PASSENGERS using Oxfordshire stations on the Cotswold Line will be the first to see the benefits from Network Rail’s £67m scheme to improve the route.

Revealing its final plans for the project on Thursday, Network Rail said it would still bring the four-mile section between Charlbury and Ascott-under-Wychwood into use in May 2011, which will allow several extra trains to run.

But the other redoubled section, from Moreton-in-Marsh, in Gloucestershire, to Evesham, in Worcestershire, will be brought into use four months later.

It had originally been planned to complete all the work by May.

Explaining the delay to completion of the full project, Network Rail project manager David Northey said: “We couldn’t meet the cost of providing a new signalling system within the funding available, so we had to go back and redesign that part of the scheme with conventional signals controlled from existing signalboxes.

“This will still deliver the same improvements in reliability and punctuality of trains on the route that we planned at the outset.”

He added: “Once we have completed the work next summer, we will be able to walk away knowing that the route is fit for the next 30 to 40 years.”

The decision to retain the existing signal boxes means an extended lease of life for the 125-year-old Great Western Railway structure at Ascott-under-Wychwood, which would have been shut if control of the line had passed to the new Thames Valley signalling centre in Didcot.

The chairman of the village’s parish council, Stuart Fox, said: “I’m absolutely delighted it has got a reprieve.

“We like to see the signal box as part of the community. It’s a landmark just as much as the church and the village green, right in the heart of the village.”

The village’s residents will also be among the biggest beneficiaries of the work, with the current service of one train a day to and from Oxford set to be boosted to five trains each way, including several to and from London, partly thanks to three extra off-peak services between Oxford and Moreton-in-Marsh, which will run from May next year.

A new Oxford-bound platform will be built at Ascott’s station and the existing platform will be extended. A second platform will also be built at Charlbury.

Once the redoubling is complete, there will be two extra trains a day linking Oxford and Worcester, bringing the Cotswold Line Promotion Group’s aspiration for an hourly off-peak service throughout the route closer.

Derek Potter, the chairman of the passenger group, said: “We welcome any extra trains but do not want to see the development of a timetable which gives the western end of the route a second-class service.”

After renovating Chipping Campden tunnel in Gloucestershire and realigning track near Charlbury during a closure of the line last summer, Network Rail plans to carry out the bulk of the remaining work from mid-December, with engineers taking over the line overnight to minimise disruption to passengers.

This will mean an early end to train services each day, with late-evening services replaced by buses.