The sheer scale of the track damage, combined with the wider economic climate (Chancellor Denis Healey had just applied to the IMF for an emergency loan conditional on deep cuts to public spending), persuaded a cash-strapped British Rail that the expense of repairs could not be justified amid decreasing traffic. Only the southernmost 2.3-mile section of the route was retained, to serve the former Army base at Long Marston (which closed in 1997).
Twenty years later and the complex is still rail connected. It is now used to store surplus rolling stock, although much of the land has been released to housing development. A small industrial estate also hosts a cluster of railway technology companies (including Vivarail), complete with a dedicated test track.
Since the end of through services in 1976, Stratford-upon-Avon has suffered greatly from its lack of southward access to the east-west Cotswold Line via Honeybourne Junction, for services to major employment centres in Oxford and London, and direct rail links to Cheltenham, Worcester and the South West.
With more than a million passenger journeys recorded in 2015/16, Stratford’s main station is instead now the southern terminus of the Shakespeare and North Warwickshire lines, and operated by London Midland.
Facing north, passengers for most destinations are forced to change at either Birmingham or Leamington Spa for onward connections, while Chiltern Railways provides just three direct services to London each day. This can often incur severe time delays, especially in Birmingham city centre where inter-city passengers from Stratford are required to transfer between Snow Hill or Moor Street and the city’s main station at New Street.
Residents will instead often drive to nearby Warwick Parkway for more frequent services on the Chiltern Main Line, or to the closest station on the Cotswold Line at Honeybourne.
However, this simply adds more car journeys to the local road network. And the car park at Honeybourne is hopelessly inadequate, having been built to cater for a village with just 1,600 residents, prior to the 320% increase in passenger numbers recorded there since 1997.
At the centre of the business case for reinstatement is the predicted growth of Stratford-upon-Avon, which is already home to some 30,000 residents who suffer the difficulties outlined previously. It also hosts two and a half million Shakespeare-loving visitors a year, worth almost £300 million to the town’s economy, yet only 6% of these arrive by rail compared with a national average of 13% for similar tourist hotspots.
The end result is chronic road congestion, especially on the town’s primary arterial route (Birmingham Road). Gridlock at peak times and during summer months has also made it impossible to run a punctual bus service, further deterring residents from using Stratford’s shops and businesses in favour of less congested destinations in Warwickshire and Worcestershire (including Leamington Spa, Solihull and Evesham).
The opening of Stratford Parkway on the town’s outskirts in May 2013 provided a partial solution to combating the vehicular nightmare of the town centre, but it shares the same operational constraints as Stratford by being on the same lines and receiving the same limited level of service.
Not only does this hinder economic growth by suppressing demand, the town’s car-induced problems are only set to get worse if the 17,520 new homes confirmed for the area in Stratford-upon-Avon District Council’s Core Strategy document are built as planned by 2031.
This includes more than 6,000 homes earmarked for two sites six miles south of Stratford, near Long Marston. Developer St Modwen Homes is currently building a large estate (known as Meon Vale) at the former army base, while Cala Homes has permission to build 3,500 homes at Long Marston Airfield.
On January 2 the Government also confirmed that Long Marston is to become one of 14 Garden Village developments that have been designated across the UK. This is predicted to add 10% more vehicles to the local road network as the village swells to a population of nearly 25,000, rivalling that of Stratford itself.
Local government has not remained entirely idle, however, and Stratford-upon-Avon District Council was proactive enough to commission a GRIP 3 study from Arup.
Published in 2012 and conducted according to DfT guidance, the report generated a modest base case benefit:cost ratio (BCR) of 0.8:1 - based on construction costs of between £53 million and £70m, and passenger growth of 4% per annum - but recognised that the BCR could rise to 2:1 with growth of 6% instead.
The BCR has since been revised to 3.34, based on the same costs but factoring in the major housing developments at Long Marston and a pledge from Cala Homes to contribute £17m to the cost of reinstating the line and building a new station at Long Marston.
It could be argued that the BCR is in fact even larger, given the unquantifiable economic benefits offered by reduced travel time for Stratford’s residents heading south, and the release of capacity on other routes when it is used either for diversions or indeed for freight.
The initially low BCR also reflected the scale of the engineering challenges faced at the Stratford end of the route, because the preferred construction option was identified as a single track running from the south end of Stratford-upon-Avon’s main station and into a dive-under. This is needed to enable the line to burrow beneath Seven Meadows Way, an inner relief road occupying the old railway formation, and a roundabout built where a level crossing once stood.
The railway could then reoccupy the original two-track alignment near Stratford Racecourse at the town’s southern outskirts, to run due south to Milcote Lane (approximately three miles distant).
This section of the route is largely intact and free from development, and now forms The Greenway walking and cycling track, which would be able to continue to share the alignment by running adjacent to a single-track railway.
From Milcote Lane to the existing railhead at Long Marston, the line could then become two-track once more with line speeds of up to 70mph all the way to the junction with the Cotswold Line at Honeybourne. The eastern track would use a reinstated eastern chord at Honeybourne for services to Oxford, while the western track would use the existing western chord for services to Worcester. However, permission would be needed to divert the Greenway onto a minor road between Milcote Lane and Long Marston village.