the burden of proving the case’ for this rail link, and there is now nothing more for campaigners to prove. Despite initial Government support for the project, including for an electrified line, the decision has been taken not to make the link electric. I will continue to argue that this decision rests on shaky foundations, especially given current government commitments to decarbonise our economy by 2050. The question must be, not whether we can afford to open the Cowley Branch Line and to build Oxford to Cambridge rail- but whether we can afford not to have them.