WORK on a rail link between Oxford and Milton Keynes could begin next year, with a new study signalling the start of detailed construction planning.

The link holds out the promise of 12-minute train journey times between Oxford and Bicester and 35-minute trips between Oxford and Milton Keynes.

The consortium behind the plan says the scheme linking Oxford to Milton Keynes, Bedford and Aylesbury is on track to become operational by 2012.

But the estimated cost of the scheme, originally put at £130m, has risen to £190m, going to £228m if a spur to Aylesbury is included.

A new report commissioned by the East West Rail Consortium, made up of councils and development agencies, has backed the case for a new network of railway lines and train services.

It means the long-awaited project now goes on to the 'stage four phase', which will involve producing detailed construction and operations management plans and rail infrastructure designs. This investigation will cost £2m and continue until the end of the year.

Adrian Saunders, Oxfordshire County Council's rail development officer, said: "The work will focus on looking at the condition of existing track, disused embankments and bridges. Effectively it will be a full engineering assessment looking at the whole route, and the need for upgrading or rebuilding. At its conclusion, the scheme will be ready to go to tender for implementation. There is a lot of support coming from the Department of Transport and Network Rail to get this project moving. Construction work could start by the end of 2009. Momentum is building rapidly."

Rail experts will also focus on stations along the route, to see if improvement work is needed or new stations required.

Chris Wright, secretary of pressure group the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Action Committee, said: "It has been a very long time since we have seen any rail reopening in England. The study that is now being sent out to local authorities sets out the cost and confirms that people would use the rail link. Crucially, it recommends that it goes to a detailed level of study about what is needed.

"Trains on the Oxford-Bicester section presently travel at 30 to 40mph because of the condition of the bridges, with the journey taking 26 minutes, and there are only seven trains a day. It presently takes about an hour and 20 minutes on the bus to get from Oxford to Milton Keynes, often longer because of the heavy traffic. What a road congestion-busting service this would be."

Jane Hamilton, chief operating officer of Milton Keynes Partnership, responsible for development in the new city, said: "The South East Plan describes East West Rail as regionally significant transport infrastructure and this important study has now provided us with valuable evidence that the western section can and should be done."

Two trains an hour are proposed between Oxford and Milton Keynes, travelling at speeds of up to 100mph.

Oxford City Council is one of the local authorities expected to contribute to the new investigation. The bulk of the money would be expected to come from the Government, as part of its funding for growth areas.

There have been hopes that the Oxford-Milton Keynes link would eventually form part of an orbital rail route linking Swindon, Oxford and the Thames Valley with Cambridge and East Anglia.

A separate study is shortly to be published on this proposal.

But this scheme would be massively costly and present far greater engineering challenges, because much of the old track on the eastern section has been built on, with bridges dismantled.