URGENT talks will be held next week amid fears the second phase of the East-West rail link between Oxford and Cambridge could be delayed beyond 2024.

The East West Rail Consortium - made up of senior representatives from eight councils along the proposed route - has called a meeting with Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy over concerns the project is not being properly prioritised.

Mr Hendy's review into the nationwide Railway Upgrade Plan last year confirmed work to link Oxford to Bedford and Milton Keynes to Princes Risborough would begin in Control Period 5, which ends in March 2019, and be completed in Control Period 6 which ends in 2024.

But the consortium's chairman Rodney Rose along with Buckinghamshire County Council's cabinet member for transport Mark Shaw will now meet Network Rail chiefs next week to seek assurances.

Mr Rose said: "I'm worried about it slipping further back beyond 2024 and we are not happy with that date in itself.

"When Oxford Parkway station opened I met with Sir Peter Hendy and explained our concerns and he said it would be completed towards the beginning of that 2019-2024 period.

"We have now been told it will be 2024 but for that to happen we would have liked to have seen a start being made by now and we are worried it will slip further back."

Mr Rose added that the eight councils, which invested a combined £46m of taxpayers' money in the scheme, were becoming "anxious" over delays.

The consortium was also told the East-West rail link was the third most important project in the country - behind HS2 and Crossrail - but now felt it was not being treated as such.

Phase One of the project between Bicester and Oxford is due to be completed in December this year once the line between Oxford and Oxford Parkway station is re-opened.

Funding for Phase Two of the project - from Bicester to Bedford and Milton Keynes to Princes Risborough - now needs to be sought for it to be completed in the next five-year funding period 2019-2024 and approval granted by the Department for Transport.

Network Rail's senior sponsor for the project Tony Walker said pooling together funding was going to be "challenging" but remained confident.

He said: "We cannot be sure in the current economic climate but it would be good to complete in CP6 between 2019 and 2024."

Network Rail said it would not be commenting on potential further delays until after the meeting.

Dates for the completion of the central section of the route which would complete the link between Oxford and Cambridge are expected to be set once more progress has been made on Phase Two.

The chairman of rail users' group Railfuture's East Anglia branch, Peter Wakefield, said further delays would be a "huge disappointment".