Oxford City councillors have been urged to keep the focus on reopening Oxford’s Cowley Branch Line rather than larger rail projects that could emanate from it.
The push by Oxford City Council to restore passenger services on a track currently used for freight only took a step forward on Monday with unanimous support from councillors to spend £4.56 million on creating a full business case.
Councillor Louise Upton (Lab, Walton Manor), the city’s cabinet member for health and transport, detailed how Network Rail had put together a “positive” outline case but was unable to fund more detailed work.
The full business case will include details of the route, where stations would go and how those stations would be connected to existing communities and employment sites.
Councillor Laurence Fouweather (Lib Dem, Cutteslowe & Sunnymead) said that “the county has voted to spend some money on looking at reopening the line up to Witney and beyond” and asked, “whether this could form the basis for a suburban rail network for Oxford”.
Councillor Sajjad Malik (Ind, Temple Cowley) then queried whether the council would “support the same idea in the south and north of the city where there are two railway lines”, highlighting Redbridge Park & Ride as a potential station site.
Councillor Alex Hollingsworth (Lab, Carfax & Jericho), the council’s cabinet member for planning and housing delivery, fielded both questions.
He said ideas relating to railways already in existence in the city could be pursued “in the fullness of time” but added: “I think the important message for all projects is to focus on the specific thing unrelentingly and deliver it, don’t get distracted by doing other stuff.”
His sentiment was much the same in answering the Witney query. “I am sure there will be ample scope for ambitions, but this is a very precise, specific report,” he said.
“Many of us who have been around a long time have long experience of substantial sums being spent on pursuing slightly vague aspirations.
“This (Cowley project) is categorically not a vague aspiration, and as the funding mechanism makes clear, it is one we can realise using tools at our disposal.
“I think the Cowley Branch Line proposals are massively in advance of the still very hypothetical Witney discussion, not least because there is track and signalling with trains currently there in Cowley – there isn’t even a track bed or a route to get to Witney yet.
“All power to colleagues in West Oxfordshire, but we don’t want to link this to that at this stage. I think that would be inappropriate.”
A council report stated that much of the money will be “forward funded from local landowners and then be repaid or offset” from future Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) payments, money that authorities can raise from new developments, after an unsuccessful bid to the government’s Levelling Up Fund.
Councillor Upton described that rejection as “very disappointing”, stating that the alternative funding could have been assigned to delivering the project itself.
“Along with a substantial commitment from us as the city council, we have the full amount we need to press ahead with the full business case,” she said.
“To clarify, that funding will also include a sum for connectivity surveys to make sure that in the Littlemore and Leys areas, the residents will have proper access into stations alongside the employment areas.”
The city council is putting in £289,000 from its existing CIL pot, with Oxfordshire County Council contributing £206,000.