PASSENGER trains could be running on Oxford’s Cowley branch line within five years, the Oxford Mail can reveal.

Chiltern Railways’ plans to run services along the line for the first time in 50 years are set to be unveiled next month.

The company says it wants to use the line to connect Oxford Station with areas such as Blackbird Leys, Littlemore, Oxford Science Park and the Mini plant.

In an email seen by the Oxford Mail, Chiltern managing director Rob Brighouse said: “While for the last 50 years the line has been used solely for freight, we feel that huge potential stems from the possibility of Chiltern operating passenger services along the line by the end of the decade, perhaps as an extension of our route from London to Oxford which opens in 2016.

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“Central to our proposal is the creation of two new stations on the line at Oxford Science Park and Oxford Business Park.

“This development has significant prospects for promoting future economic prosperity for local businesses as well as Oxfordshire as a whole, while providing an innovative and sustainable transport solution.

“It also has huge scope for improving the connectivity of local communities including Littlemore, Cowley and Blackbird Leys to Oxford and beyond, as well as providing a platform for regeneration.”

Chiltern Railways confirmed it was looking at plans, saying they had “huge potential” to connect communties in south-east Oxford to the city centre.

The company is currently building a new line, expected to open in September 2016, between Oxford and London Marylebone via Bicester, which will include a new station at Water Eaton.

Oxford City Council leader Bob Price said: “It will certainly make it easier for people to commute from Blackbird Leys and Littlemore into the city centre.

“It also means that the development south of Grenoble Road would be more viable.”

The city council has plans to build up to 4,000 homes on land it owns south of Grenoble Road but it has so far been prevented from doing so by the fact the land is in the Green Belt and lies in South Oxfordshire, where the district council is opposed to it.

Gordon Roper, chairman of Blackbird Leys Parish Council, said: “It would be a good idea and could alleviate a lot of traffic problems, especially on a Saturday when people come to the Kassam Stadium. Obviously it is at the early stages at the moment but it would be brilliant.”

Andrew McCallum, secretary of Rail Future’s Thames Valley branch, said: “Rather than occupying space at Oxford, [trains] can run down to Cowley which could take about five minutes, drop people off, come back in another five minutes and then go back to London.”

In April, Oxfordshire County Council leader Ian Hudspeth included the possiblity of reopening the line in his transformation plans for the city’s transport system, which also included a tram system to Oxford Airport.

Speaking of the newly revealed Cowley branch plans, Mr Hudspeth said: “If you are coming into Oxford from Didcot or Bicester and you want to go to the eastern side of the city, your only option is to drive from the station.

“The number one issue is that  the line is already there, but we  have got to work out its capacity.”

Network Rail spokesman Victoria Bradley said: “The line would need to be upgraded to run passenger services along it and a decision to run passenger services is a matter for the Department for Transport.”

She added that funding for such projects usually came from the Department for Transport, but additional funding could come from other sources such as Chiltern Railways or the county council.

Department for Transport spokeswoman Rose Obianwu said local authorities and the rail industry had “primary responsibility” for looking at how best to reopen old lines.

The Cowley line is currently only used by freight for the Mini plant.

Plant spokeswoman Rebecca Baxter said: “The branch line is part of the Network Rail UK network and any train operator would be able to apply for train paths with Network Rail. We look forward to learning more about Chiltern Railways’ future plans in due course.”

Oxford East MP Andrew Smith said: “It would open up more travel options for local residents and help ease the car commuting pressure to the Science Park and the Business Park, where congestion has been getting worse.”

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