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Where new railways will cross

This little used railway line near Calvert in Buckinghamshire, is a vestige of the Varsity Line that used to run between Oxford and Cambridge. The Great Central Railway between London, Nottingham and Sheffield also used to cross over this line just before the road bridge, but that line was also closed and dismantled. But by 2017, the old Varsity track will be replaced by the East-West rail line between Oxford and Bedford, and by 2026, at this spot, HS2 will be diving under the new line and along the route of the Great Central Railway.

This is a very ordinary picture of a railway line near the village of Calvert in Buckinghamshire looking west towards Bicester in Oxfordshire. The line is used only by freight trains, currently one a day, carrying containerised household waste from Bath and Bristol, known as the ‘Avon Binliner’, to the nearby landfill site at Calvert, one of the largest in the country. This single track is all that remains of the once double tracked Oxford to Bletchley railway that was constructed by the Buckinghamshire Railway Company and which opened on 1 October 1850. The line later formed part of a cross-country line from Oxford via Bletchley and Bedford, to Cambridge, which came to be known as the Varsity Line. Although not listed in the original Beeching report, the line was closed to passengers at the end of 1967 with much of the line mothballed, though not dismantled.

The reinstatement of the line was first promoted by the East West Rail Consortium of local authorities and businesses in 1995, but this was rejected by the Strategic Rail Authority in 2001. Efforts to have the line re-opened continued for the next ten years, with innumerable reports prepared and cost-benefit surveys carried out.

The East-West Rail Consortium organised a site visit in October 2012 to a mothballed section of the former Varsity Line near Claydon, Buckinghamshire. This followed the government’s announcement that East-West rail link scheme would go ahead.

In November 2011 however, the Government announced that the western section from Oxford to Bedford was to be constructed as part of a strategic rail link, East-West Rail (EWR). This would run between the electrified Great Western, West Coast and Midland main lines, including the mothballed section between Claydon, just west of Calvert, and Newton Longville, near Bletchley. The new line, which would be twin tracked, and capable of speeds of 90 to 100 mph, will cost £400, with electrification, and completion is expected in 2017. In five years time then, the view of the line as above will be gone. But this is not the only change that is going to happen at this spot.

At one time, the Great Central Railway crossed north-south over the line at this point, but there are no signs of any bridge, though the route can still be traced through the fields on either side. This railway, when it opened in 1899, was to be the last main line twin track railway to be built in Britain (link) until the Channel Tunnel rail line, HS1. The Great Central Railway ran between Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester and London Marylebone, but it was closed in 1966 under the Beeching axe, it being viewed as an unnecessary duplication of other lines which served the same places. This photograph, which was taken in almost the same spot as today’s picture above, shows the completed bridge in 1897.

This map shows the former Varsity Line in black, crossing east to west, and the route of the Great Central Railway overlain in red with the route of HS2, running south-east to north-west. The blue circle marks the spot from where, looking west, the top photograph was taken.
© Crown copyright & 2012 Ordnance Survey

But this spot is exactly where phase one of the high-speed rail line, HS2, between London and Birmingham, will cross EWR in 2026. But this time, though the new railway will be following the route of the Great Central Railway, it will go underneath what used to be the Varsity line in an 8m cutting, rather than over it, with trains running at up to 360kph (224mph) at this point. And the land to the right of the top photograph will be the site of the HS2 Calvert infrastructure maintenance depot with links to both HS2 and EWR.

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