COMMUTERS in Bicester were handed a double win this week with two sets of planned rail improvements which could 'open up other parts of the country'.

The first good news came as plans for the new Oxford to Cambridge rail link moved a step closer with Network Rail submitting phase two plans to the Government.

Phase one of Network Rails project – connecting Oxford and Bicester – was completed in December 2016 and this next phase, to be delivered by 2024, will link Bicester to Milton Keynes, Aylesbury and Bedford.

The major track and signalling works will eventually allow residents in Bicester to travel directly to the eastern towns for the first time in more than 50 years.

Network Rail head of consenting and environment on the project Colin Murphy said: "Once completed, the new railway will connect communities and businesses along the route and beyond, creating new opportunities for jobs, housing and economic growth."

If the plans are approved work could begin as early as next year.

Despite the good news, some in Bicester hit out at the fact that the town's busy London Road level crossing was once again left out of the plans, meaning it will not be improved in the works.

Oxfordshire county councillor John Howson said: "The Bicester level crossing must be resolved as a solution neatly falls outside of the scope of both phase one – that stops at Bicester Village Station – and phase two that starts north of the level crossing.

"The Oxfordshire Growth Board must address this issue."

Residents say that despite it being a positive move for rail in the area, the crossing's uncertain future still casts a shadow over any improvements.

County councillor for Bicester West Les Sibley added: "It is a positive update and phase one has been fantastic for Bicester.

"I think most people would want the second phase to get under way, providing even better rail connectivity for Bicester and opening up other parts of the country – although it still leaves us with the problem of what happens with London Road level crossing.

"This important to any future developments and really holds the key to Bicester's connectivity: we really do need to press for a solution, or else there will always be that cloud on the horizon until a decision is made."

Residents fear the busy crossing could eventually be forced to close, cutting off a main road into the town, once additional trains on the new line are introduced.

Bicester and District Chamber of Commerce president Ben Jackson said: "The chamber is aware that constant pressure is being applied by the local councils on those involved in the East-West rail projects to include alleviation work at the London Road Crossing.

"Although improvements are desirable, the worst case scenario would be that of a decision to simply close the crossing to all road traffic permanently and this must be avoided."

Bicester Traffic Action Group co-chairwoman Sallie Wright added: "We still believe the crossing will eventually have to be shut, and it will cut Bicester in half."

Current 'barrier down' times at the London Road crossing are about 14 minutes each hour, which includes two trains in each direction.

This 'down time' is expected to roughly double to between 30 and 34 minutes every hour with the introduction of the core East West Rail (EWR) service - four additional trains in each direction.

However, separate to the Oxford to Cambridge update and in the second bit of good transport news for the town, Oxfordshire County Council revealed there will be additional signalling work next year to reduce the amount of time the barriers are down at London Road.

The council spokesman added: "We, along with Network Rail and Cherwell District Council, are very keen to see a long term solution for London Road and the necessary funding that would be required.

"All understand the concerns of local people and want to be able to deliver the right measures to deal with the increase in trains using the level crossing."

A spokesman for Network Rail said: “We are looking at what alterations can be made to reduce the barrier down time at this level crossing in time for the new East West Rail services between Oxford and Bedford.

"We will continue to work whenever possible with the local authority to identify a long term solution.”