London & North Western Railway
Railways came to Bicester and the locality well over 150 years ago. Scattered around the country were small trackways, usually horse powered, but we are only concerned with locomotive-hauled systems.
Seniority must go, as far as the town is concerned, to the Oxford-Bicester-Bletchley line, worked from the onset in 1850 by the London and North Western Railway although the plan had initially been financed by a company bearing the same name as the route itself.
At the same time the Oxford and Rugby Railway had a line a few miles to the North, passing through Kidlington, Kidlington Station GWR, Tackley and Heyford, which was being 'taken over' by the mighty Great Western, feverishly engaged in extending their Broad Gauge empire by placing an additional rail outside the original tracks enabling standard and broad gauges to be worked.
To compliment the Oxford-Bletchley line a link had been laid from Verney Junction to Banbury, again worked by the L.N.W.R. This link was closed in 1964, but the other two still remain with the Oxford to Bicester track being reopened for passenger traffic in 1987.
Next to arrive, in 1871, was the legendary line from Quainton Road to Brill, built on a whim of the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos and soon to be known as the Wootton Tramway. It changed its name to the Oxford and Aylesbury Tramroad Company in 1894 in the light of an incredible plan to link those two towns in a somewhat desperate attempt to alleviate the ever-ailing financial position of the line.
The plan never came off the drawing board, although a small terminal station in Oxford had been selected! This amazing line closed in 1935 having been under the ownership of the London-based Metropolitan Railway from 1899 before changing to a Metropolitan and Great Central Joint Committee management in 1906.
By the turn of the century the Great Western had long lost the 'battle of the gauges', the Oxford to Banbury line had reverted to standard gauge and a brave incursion across the Cotswolds had been made in 1887 by the opening of the Banbury and Cheltenham Direct Railway which left the main line at King's Sutton. Never a great success, this line, worked from the onset by the G.W.R., closed in 1964, victim of the so-called "Beeching Axe'. The first few miles into Adderbury remained open for three more years. In 1898 the last of the great trunk routes to the North was opened by linking Quainton Road with Rugby under the wonderful title "The Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, London Extension", soon to assume the much handier title of the Great Central Railway. A link with the G.W.R. was established in 1905 by extending the tracks from Princes Risborough to Grendon Underwood Junction, the link being operated by the Great Western and Great Central Joint Committee. All this famous Great Central racing ground was removed between 1964 and 1966.
Last to arrive, the Great Western main line through Bicester which opened in 1910 and was a logical link between Princes Risborough and Banbury and, indeed, shortened the Paddington to Birmingham run by no less than 19 miles. So, the first and last to open survive still, the rest are just a rather nostalgic memory.
Work started on the Oxford line on 13th June 1848 under the direction of the Buckinghamshire Railway Company and a 16 mile section of the Oxford line between Bletchley and Islip was opened in October, 1850. It was operated by the London and North Western Railway Company (LNWR). For the stretch of line from Islip into Oxford, the Company wanted to link in to the GWR station at Oxford but agreement couldn't be reached. A temporary terminus on the outskirts of the city (Banbury Road) was opened in December 1850. Land was eventually acquired that allowed them to bring in the line parallel to the GWR line into Oxford with the new terminus - Rewley Road (on the site of Rewley Abbey) - being built adjacent to the GWR station. This station was opened in May 1851.
The early years were marked by a terrible accident at Bicester when a number of people were killed on a Euston to Oxford excursion train. Recovering from this calamity the L.N.W.R., as well as establishing a good local service between Bletchley and Oxford, ran many excursions to and from Euston. For most people living between Bicester and Swanbourne this was the quickest way of travelling to and from London.
Once established, six passenger trains ran daily in each direction, the number increasing to a dozen by the turn of the century and, by then, semi fast trains were providing Bicester with through services to Bedford and Cambridge - which gave it the unofficial title of the "Oxbridge" line. In the Oxford direction Islip provided an intermediate station.
In 1905, in an attempt to acquire core traffic, 'Halts' were built as close as possible to villages at Wendlebury, Charlton-on-Otmoor, Oddington, Oxford Road, Wolvercote (which the L.N.W.R. spelt as “Woolvercot”) and at Port Meadow. These were served, morning and evening, by a quaint 'Rail-Motor', a single coach powered by a steam engine at one end of the chassis.
The six halts were withdrawn from service during WW1 (1.1.1917) and reinstated after the war (5.5.1919). The service was once again withdrawn in 1926 during the General Strike and, with the introduction of new bus services, was never reinstated.
North of Bicester to Bletchley there were stations and halts at Launton, Marsh Gibbon & Poundon, Verney Junction, Claydon and Winslow. Moving on to 1922, just prior to the 'Grouping' when the big four Railway Companies came into being, the L.N.W.R. made much of its connections at Oxford and Bletchley, connecting at the former with G.W.R. services to Worcester and Hereford and with L.S.W.R. services to the South Coast, while Bletchley provided fast services to London, the Midlands and North. The 'Halts' closed in 1926 but the 'dozen a day each way' service continued through the 1920s and 1930s under control of the L.M.S.
Wartime brought vast numbers of troops to the area, particularly to Bicester once the new Ordnance Depot had been built. To avoid confusion, "London Road" was added to the name "Bicester", the other Bicester station adopting the suffix "North". A large railway system was built up in the Army Depot at Bicester, (see below) weekends producing hundreds of soldiers and A.T.S. girls travelling on weekend passes and, to alleviate the now heavily used line, the Army footplate crews were 'passed out' by L.M.S. Inspectors and eventually drove the weekend troop trains from Bicester right through to the Rewley Road station in Oxford. Naturally being urged on by soldiers anxious to get home for the weekend many of the elderly Army engines put up fantastic timings from Bicester to Oxford, the unofficial record being established by an ex S.R. (former L.S.W.R.) 0-4-2, number 625, which made the trip at meteoric speed from start to stop in just over 11 minutes! The startled L.M.S. rapidly put a stop to this speeding by instructing signalmen to put signals at danger - thereby nobbling the khaki-clad speed merchants!
Nationalisation in 1948 saw no reduction in the traffic, a proportion of which was often handled by ex L.N.E.R. locomotives working through from the Eastern Region. However, with the return of peace and the nationalisation of the run down railway network the newly formed British Railways board was looking to close unprofitable lines. The terminus at Oxford Rewley Road closed on 1st October 1951 just over a 100 years after it had opened and trains we rerouted into the old Great Western station. The old station building was used as a tyre and exhaust depot for some time and was once threatened with demolition. It was eventually dismantled, piece by piece, and rebuilt in 2002 at Buckinghamshire Railway Society, Quainton Road, near Aylesbury.
By the early 1960s traffic had started to drop off. More and more private cars were on the roads and, of course, for 50 years there had existed a faster service to London provided by the G.W.R. from Bicester and continued under the auspices of the Western Region. Even the introduction of 2-car diesel multiple units could not help although, to this day, many consider that B.R. 'fiddled the books' in 'proving' the route was uneconomic. An attempt was made to close the Oxford - Bletchley - Cambridge line in 1959 but local pressure succeeded in winning a reprieve. There was some relief when Dr. Beeching did not include the cross country Oxford to Cambridge line in his closure proposals in 1963 but just one year later, the British Railways Board published closure plans for the whole route. The introduction of new diesel trains in the 1960's allowed British Railways to run much faster trains and the need for a cross country service declined as passengers found it quicker to travel from Oxford to Cambridge via London. The line closed after the last day of service on 30th December 1967.
The line between Oxford and Bletchley remained in use for freight, empty stock movements and occasional enthusiasts' specials. The section between Oxford & Bicester London Road was reopened on 15.5.1989 for passengers and in 2001 the Strategic Rail Authority looked into reopening the remaining part of the line for passengers between Bicester and Bletchley. The proposal was rejected but more recently a new East-West rail link between Milton Keynes and Oxford is being proposed, (but unlikely to happen) along with the building of a link line to join up with the London-Banbury at Bicester thus providing an alternative route to London from Oxford.
The line is still used by freight trains to the landfill site at Calvert, but the line northwards to Bletchley is disused and in some places the track has been lifted.
Great Western Railway
The reason for building the line, known to railwaymen as the "Bicester Cut-off", has already been explained, enabling the G.W.R. to provide a 2 - hour service to Birmingham from Paddington in direct competition with the L.N.W.R. From the very beginning in 1910 it wrested the service away from the traditional Reading-Didcot-Oxford-Banbury route.
Such are the up and down fortunes of railways - Bicester handed back the services to the former route and was no longer part of the Western empire, coming under control of the Midland Region which was for so long its old enemy to the north! In the 1960s the line had lost its former importance and appeared "forgotten" with a mediocre service. In March 1967 all mainline services to Birmingham went via Oxford.
Bicester North Station went into decline. The track was singled in 1968 between Princes Risborough and Banbury which also saw the demise of the signal box at the station and all trains stopped at the down platform only.
But let us return to the G,W.R., surely Bicester's rightful owners, who built the station along traditional lines with an Up and Down pair of fast tracks through the centre and the two platforms served by loops, the platforms linked by a typically G.W.R. covered footbridge (until the winds came!).
For some 50 years it was the traditional high-speed racing ground for "Saints" and "Stars", being followed by the "Castles" and "Kings" which ran the majority of expresses right up until the end of steam. Finally came the diesel hydraulics - the "Warships" and "Westerns". And then Bicester was made to surrender its Inter-City status to something resembling a single track branch line with a daily gaggle of Diesel Multiple Units shuffling to and from Marylebone and only the morning and evening 'Pad's to remind it of its great days .... and even those are the province of Class 47 and Class 50 Diesel Electrics which had earlier ousted the Swindon-built Hydraulics!
But, the present-day role of Bicester is quite different. In 1996 following the privatisation of British Rail the line was taken over by Chiltern Rail. The line has since been dualled again and over 50 trains a day run to London - a far cry from the five a day when the line first opened 100 years ago!
Having recovered from the Great War, Bicester could provide, in the early 1920s, half a dozen local stopping trains in each direction with no less than sixteen expresses tearing through those centre tracks, roughly one train every 20 minutes during the 'working day'. Truly a main line station. It is surprising to reflect that not until this time had the station seen a traditional G.W.R. chocolate and cream coach. At the time of opening the Company had, for several years, adopted an all-maroon livery. Not until Bicester had been in use for some dozen years did the G.W.R. re-introduce its famous paint scheme.
The 1930s saw a similar continuation of services, the line also becoming well known for 'Slip Coach' working. A coach at the rear of the train would be 'slipped' by the main train while still at speed, that coach rolling on to come to rest at the next station which might be its destination or, more usually, the starting point for a continuation stopping at all stations, being pulled by a small tank engine or attached to another train. The old G.W.R. had this worked to perfection, some trains slipping, in sequence, as many as four coaches. Bicester, with its suffix "North", eventually on 9th September 1960 at precisely 6.12 p.m., became the venue of the very last slip-coach working in Great Britain. Blackthorn was the point of slipping.
The vast and heavy traffic of the 1939-45 War took tremendous toll, and it was several years after Nationalisation before the Western Region could recover some of the pre-war timings. Old names were revived and new ones added, so that at one time no less than three titled trains used the route, the "Cambrian Coast Express", the "Inter-City" and the "Birmingham Pullman". The first-named had been running since the early 1920s, but only carried the name from 1927. It was re-introduced after the war and the name restored to the train in 1951 and really typified the type of service seen in those days with destinations as far afield as Welsh coastal resorts, Chester, Shrewsbury and Birkenhead. Even if most of the expresses passed Bicester at high speed they nearly all stopped at Banbury, so the northbound Bicester passenger had only to catch the previous 'stopper' to Banbury in order to pick up the following express. The "Birmingham Pullman" really heralded the final diesel take-over, the luxury train making two trips each way. On one memorable day it failed at Bicester on its London-bound journey, the staff at Bicester stopping the following "Cambrian" and transferring passengers and luggage. The "Cambrian", a lengthy train, was way off the platform and when the 'Right away' was whistled, one newly-engaged young Bicester porter had no platform to jump on to and decided against the Kamikaze-style drop. He was not missed at Bicester until a phone call from Paddington informed than that they had collared a lad without uniform or any form of identity travelling on the "Cambrian" without a ticket. He was too newly employed to possess a uniform or identity. Lots of explanations needed.
With the cessation of passengers to Bicester London Road in the 1960s there was no longer a need for individual identity, so the G.W.R, station became simply "Bicester" once again.
Bicester North has seen its fair share of Preserved Steam workings and is on one of the few 'Steam routes', with former L.M.S., L.N.E.R. and S.R. engines regularly passing through on their way to or from Stratford.
Bicester Military Railway
No local coverage should fail to mention the Bicester Depot Railway, which, was built in 1942 and, in its heyday, had almost 40 miles of standard gauge track and was connected to the former L.N.W.R/L.M.S. line on the Oxford side of London Road station. The connection still exists and is often used although, like B.R. itself, the Army railway system has been considerably slimmed down with the passing years.
Wartime saw tremendous activity, moving stores round the Depot and many passenger trains were run to carry soldiers and civilian workers in addition to the weekend leave trains mentioned earlier. There was even a through working from Euston into the Depot. Surely the ultimate was reached in 1944 in the weeks and months leading up to D Day when thousands of tons of stores were in transit, the record being held by an 'Austerity' 0-6-0-Tank engine which arrived at the Exchange sidings propelling over 100 loaded wagons! These useful engines had replaced the earlier cosmopolitan fleet of ancient engines 'called up' from the various Companies. All were operated by the Royal Engineers who, in post war years, handed over the responsibility to the Royal Corps of Transport.
The 'Austerity' Tank engines and their diesel successors were adorned with names like "Sapper", "Greensleeves", "Storeman", "Royal Pioneer" – trades associated with the Depot itself. For many years the Depot lovingly maintained the very last of the tank engines, "Sapper", which was often steamed for visiting V.I.Ps. In the end it had to go, but in true Army tradition "Sapper" soldiers on, a regular engine on the Kent and East Sussex Railway at Tenterden. These days it carries the name "Northiam".
Large 0-8-0 Diesels eventually replaced the tank engines, they in turn being replaced by diminutive 0-4-0 -Diesels which appear to have a belt drive! One wonders where the wind-up key is inserted! With a very streamlined road freight service operating in all directions from the Depot there is now not quite so much work for the rail system, but happily it should be an intriguing railway outpost for some time to come yet.