The expansion of Oxford’s rail connections made another step forward this week, when Network Rail’s prior approval application to redevelop the west side of Oxford station was granted from the city council planning committee.

It paves the way for Network Rail to bid for the additional funding from the Department of Transport (DfT) that is needed to take forward this stage of the redevelopment.

Final funding from DfT is expected in spring 2022, subject to approval, and the redevelopment would expect to be completed by the end of 2024.

At the meeting, Network Rail also confirmed it would be taking the next steps in the bid to reopen the Cowley Branch Line as a passenger line, providing fast public transport links from south Oxford into the city centre.

Network Rail will now begin work needed to make the business case to the Department for Transport for funding to reopen the line.

Currently, Cowley Branch Line is only used by freight trains going to and from the BMW Mini plant in Cowley. If reopened to passengers, it is proposed that the line would have two new stations, supporting the Oxford Business Park and Science Park, with the ultimate aim of a regular half hourly service.

The strategic proposal also identifies the opportunity to extend the Chiltern Railways’ London Marylebone to Oxford service.

This summer Network Rail published the Oxfordshire Rail Corridor Study (ORCS), which set out how investment in rail connections in Oxford and the surrounding area is key to economic growth in the region.

Commissioned by the Department for Transport and the Oxfordshire Growth Board, ORCS was a collaboration of industry partners, as well as the County and City Councils, to develop a rail strategy for the county over the next two decades.

The report looks in detail at Oxfordshire’s predicted growth in jobs and housing and considers how rail can support this. Two areas that are expected to see significant growth are Oxford’s Science and Business Parks.

With planned housing developments of 7,000 new homes around the branch line plus the growth in employment sites, this area would see high demand for travel to Oxford and other stations in the county.

Councillor Duncan Enright, Oxfordshire County Council’s cabinet member for Travel and Development Strategy, said: “We are like passengers waiting on the platform, tapping our toes in impatience for the re-opening of the Cowley Branch Line to passengers. It is central to our rail strategy and wider travel strategy as are developments at Oxford Station addressed by the city council’s planning committee.

"The Line connects lots of people and neighbourhoods of the city, with many new houses planned in the same area, and there has long been a desire to see it opened to passenger traffic. It will help a lot to cut traffic issues in the city and connecting this area to other places in Oxfordshire and beyond and will be vital in tackling the climate emergency.

"We hope that current work will crack on at a good pace so we can hop on passenger trains running along the branch line and catch them at new local stations along the line in the near future as well as seeing much needed changes at the station itself.”

Nigel Tipple, Chief Executive of OxLEP, said the boost to Oxfordshire's rail infrastructure "supports innovation-led projects within close proximity of Oxford station, including the University of Oxford-led and OxLEP-backed Osney Mead Innovation Quarter – a development that will see the creation of exciting new, cutting-edge research facilities, commercial space and accommodation.”