Rail’s past and future
RICHARD FOSTER visits the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre at Quainton, where volunteers are bracing themselves for great changes with both HS2 and East West Rail due to carve a path through the site
With HS2 and East West Rail on the horizon, the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre is gearing up for big changes.
The June sun beats down on the green and pleasant hills and fields of Buckinghamshire. The lane’s grey asphalt gives off a slight heat haze. There’s a bustle from the hedgerows. Only the shriek of a circling red kite and the occasional passing car disturbs the peace.
Over the next few years, this quintessential English scene will be changed forever, as bulldozers and earthmovers push Britain’s newest railway line north. It can certainly make you empathise with those anti-HS2 protestors, as you drive around the lanes and through the quaint villages between Aylesbury and Buckingham. And yet there is one place in Buckinghamshire that is positively embracing the opportunities that HS2 brings.
This part of England has always been prime railway building territory - HS2 is just another twist in a tale that dates back to the 1860s, when Sir Edward Watkin had a vision: bringing trains from France through a tunnel under the English Channel to the industrial North West via a high-speed railway. Sound familiar? Watkin was chairman of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway (MSLR) and pushed its main line south to London. The MSLR rechristened itself the Great Central Railway, and its London Extension (via Nottingham, Leicester and Rugby) opened to passengers on March 15 1899.
North from the little village of Quainton, the London Extension was new, built to Berne loading gauge and with a ruling grade of 1-in-176 for high speed. Until the opening of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (HS1) in 2007, it was the last main line to London to be built in the UK.
South from Quainton, things get interesting. The Aylesbury & Buckingham Railway had opened between Aylesbury and Verney Junction (on the Oxford-Bletchley line) in 1868. The Metropolitan Railway eventually linked Aylesbury with central London, and took over the A&BR. The tiny hamlet of Verney Junction now had a direct railway link to central London.
Watkin was also chairman of the Metropolitan (and the South Eastern Railway, the other link in his Anglo-French railway chain). The GCR made an end-on connection with the Metropolitan at Quainton Road, and had running powers to access its new London terminus at Marylebone.
Met trains north of Quainton turned right towards Verney Junction; Great Central trains continued straight on to Calvert and the North.
Quainton Road station acquired further railway significance with a railway to the west. The Brill Tramway was built by the Duke of Buckingham, and thanks to its connection to the Met/GC Joint, it became part of London Transport in 1933.
It’s hard to conceive that the operator of a slick, underground electric railway that moved millions of people also had a rural branch line, with track so light that the only locomotives suitable to work it were Victorian 4-4-0Ts of 1860s vintage. In the event, London Transport’s ownership was short-lived - it closed the Brill Tramway in 1935.
Buckinghamshire Railway Centre (BRC) is the only place that can tell this story
From our visitor feedback and from our membership feedback, just having the three demonstration lines is being perceived as not being sufficient for us to be seen to be taken seriously. Ben Jackson, Chairman, Quainton Railway Society
properly, and this is why it’s embracing the opportunities that HS2 - and East West Rail - bring. In fact, both projects could finally provide the key to unlocking a dream that’s been 50 years in the making.
HS2 will change BRC forever. It will cut across a field a few hundred yards away, a field that the centre uses as an overflow car park. But rather than taking a NIMBY-esque attitude, Quainton Railway Society Chairman Ben Jackson sees HS2 as a way to provide a railway attraction like no other.
“We have to meet head-on the opportunities presented by having East West Rail coming through the middle and HS2 round the side,” he says.
“My belief is that this will make us the only location in the UK where you can see 21st century electrics, 21st century diesels and Victorian steam side by side.”
Being able to see HS2 trains from a Victorian station will enable BRC to tell the full story of railway development - not only in this part of the country, but also nationwide, in a way that nowhere else can, even at the National Railway Museum. It will be unique. But that uniqueness comes at a price. The London Extension closed as a through route on September 3 1966, and the majority of stations were demolished after the tracks had been removed. Quainton Road received a stay of execution because BR retained the line between Aylesbury and Calvert as a diversionary route, thanks to a connection with the Oxford-Bletchley line.
The latter would eventually be mothballed, but the transformation of the huge clay pits at Calvert into a rubbish tip means that the line through Quainton Road continues to accommodate heavy freight trains.
Quainton Railway Society (QRS) was formed in 1969 to create a working museum on the station site. It later absorbed the London branch of the Railway Preservation Society, which had historic locomotives and coaches squirreled away in Bishop’s Stortford and Luton. From both organisations, Buckinghamshire Railway Centre (BRC) was born.
‘Railway Centre’ was a term that originated from the early days of railway preservation. It was an alternative to a museum without the cost and expense of forming a fully fledged railway. Steam locomotives could run on short demonstration lines in between operating main line railtours.
Quainton Road was an ideal location. There were extensive goods yards, and the redundant Brill Tramway platform made an ideal station. It was also expected that BRC would (in due course) be able to connect to the remains of the Met/GC Joint.
However, that dream never materialised, and the locomotives restored on-site can only potter up and down the short demonstration lines. And, frustratingly, the Up and Down yards are completely isolated from each other - to move a locomotive across the site requires hiring in a low-loader, even though the two yards are just yards apart.
HS2 will cut straight across the former Brill Tramway trackbed, killing BRC’s long-held ambition to reinstate part of the line.
This will be compounded by East West Rail. Everyone knows that EWR is working towards reopening the mothballed (and very overgrown) Oxford-Bletchley line. But it’s often forgotten that its plans also include rejuvenating the line to Aylesbury through Quainton Road’s platforms.
So, on the eve of the QRS’s 50th anniversary, it’s still stuck at Quainton Road!
However, that’s not to say that the BRC hasn’t done anything in the last half-century. Far from it. It took over the former food depot and created a superb museum within the wartime buildings, to tell the story of the area’s fascinating railway history. It has gained the museum accreditation that goes with it. It’s also re-created the country station so beloved of Sir John Betjeman - not only by conserving and restoring the Grade 2-listed building, but also by restoring the cattle dock, complete with cattle van (and replica cow).
Its workshops have restored everything from Victorian wooden-bodied four-wheel coaches to mighty GWR 4-6-0s. And both the London Transport Museum and the National Railway Museum have loaned BRC two priceless exhibits - the 1872 Aveling & Porter 4wTG that originally worked the Brill Tramway and LNWR 2-2-2 3020 Cornwall respectively.
But the BRC’s greatest coup was the acquisition and restoration of the former Oxford Rewley Road station building. This impressive trainshed was the Oxford terminus of the line from Bletchley, and it was moved and re-erected in 1999-2000 to provide not only a display area for restored rolling stock, but also an impressive feature that welcomes visitors onto the site.
However, even this doesn’t seem to be enough, as Jackson explains: “From our visitor feedback and from our membership feedback, just having the three demonstration lines is being perceived as not being sufficient for us to be seen to be taken seriously, even though we have museum accreditation.”
To be taken more seriously, it appears, BRC needs to run trains over a longer distance. But both HS2 and EWR mean that extensions north, south and west are out of the question… which leaves north-east.
“We are effectively left with the potential option of down the old Aylesbury & Buckingham Railway,” says Jackson. “It’s very easy to look as though we have lots of grand plans, but I do believe that we are getting to the point where we can make some inroads and progress.”
The imminent arrival of both HS2 and EWR means that the timing really is right for BRC to form what Jackson calls an “escape committee”. And there’s another reason why reopening part of the A&BR is a favourable one: BRC owns the trackbed from the Quainton Road north for about one mile.
“We are in early-stage conversations with Network Rail about being allowed to run from the bridge into the site. Quite how that track layout goes and where it will enter the site is all part of those conversations,” says Jackson.
“We have a team here who are very keen to get on with clearing the trackbed, and I’m having to rein them in because obviously it runs parallel to and is not fenced off from the live Network Rail line.
“Until such point as we have some kind of paperwork and all the processes in place with NR, we can’t give them the green light - even to go hacking back the vegetation.
“But they are desperately keen to get on with it. They are all local, all from the village [Quainton], which is great because it means that the village is going to have buy-in [with the project]. And we are also hopeful that they can do some positive PR work with other land owners to help us go further.” How far? “At this point, our aspirations are not to go as far as Verney Junction. I have to be honest about that. A couple of miles - even a mile - would be seriously better than what we have at the moment. I have very little doubt in my mind that the team of people we start this with are not going to be the people who see the end of it. Whoever comes after us might say ‘well, maybe we could get another half-mile’, and suddenly you find you are at Verney Junction. But that isn’t the aspiration at the moment.”
Expansion might bring many benefits, but Jackson is also mindful that anything more will place a strain on the centre’s resources.
“We then have to look at how do we operate [an extension]. Do we operate it on a ‘one engine in steam’ basis? Where do we find the rolling stock for it? Do we operate that and our demonstration lines as well?
“One of the things I like, and I know a lot of the family visitors we get like, about here is that our ride is quite short. It’s about 15 to 20 minutes, which if you have small children is plenty long enough. And we don’t limit them to just one ride, whereas that [extension] might have to limit them to one ride.”
Then there are the two key factors that
The remains of Verney Junction station. East West Rail will run trains through here but Buckinghamshire Railway Centre has no plans to do so in the immediate future.
always affect any railway preservation project: finding the volunteer labour, and finding money.
Says Jackson: “I seem to remember reading that even preserved lines are costing new track at about £1 million per mile, so if we’re talking about a mile, a mile and a half, we’re looking at £1.5m to £ 2m, allowing for a bit for inflation.
“And securing second-hand reusable sleepers and rail is becoming more and more difficult, particularly with Network Rail having the sort of mandate that everything reusable should be reused. But, again, it’s looking at what it can do to help us.”
It’s slightly ironic, given the furore that surrounds HS2 and its impact on the landscape, that East West Rail is arguably going to have a greater visual effect on Quainton Road.
Although the track through the platforms has been singled, the station looks much as it has done since it opened in 1898, thanks to some sympathetic restoration. But East West Rail means that fences will have to be erected along the platforms.
Jackson explains: “This location has been identified as a high suicide risk in the preplanning, and so bridges and platform edges are going to be altered. We are going to lose that quintessential country station look.
“EWR seems to grasp the historic nature of the site. Again, they’re aware that it’s Grade 2-listed. We’re having conversations about the style of the fencing on the platforms and the colour.”
South Western Railway’s Saturdays-only service to Corfe Castle on the Swanage Railway and Great Western Railway’s Sundays-only service to Okehampton suggests that there is a desire to forge closer
links between main line train operating companies and preserved railways. Does Jackson foresee East West Rail trains bringing tourists to Buckinghamshire Railway Centre’s door?
“Not at this point,” he says. “I’m hopeful that there will be an understanding within the design of what East West Rail does to be advantageous, to have the opportunity for excursions to call here.
“If, in five years’ time, EWR wants to introduce a stopping service, then the fence needs to be reversible. But fencing is reversible.”
East West Rail has also put paid to any BRC ambitions for either a main line connection or a physical rail link between both its Up and Down yards.
Anyone who has ever had any building work done at home knows how disruptive it can be. But Buckinghamshire Railway Centre is facing two lots of extensive building work. It could lose its car park anytime within “the next 18 months to two years”, Jackson says.
East West Rail is “a bit of a shifting sand”, and Jackson believes that work through Quainton won’t start until the restoration of Bicester to Bletchley is complete.
“That isn’t likely to start in earnest until spring next year. We’re probably looking three to four years down the line, possibly 2023-24. But then we don’t know how that’s going to interface with HS2. Worst-case scenario is that they’re both here at the same time!”
HS2 brings another challenge. Station Road, which crosses the railway just north of the station, is to be severed and the road diverted via a new bridge, taking away passing traffic.
“We have to look at how we overcome that challenge,” Jackson concludes. “That’s possibly enhanced signage, and certainly traditional and online marketing. Most of all, we have to make sure that we have the stuff here that gives an all-round visitor experience.”
The Quainton Road site looking towards Aylesbury, with the Grade 2-listed station flanking the single line to Calvert. The restored Oxford Rewley Road trainshed dominates the scene. The track between the platforms will be restored as part of East West Rail’s branch to Aylesbury.
‘Black Five’ 44920 speeds through Quainton Road station with a northbound train on the Great Central’s London Extension, during the summer of 1966. Although the London Extension closed as a through route on September 3, the goods yard still looks to generate a decent amount of traffic.
A Heritage Lottery Fund grant enabled Buckinghamshire Railway Centre to buy the former Ministry of Food Buffer Depot adjacent to Quainton Road in 1997. It now houses the centre’s extensive museum and rolling stock restoration facilities. HS2 will change this view for ever - although visitors will be able to compare 21st century trains with Victorian ones.
The former GC London Extension looking north. It is hoped that preserved trains will share this formation with EWR trains for a short distance, although how this arrangement may look is still in the early stages of discussion.
The downside to East West Rail: the 1930s atmosphere at Quainton Road will be spoilt by new fencing, to prevent suicides on East West Rail. The former Brill platform building could be sympathetically modified to still enable full access after the fence is erected.
Parallel steam at Buckinghamshire Railway Centre: Hunslet 0-6-0ST 2387/43 Brookes No.1 and WR ‘94XX’ 0-6-0PT 9466 work Down yard demonstration line as Sentinel 4wVBT 9366/45 is in charge of trains on the Up yard line. Imagine the scene in a few years’ time: East West Rail units on the centre track and HS2 trains to the far right. STEAMRAILWAY.