Avon Rail Link: it’s time for action

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Having reviewed the many railway re-opening prospects around Britain for my book Railway Renaissance, one of the most compelling candidates is unquestionably the Avon Rail Link – a missing nine miles of line that would give Stratford-upon-Avon a southern link to Oxford, London and the South-West – by reinstating a section of line that has been the subject of re-opening efforts for decades.

Pictured above is 37608 approaching Long Marston on 31 March 2018 towing EMU 350263, which formed 535Z, the 08.55 from Northampton EMD, with the EMU being taken to Long Marston for corrosion repair work

Shakespeare’s birthplace has been a terminus to passengers on local services from Birmingham and Leamington Spa ever since the end of services to Evesham and Worcester on 5 May 1969, yet its attraction as one of the UK’s foremost tourist destinations meant that more than a million passengers passed through its station in 2016/7, the first time that seven-figure total had ever been achieved.

All that is needed to give southern access to the town is reinstatement of a six-mile link to Long Marston – along a route that has long been protected for potential re-opening – with the three miles on from Long Marston to a connection with the Oxford – Worcester Cotswold Line remaining in use for rolling stock movements to and from the rail storage and maintenance facilities at the former MoD site.

IMG_8240Besides its growing importance as a rail storage and maintenance facility, Long Marston is developing fast as a residential area, with almost 6,000 homes and a population of almost  30,000 expected to be living there by 2031. Road links to the area are woefully inadequate, so a reinstated rail link and re-opened station are a glaringly obvious solution.

IMG_8247Creating a southern rail access to Stratford-upon-Avon would put it within an hour of Oxford and less than two hours of London Paddington, while for commuters to England’s second city, the Evesham to Birmingham journey time wold be just one hour with the trip from Long Marston taking just 45 minutes.

Looking further afield, the opening of a new Worcestershire Parkway station – at the point where the Cotswold Line crosses the Birmingham – Bristol route south-east of Worcester would open up opportunities involving a simple one-change journey from Stratford to anywhere in the South West and South Wales.

Pictured above is the current end of line at Stratford, while below the distinctive GWR pine trees mark the site of Milcote station (closed 3 January 1966)

IMG_8264A feasibility study by consultants Ove Arup said that there was a “sound business case” for the proposed reinstatement and at the end of last year the one significant stakeholder that had previously failed to give the link its wholehearted support, Warwickshire County Council, finally saw the light and gave its backing, provided the key re-doubling of two remaining single line sections of the Cotswold Line was carried out.

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The old and the not-so-old at Long Marston: Class 121 “Bubble Car” W55025 awaits re-painting and refurbishment, while in the background the colourful variety of stored rolling stock includes former Midland Metro vehicles, EMUs and Mark III coaches

That issue once again demonstrates the challenge facing re-opening candidates such as this, when their viability depends on related upgrade. In this case, the planned hourly Stratford to Oxford services would require re-doubling of the Cotswold Line between Charlbury and Wolvercote Junction, north of Oxford, while the other planned hourly service to Worcester would require re-doubling from Evesham to Norton Junction.

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EMU 350263 is towed into the Long Marston site, where 350254 awaits collection. On the right are lines of oil tanks and a newly-arrived Class 319 unit.

The current Government has made the right noises about reviving rail links that would connect growing communities, yet nothing tangible has yet emerged, and its apparent reliance on the private sector to drive forward the long-awaited Oxford – Cambridge East -West rail link does not inspire huge confidence.

Pictured below is 37608 approaching Honeybourne on 31 May 2018. It is towing EMU 350254 following its overhaul at Long Marston, and forming 552Z, the 13.30 Long Marston – Northampton EMD.

For more detail on the Avon Rail Link campaign, take a look at http://www.shakespearline.com

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