North Cotswold… at the double

Short of re-opening completely closed lines, there’s no better way of demonstrating rail’s expansion and return to favour than returning single-track lines to double-track status. All at once a route that looks like a simple branch line re-acquires main line status. 

That the North Cotswold route between the cities of Oxford and Worcester is cleared for speeds up to 100mph indicates that it’s no country branch (despite the diminutive stations at places such as Finstock). Now Network Rail is set to restore most of it to double-track status, in a project that’s set to cost £70 million when additional work to improve stations is thrown in. 

Adding that second track somehow comes over as proper rail expansion in a way that longer platforms do not (vital as Southern England’s longer platform programme is to increasing capacity on hard-pressed commuter lines). North Cotswold may not catch the headlines in the same way as major projects such as Reading’s massive remodelling project, but NR believes it has a part to play in bringing a reliable railway to Great Western users.

NR Project Sponsor David Northey relates that NR identified the line as a performance and capacity problem back in 2006, and started developing plans to improve the route. The long single-line sections from Wolvercot Junction (three miles north of Oxford) to Ascott-under-Wychwood, and from Moreton-in-Marsh through Evesham’s passing loop to Norton Junction (three miles south of Worcester), made it far too easy for one late train to delay others, as they waited for single-line sections to become clear.

There were also perceptions among passengers that journeys on the route were slow, fostered by the slow approach to junction points and the time taken for train drivers to exchange the tokens that give them authority to occupy the single line sections. NR’s Tim Maddocks reckons the doubling work will save two or three minutes on journeys although operator FGW expects more.

That’s not enough to trumpet passenger benefits, however, and leaves the project’s justification resting on improved performance. 

Back in 2006, FGW’s performance as the local passenger operator was distinctly ropey. Today it’s a different story, with latest figures showing 92.4% of trains on time (measured by PPM), which FGW says is its best performance since privatisation. To put that into context, NR has publicly justified its £67m track programme as “the optimum solution to achieve 92% PPM”.

Perhaps NR has realised that the justification for improving the route is weaker now than in 2006, after it rejected initial plans as too expensive. Those plans would have seen the line completely resignalled with its three boxes closed, semaphore signalling swept away and control transferred to the brand-new Thames Valley Control Centre at Didcot. Instead, the revised plan keeps the three boxes and some of the semaphores, and installs absolute block (AB) working that dates from Victorian days to keep trains apart with only one in each block section of track.

Upgrade in detail

The route leaves the main Oxford-Birmingham line at Wolvercot Junction, curving away to the left as it heads north and soon passing a board proclaiming ‘100’ - the line’s speed in miles per hour which applies as far as Ascott-under-Wychwood 14 miles further north. 

Not all trains stop at the intervening stations of Hanborough, Combe and Finstock, but all do at Charlbury, and it’s here that improvement works begin. 

Charlbury (761⁄4 miles from London) will become the southern limit of the double-track

section, so a second platform will be reinstated here (the remains of the original lie buried under a grassy mound). This platform will be 224m long and serve northbound trains, leaving the existing 115m platform on which the station’s simple Great Western Railway (GWR) buildings sits (complete with a traditional red phone box marked with British Rail’s double-arrows) for southbound trains. 

A new colour light signal will control access from the south onto the double-track section, and be able to signal trains into the southbound platform, allowing them to turn back. In the style of NR’s latest signals it will have a single aperture capable of displaying red, yellow or green. It will be controlled from Ascott. 

From Charlbury northwards, the new track (rails are already dropped by the lineside for some of it) will be on the west of the line before switching to the east. This depends on where today’s track is laid. When BR reduced the line from double-track it aligned the remaining rails and sleepers for best overall effect, and it now switches from side to side.

Change also comes at Ascott-under-Wychwood (801⁄2 miles). It might only see one train a day in each direction on weekdays, but it’s the current southern double-track limit. 

The GWR built a small signalbox here in 1883, and today its 25-lever frame controls its single semaphore signal, a handful of colour-lights and the set of points that marks the start of the double-track north. The semaphore and lever frame are going (as is the single point), replaced by an electronic panel and LED signals. Ascott’s adjacent level crossing receives twin-boom barriers and is widened to accommodate two tracks, while nearby Bruern LC receives replacement barriers and lights and remains controlled by Ascott with CCTV surveillance. Finally, the station will have a second platform which, at 71m, is just 11m longer than its current one.

Trains between Ascott and Moreton-in-Marsh currently work under absolute block regulations (see panel). This will not change under the upgrade project. Between Ascott and Oxford trains will continue to work under track circuit block regulations, with the signalling arranged so that only one train can be on the single line at a time.

There are few changes towards Moreton-in-Marsh (913⁄4 miles), location of the line’s second 1883 GWR box, this time with a 40-lever frame. This will remain, controlling a mix of semaphore and colour light signals. NR plans to remove the station’s down siding and up refuge siding, but keep the longer down refuge siding. 

In sweeping these away, NR will remove one full size semaphore (signal MM4 which protects the trailing points of the down siding from northbound trains) and five disc shunting signals, including a comparatively rare yellow shunt signal (MM25). The trailing crossover between the two main lines remains, and to allow northbound trains to turn back and head south from Moreton, NR plans to install a new lower-quadrant, full-size semaphore signal (MM27) and a disc signal (MM20). The station’s other five semaphores will remain. 

From the signalbox the red token machines that permit access to the single line north to Evesham will disappear. With a similar series of bell codes to AB working, these machines dispense a metal token that is a driver’s authority to occupy the single-line section. 

Machines at both ends of the single-line are electrically linked to allow only one token to be issued at a time. At Moreton, there’s an auxiliary machine in a small hut at the north end of the northbound platform. With the signalbox at the south end of the station, this auxiliary machine allows a driver to take a token (under the signaller’s control) without having to walk to the box.

Finally, Moreton’s northern points disappear as the line towards Evesham becomes double track. Blockley and Chipping Campden level crossings receive similar upgrades to that at Bruern. Either side of Chipping Campden LC, Network Rail is making passive provision for two 250m platforms to make it easier to open a station here.

Some 98 miles from London is Chipping Campden Tunnel (814m long) which had its double track installed last summer as part of NR’s initial upgrade work (RAIL 624). This work involved digging out and replacing the tunnel’s drain. The tunnel was designed for two tracks with a drain in the centre. When BR singled the route it shifted the remaining track onto the centre of the tunnel’s formation - this led to the drain breaking under the load of trains. 

A few miles further north is Honeybourne (1013⁄4 miles). Once a country junction with four platforms, it reopened in 1981 as a simple ‘bus shelter’ station and one platform. Just before a northbound train reaches this platform, it will have clattered over the trailing points that form the link to the freight line to Long Marston (once a Ministry of Defence depot and now used to store rolling stock). 

A keen-eyed passenger may note the course of an old railway approaching almost at right angles about 3⁄4 mile south of Honeybourne. This is the route to Cheltenham Spa on which the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway runs between Toddington and Gotherington. 

The GWR has a long-term ambition to extend northwards to Honeybourne, and to make this easier NR is moving the Long Marston connection to the north of the station. It will also slew the Long Marston line eastwards, to allow a clear run into the station for the private railway and make passive provision for a platform. There will also be passive provision for a 165m platform on the Honeybourne Through Siding line that then becomes the Long Marston branch as it passes the ‘start of staff section’ board. 

The train staff for the branch will be kept in a hut at Honeybourne, with points and signals to be controlled from Evesham. At the moment, trains reach the branch by using a groundframe at Honeybourne to shift the points. This groundframe, which will be swept away in the upgrade, is unlocked by the Moreton-Evesham single-line token the driver will have. A token machine at Honeybourne allows the driver to surrender the token once he is clear of the main line to allow other trains to use the Moreton-Evesham section.

For its own project, NR is to build a 224m platform for southbound trains, doubtless sweeping away the remains of Honeybourne’s disused and weed-strewn island platform that sits between the single-track main line and the two tracks that form a run-round loop for Long Marston trains.

Although there’s no signalbox at Honeybourne, the station marks the end of the AB section from Moreton. Northwards, the line will be worked as track circuit block (TCB). For AB to work, the signaller receiving the train must check that it is complete - this is normally done by checking the train has a tail lamp. In recent years, CCTV cameras have been used, but at Honeybourne axle counters will allow the signaller to check that no part of the train has been left in section by counting the number of axles entering the section at Moreton and counting them out at Honeybourne.

It’s five miles to Evesham (1061⁄2 miles), which today is a passing loop with two tracks running through the station and a clutch of sidings coming from the southbound line. 

The town’s signalbox is more recent that the other two on the line, dating from 1957 and built in the wooden ‘flat pack’ style of British Railways’ Western Region. Signals around the station are semaphore, but all will go in favour of colour lights, including the centre-pivot lower-quadrant signal (E33) that allows southbound trains onto the single line and the bracket signal (E32) that controls southbound trains over the trailing connection into the three sidings. All these sidings - the up siding, cripple siding and up spur - will be removed, taking with them E32 and a trio of ground signals. Points forming each end of the loop will also go, making Evesham station a simple two-track affair. The signalbox loses its 42-levers and will receive an electronic control panel instead. 

In earlier plans, Evesham might have had control over the whole route, but this idea would have needed a larger box so fell foul of NR’s policy of not building new signalboxes, according to Project Director Ross Mahoney.

The junction to and from the single-line will be about a mile north of Evesham, just beyond Gishbourne user-worked level crossing. In place of the electric token system between Evesham and Norton Junction (almost ten miles further north), NR will install token block with a direction lever arrangement between the boxes to permit only one train on the line at once. This will result in Norton Junction signalbox losing its token machine. The auxiliary machines in platform huts at Worcester Shrub Hill will also be removed. 

The extra mile of double-track north of Evesham allows simultaneous arrivals and departures from the station, says Northey.

Beyond Gishbourne there are few changes to the existing single-line, but NR is making passive provision for a single, 250-metre platform at roughly milepost 116 to form Worcester Parkway station.

Improving the line

With plans finalised and new rails already dropped on the trackbed, work has started to upgrade the North Cotswold route, before beginning in earnest later this year. Project Manager Ross Mahoney expects to let the contract for tracklaying in late July or early August, and the signalling deal in October. 

In addition to the work needed to lay the new track, NR is spending £1.5m on conventional renewals. To this, it’s adding another £1.5m to improve the line’s stations.

Mahoney said orange jackets would flood the line this summer as preparatory work starts. This includes moving signals (some new posts are already in place), shifting cables troughs (there are dumps of pallets of new troughs along the route today) and clearing the path for the second line. “It gives a blank canvas for the contractor,” he said.

Track renewals take place in late June and early July, and will focus on the stations at Moreton, Ascott and Evesham. There are also bridges to renovate and waterproof, while a single-deck bridge at Honeybourne over the closed Cheltenham-Stratford line will be replaced by a double-deck version this autumn. 

Once next autumn’s special railhead treatment trains stop running in December 2010, tracklaying starts in earnest. NR and First Great Western have agreed to replace late night trains with buses, so that NR’s contractor will have from 2130 to 0500 every night to lay track at a rate of one mile per week until May 2011. 

This will give double-track throughout the route, but the single-line will be weaving between the new track. A week-long closure from the end of May 2011 will allow the track to be connected and signals commissioned from Ascott to Charlbury. A second closure, this time for two weeks on August 6-22, will connect and commission the rest of the work.

If there are few immediate changes to passenger services over the route, NR’s Tim Maddocks argues that his company’s work provides potential for further improvements. This could include a package of speed improvements to reduce journey times, although the case for this has yet to be made.

He says he would like to see more charters on the route. There’s little capacity today, so it’s an untapped market, he says. 

The line will also have more freight potential which Maddocks says that Motorail Logistics, based at Long Marston, is keen to exploit. He adds that Long Marston may provide a good base for one of NR’s high-output ballast cleaners when the company undertakes major track renewals around Oxford and Gloucester.

Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway spokesman Ian Crowder described NR’s passive provision at Honeybourne for the private railway as “fantastic news” which could allow the GWR to become part of the local transport infrastructure. 

The railway is still about six miles away from Honeybourne as it heads for its interim target of Broadway, and further expansion depends on funding, but Crowder says that if the line’s average expansion of 1⁄2 mile a year since 1981 continues, the GWR could be at Honeybourne in 12 years. He says the trackbed is intact but work would be needed to decayed steel bridges along the route.

If NR could be persuaded to allow a direct link to the GWR there was the prospect of special trains to Cheltenham Racecourse and charters serving the GWR route, he concluded.

First Great Western is more optimistic than NR about the journey time savings that will come from NR’s work, and is keen to see a revised timetable from September 2011.

Projects Director Matthew Golton told RAIL that savings range from six minutes to 20 minutes for the evening commuter 1750 Paddington-Worcester. With more double track, FGW intends to fill gaps in its current timetable so that Moreton has three extra trains to Paddington, and Worcester and Great Malvern both have one extra. More trains will stop at Hanborough and Charlbury, while Golton said FGW was talking to Oxfordshire County Council about increasing Ascott’s service from one train a day in each direction.

Despite the local user group (the Cotswold Line Promotion Group) pushing for hourly trains between Worcester and Paddington, FGW can’t yet fulfil this. Golton explained that there will still be a two-hour gap in trains leaving Paddington at 1222 and 1422 for Worcester (the 1320 only goes to Moreton). In the opposite direction, trains leave Worcester at 1009 and 1209 (1048 and 1248 from Moreton) while the 1152 starts at Moreton.

“If funding was available and we had more trains, we’d look to fill the remaining gaps. Our principal constraint is the lack of rolling stock,” said Golton. “We need more stock to meet stakeholder wishes."

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