Cabinet approves £4.56m funding package to accelerate plans to reopen Cowley Branch Line to passengers

Published: Thursday, 15th December 2022

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 Cabinet at a meeting on Wednesday 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.

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 project is of key strategic importance in the City Council’s Local Plan and the County Council’s Local Transport and Connectivity Plan.

“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.”

Councillor Duncan Enright, Oxfordshire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Travel and Development Strategy, said:

“The reopening of the Cowley Branch Line to passengers is a project we all want to see happen. We are delighted to be involved in progressing the business case for it, along with our partners at Oxford City Council, which will speed up the arrival in south and east Oxford of trains which will be a comfortable, swift and affordable route to and from the city centre, London, and the World.”

Claire Mahoney, Industry Programme Director, Network Rail, said:

“We welcome this funding and look forward to working with local stakeholders as we now develop the full business case. Investment in rail connections in Oxford and the surrounding area is key to economic growth in the region. Our work to transform Oxford station and the railway in Oxfordshire, is already underway and will help provide a bigger and better station, more services for passengers and freight, and improved journey times for passengers in the future. It is also critical if we are to reopen the Cowley branch line for passenger services in future.”

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.”

This FBC work follows on from the £161million upgrade to Oxford train station funded by the Department for Transport, with £10million contributed by the Oxford Local Enterprise Partnership (OxLEP). This includes the creation of a new track, platform and fully accessible entrance on the west side of the station, which will significantly improve capacity, as well as enabling more freight and passenger services, such as the Cowley Branch Line.

More detail on the funding make-up:

Network Rail was awarded £0.714m from the DfT in early-autumn 2021 to undertake PACE Phase 1 (single-option design) and prepare an Outline Business Case, which concluded in October 2022. The next stage is the development of a Full Business Case, anticipated to be finalised in summer 2024.

The capital budget of £4.56m to deliver this next phase of the project, is made up of:

  • Up to £289,000 up-front contribution from Oxford City Council from already-secured Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) funds;
  • Up to £3.5m of the costs to be funded by local landowners and then be reimbursed from CIL paid for any future development by those landowners that gains planning consent after the date that contracts are entered into; and
  • At least £771,000 from local landowners and Oxfordshire County Council as a non-repayable grant contribution.

A Levelling Up Fund 2 application seeking £4m to fund most of the FBC for the project was previously submitted in summer 2022 and is awaiting a decision from Government. If this bid is successful, this may allow for more local funding to be allocated to the implementation phase.

As part of the next phase of work, the City Council will be seeking more contributions from local land owners and major employers towards the funding package for the implementation phase of the project. The approach and details around financing and funding are to be determined during the FBC. Many other organisations would stand to benefit from the major new public transport infrastructure. If the FBC is successful and funding for implementation is secured then the target delivery date is currently December 2026.