Gareth Huw Davies

Business / Travel Blog

Could private cash boost new Oxford-Cambridge Varsity Line?

Delays in completing East-West Rail, linking Cambridge to Oxford, are holding up the development of  a new British Silicon Valley, slowing the growth  of research and development facilities in life sciences and artificial intelligence both in the two cities and the villages and towns between them. There its no direct rail link between the two places, and the road connection is diabolical.


Most people know about Bletchley Park, and the prodigious brainpower applied there during the last war to crack German, and later Japanese, codes and, according to Winston Churchill, to shorten the conflict by two years.

One of the reasons Bletchley was chosen was its central position.
It is on the main railway from Euston in London to the British North West and Midlands, positioned just where the line from east to west, from Cambridge to Oxford, crossed it.

Keen mathematical minds were drawn in from both universities, on direct trains, constantly nourishing and refreshing the intense programme of deciphering enemy messages. In the mid-60s that lateral line was closed by a government that couldn’t imagine that ever again would those academic centres need to be linked, and to cooperate.

30 years later, in the 1990s, the idea began to develop that Oxford and Cambridge should be linked once again by rail. The route acquired an appropriate name, acknowledging that original function. “Varsity Line.”

But the sort of rapid, visionary decision-making to very short timetables that applies in wartime was absent. It took 15 years for the idea simply to find a place on the government’s list of approved projects, and then another five or six years of slip and slide before Chancellor Philip Hammond pledged in the 2016 Autumn Statement of £100 million to part fund the western section, from Bicester to Bletchley (one station down from Milton Keynes Central).

That may still not be enough to see the project to a quick and successful conclusion. The full cost is put at £270 million (Oxford/Aylesbury – Bedford) and £530 million for the entire route to Cambridge.

The current estimated date for the line to be finished is anything up to 2024. The small section from Bletchley to Bedford already exists, but beyond Bedford there is nothing but green fields. That section, the only stretch between the two cities where new a line will have to be built, may not be in operation until the early 2030s.

This project was recently described as the third most important infrastructure scheme in the UK, after HS2 and the third Heathrow runway. Even so, there is a lot of call on public funds for other railway work, and it’s hard to see the government pledging much more money, in the current economic climate.

There is one obvious, alternative way to pay for this. Use some of the enormous reservoir of private investment money available to fund, and speed up, the project.

A story suggesting this option is in The Times today (November 28). An “industry source” is quoted saying that the Chancellor is “pump-priming private equity firms and other investors to fund the western phase of East-West Rail.” The article notes that “the project will help to create a so-called brain belt, utilising Oxbridge graduates to
retain and attract technology and advanced manufacturing companies.”

Oxford, Cambridge and the London universities – University College and Imperial College – are world leaders in research and development in the life sciences and artificial intelligence (AI).

The term Golden Triangle is beginning to be applied to this interconnection, and while rail, and road, communications between London and those two universities is reasonable, the links between Oxford and Cambridge are abject. It is often quicker to take a train into London and back out again, and direct road contacts are no more promising.
There is talk of turning the Oxford Cambridge corridor into a new British Silicon Valley, with research facilities and businesses setting up in the villages and towns between the two university cities. But another 15 or 16 years may be too long to wait, as China, India and other countries seek to set up their own versions.

If Britain takes 30 years to recreate a relatively straightforward route between two cities major university cities, which is the current schedule, then perhaps it does deserve to be left behind in the bright, clean, intelligent industries of the 21st-century.
The line could bring another benefit, as a boost to tourism. Both cities are well-established visitor destinations, with Oxford perhaps in the lead due to its geographic position (closer to Bath and Stratford, where overseas tourists which overseas tourists also visit). Linking the two makes good sense, particularly as a way to move overseas tourists around the country more easily. Bicester Village, which is on the short stretch of the line from Oxford already upgraded, is said to be the second most popular destination of Chinese tourists to the UK.

Oxford, Bletchley Park, and Cambridge could be the obvious next stops.

See, too, this on the new Marylebone to Oxford line

And, for light relief, this on a railway line that only exists in the imagination.