The Cowley Branch Line is one step closer to completion – after it won the backing of the city’s councillors.

The line, which is currently used for freight serving the BMW plant in Cowley, could be opened as early as December 2026 if funding is secured and the redevelopment of Oxford's main railway station goes ahead as planned.

At the Town Hall on Monday night, city councillors gave unanimous support to a motion to spend £4.56m on a full business case for plans to reopen the line to passengers.

Cabinet member for transport Cllr Louise Upton described the plans as the ‘least controversial’ item on her desk – and she did not get people ‘lobbing insults’ over the railway proposals.

“The idea of running a passenger service on the Cowley branch line is very exciting,” she said. Once opened, people would be able to ‘zip into’ the city centre from The Leys or Littlemore in ‘under 10 minutes, the councillor added.

Plans to reopen the Cowley line – shut to passengers for more than five decades – have been mooted since at least 2014, when Chiltern Railways said it hoped to run services along the track by the end of the decade.

READ MORE: Artist's impressions of new Cowley Branch Line stations

In 2018, the Oxford Mail revealed that designs for a new train station at Oxford Science Park had been drawn up. A government-backed report had called for the line to be reopened to passengers by 2019.

Three years later, in 2021, Network Rail confirmed it was taking the next steps to reopen the branch line – as councillors on the city’s planning committed granted prior approval for the redevelopment of the west side of Oxford railway station.

Last summer, artist’s impressions were released of two stations that would be built as part of plans for the line. Oxford East station would serve Oxford Business Park and the surrounding area, while Oxford South would serve passengers at the Oxford Science Park.

An ‘outline business case’ report by Network Rail was published late last year, allowing officials to the next phase of the project.

Funding for that next phase – preparation of a ‘full business case’ – was greenlit by councillors on Monday night.

READ MORE: Cabinet votes on £4.5m funding for Cowley Branch Line business case plan

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.

Cllr 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.”

Cllr Laurence Fouweather asked about links between the Cowley line and plans to reopen a rail line to ‘Witney and beyond’.

Cabinet member for planning, Cllr Alex Hollingsworth, responded: “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.”