Electrification details

March 2nd, 2014

Last week’s Rail Magazine has a big feature on rail electrification projects in England, concentrating mostly on the “Electric Spine” project to provide an electric route between the Midlands and south Yorkshire and Southampton Docks. The article explains that there is programme funding for electrification work over at least a decade, and that it’s likely that various additional “infill” electrification projects will happen alongside the main “spine” that was announced in 2012. Network Rail have been asked to look at “connectivity to ports and airports” in general, and specifically to consider an electric route between Felixtowe and the West Midlands. This is exciting from a Cambridge perspective because it offers the prospect of much-improved connectivity across the Fens – there’s potential for electric services between Ely and Ipswich, as well as an all-electric service from Ely to Peterborough via March. The latter will make the Cambridge route into an electrified loop off the East Coast Main Line, which opens up potential for direct electric services between Cambridge and North East England.

The article also mentions the Oxford-Bletchley-Bedford East West Rail project, saying that the priority is to open the Oxford-Bletchley section in the spring of 2019 – suggesting that the EWR project is either already running late or will open in 2017 as planned with a more limited diesel-powered service. The Bedford-Bletchley electrification is apparently proving quite challenging and may well be put back beyond 2019. Likewise, the Oxford-Coventry electrification is likely to take place well after 2019 as it’s deemed less of a priority.

Whilst the delays to EWR are a little demoralising, I’m encouraged that Network Rail are being encouraged to look at electrification a lot more widely, and that opens up a lot of new opportunities for rail services.

House sale plaudits

February 5th, 2014

Our house sale completed on Monday – goodbye, Oxford! I’ll miss the lively atmosphere and convenience of Cowley Road, though I suspect that my waistline will benefit from not having quite such easy access to supermarkets and restaurants.

Now the sale’s over, I’m going to give out my customary plaudits to the firms we used for our move.

Firstly, the estate agents: Breckon and Breckon, who were constantly helpful and professional, responded well to emails and phonecalls, handled all the bidders, supervised all the viewings, took decent photographs and even arranged for extra surveys and quotations on behalf of the buyers. In short, they did everything possible to make the process straightforward, so thanks very much to Jenny, Julie, Ellie and the rest of the team there.

Secondly, our solicitor: Chris Wingfield from Woodfines‘ Cambridge office, who handled our conveyancing last time. Again, excellent on email and managed to keep us up to date with everything without needing to be chased.

Finally, the removers: A G Jacob & Sons (they must get a lot of renditions of this song – but I resisted, just!) who quoted sensible prices for removals and storage and would supply packaging and do all the packing for £150 extra. Steve, Melvin and the team were courteous and helpful and very efficient. They’ve got all our stuff in storage down in Wallingford and we’ll probably see it again in a couple of months. I would strongly recommend that if you have enough furniture to need a full-service remover that you pay extra for packing – it doesn’t add a lot to the cost and massively reduces the levels of stress and hassle beforehand. In fact, you’d probably pay almost as much just for the packing materials if you bought them yourself.

The house purchase process grinds on slowly, with pretty much all the delays being caused by Clydesdale Bank, whose business process is so slow it makes most glaciers look positively rapid by comparison. They are at least helpful when I speak to them, and I don’t have to deal with them via the execrable London & Country Mortgages this time – Clydesdale’s mortgage team answer the phone on the second or third ring, which is more than L&C ever did. But we’re now into the fourth week since we had our offer accepted – two weeks were spent waiting for Clydesdale to give us an appointment to discuss the mortgage, and I’m told that the necessary forms and paperwork have been finished today and should be with me tomorrow. However, their process apparently can take up to another eight weeks from them receiving these forms before the mortgage is ready to draw down. The vendors are already getting shirty with us (via their estate agents), which is exactly what happened last time. I’m only sticking with Clydesdale because it’ll cost me £8k in early repayment penalties to go to someone else, and because they at least are prepared to give us a mortgage when we’ve both just changed jobs, which it seems a number of other lenders have a problem with. But generally, don’t touch them with a bargepole. I don’t own a bargepole any more, but I might just buy a new one so that I can not touch them with it. Let’s hope we inch forward a little bit in the next few days.

Oxford railway improvements 2013-2020

October 20th, 2013

Oxford and the surrounding area are about to experience a massive shakeup in railway services, and I thought I’d try and draw all this together into one simple summary. Things are going to get better, though they may get worse first!

Oxford to Bicester

Let’s start with the project that will affect Oxford soonest. Chiltern Railways are about to start work on their new route from London to Oxford. The line between Oxford and Bicester Town via Islip will close in February 2014 in order for a major upgrade to take place. The line is due to be completely relaid, and the section from Wolvercote to Bicester will be upgraded to double track. Bicester Town station (which also confusingly serves the Bicester Village outlet mall) is going to be completely rebuilt. A new piece of line (a “chord” in railway jargon) will be built in Bicester to link the line from Oxford with the main line to London. A brand new station, to be called Oxford Parkway, will be built next to the Water Eaton P&R site near Kidlington, with the car park site being expanded considerably. Oxford Parkway will open in the summer of 2015 as the temporary terminus of the line, with the line connecting to Oxford’s main station in the spring of 2016. Chiltern are planning to offer an Oxford – Bicester – High Wycombe – London Marylebone rail service with a journey time of 66 minutes. This compares favourably with the current 58 minute journey time to Paddington via Reading. Chiltern’s service will undoubtedly be cheaper to compensate for the slightly longer journey time.

Electric services to Paddington

On the main line to Paddington services are also being improved – the line will be electrified by the end of 2016, and the existing 90mph Class 165 trains will be replaced with 100mph Class 319 electric trains. This should shave a few minutes off the journey time and result in a much quieter ride. Trains from Paddington to Bristol will be electrified at the same time, and the wires will eventually reach Cardiff and Swansea.

Oxford station improvements

Oxford station will undergo a thorough remodelling. Extra platforms will be provided next to the short-stay car park for Chiltern’s service from Marylebone, and it seems likely that another new platform will be built on the south side of Botley Road (in what’s now the long-stay car park), with a new connecting footbridge to the station building. It seems likely that the exisiting rail bridge over Botley Road will need to be made wider to accommodate additional railway lines, and I’ve heard rumours that the span will be widened to make more space for vehicles, cycles and pedestrians passing beneath it. These improvements are due to finish in 2016.

East West Rail – Oxford and Bicester to Milton Keynes and Bedford

The East West Rail project, currently in the advanced design stage, will open in December 2017. The abandoned line from Bicester to Bletchley will be reopened as a double-track, 100mph line, meaning that Oxford will have a direct rail service to Milton Keynes in 40 minutes, and to Bedford in 60 minutes. It is likely that some of these services will start from Reading or Didcot. Only one new station will be opened on this line – at Winslow in Buckinghamshire. This line is due to be electrified – the Oxford to Milton Keynes route will be electrified during construction, but the section between Bedford and Bletchley will be electrifed by 2019. The line did used to carry on to Cambridge, but this section has been built on, and early feasibility studies are underway to consider building an entirely new line between Bedford and Cambridge. However, travel to Cambridge will get much quicker, as a 60 minute train ride to Bedford can then be followed by a 60 minute coach ride to Cambridge. This compares with a 3.5 hr coach ride on the X5 at present, and a 2.5hr journey time by train via London. An additional part of this scheme is a connection to Aylesbury (and onwards to Marylebone) from Milton Keynes.

Electric services to Banbury, Leamington and Coventry

The line north of Oxford will be electrified by 2019, with the wires continuing to Banbury, Leamington, Coventry and Nuneaton. This is being done mostly to allow freight trains from Southampton Docks to run to the Midlands, Northern England and Scotland under electric power. It’s likely that the CrossCountry passenger services that pass through Oxford will switch to electric trains once this is completed.

Other bits and pieces

There’s a strong possibility that there will be a new service running from the South to the East Midlands and South Yorkshire, using the new Oxford-Bedford line. This might start at Southampton or Reading and run to Leicester, Derby or Sheffield, as all these routes will be electrified by 2020.

A project is in the design stage to construct a west-facing connection to Heathrow Airport. This will give Reading a direct service to Heathrow (replacing the execrable RailAir coach) and could potentially allow services to Heathrow from further afield, including Oxford. It’s most likely that the service will operate as  a Reading-Heathrow shuttle, or possibly a Reading-Heathrow-Crossrail route.


  • Feb 2014 – Oxford-Islip-Bicester Town service replaced by buses
  • Summer 2015 – Oxford Parkway opens. Oxford Parkway – Islip – Bicester – High Wycombe – London Marylebone service starts
  • Spring 2016 – Oxford – Bicester – High Wycombe – London Marylebone service starts
  • December 2016 – Oxford – Reading – Paddington electrification complete, introduction of electric services on this route. Oxford station remodelling complete
  • December 2017 – Oxford-Bicester-Milton Keynes and Oxford-Bicester-Bedford services start
  • December 2019 – Oxford-Bedford service electrified. Oxford – Banbury – Leamington – Coventry electrified

Letting agent fees – write to your MP!

June 12th, 2012

When we moved to Oxford, we rented a flat. We found one we liked at a price we were prepared to pay. When we said “we’ll take it” to the letting agent, he said “that’ll be £210 in fees to secure the tenancy”. A couple of hours later he rang back: “Sorry, I should have explained – that’ll be £210 *each*”. What do you do for us, for this sum, I asked. “Oh, we draw up a contract, make sure that the place is fit for you to move in…” Oh, so all the things you ought to be doing anyway. Right. I was incandescent, but we paid. Adding insult to injury, the agent *didn’t* actually do their job properly and our moving-in had to be postponed by a week because the gas inspector (who’d seen the flat literally the Friday before were due to move in on the Monday) condemned the boiler installation and it took a week for the gas fitters to rectify it…

Now it’s payback time. I’ve written to my local (Labour) MP, suggesting that the government make this practice illegal in England & Wales. It already is illegal in Scotland. Here’s the letter that I wrote (with a few personal details removed). If you feel similarly about this issue, please write to your MP – the excellent WriteToThem.com will let you do this quickly and easily.

Here’s the letter I wrote. Please don’t copy it verbatim.

Dear Andrew Smith,

I’ve recently changed jobs and moved to Oxford, becoming a constituent
of yours. My partner and I initially rented a flat in Headington,
although we’ve now just bought a house in . Anyway, my
enquiry to you stems from our experience as tenants in Oxford. The
market for rented property is extremely busy, with high levels of
demand, and a large number of letting agencies operate within the city.
I was stunned to discover that the agency expected us to pay an upfront
fee to secure a tenancy on a rented flat – in fact, they wanted £210
from each of us – and checked up on whether this was a common practice.
It is, apparently, extremely common in England – but it is illegal in
Scotland. I last rented a house in London in 2005, and at that time
tenancy fees were not routinely charged by any of the agencies I dealt

I feel strongly that a letting agent is appointed by the landlord, and
acts in the landlord’s interests. They should therefore not be allowed
to charge the tenant a fee – as the tenants are not operating in a free
market. This situation is compounded by the fact that no agencies
include the associated fees in their online advertising – you only
find out exactly what fees they are charging once you make more
detailed enquiries.

Furthermore, the changes introduced by the last Labour administration
to provide statutory deposit protection have also contributed to fees
charged to tenants. There are three deposit protection schemes: one is
free, but keeps the money in escrow. The other two are insurance
schemes, which allow the landlord or agent to keep the deposit and
resulting interest themselves – these charge a fee for the deposit
management service. Our agency (and it seems that this is also common
practice) charged us an additional fee of £30 on top of the £420 we
paid up front in order to cover the cost of the deposit management. So,
as tenants we benefit from knowing that the deposit protection scheme
will ensure that our deposit is returned, but we are expected to cover
the agent’s costs in using an insurance-based deposit protection scheme
that allows them to profit from the interest on our deposit! Again, we
have no choice in the matter: the agency chooses to operate in this

I would suggest to you that in the present financial climate, with
increasing demands on the private rented housing sector, that
unscrupulous exploitation by letting agents is likely to become ever
more common. A manifesto commitment to prohibit agents charging any
fees to tenants in England and Wales would undoubtedly be very popular.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Prior-Jones

Moving house: the good, the bad and the ugly

May 14th, 2012

The next nail-biting instalment of our ongoing attempt to buy a house in Oxford… are you sitting comfortably?

Since my last blog entry on March 8th, the whole process has moved on quite a lot, but every so slowly… we still don’t have a house, and only got the final mortgage offer three days ago.

So, let’s start with the Good, and the award here goes to the Cambridge estate agents Pocock & Shaw, who were (to us) always friendly and helpful. Kevin Burt-Gray showed up on New Year’s Eve morning (a Saturday) to look at the house, made a sensible valuation bearing in mind that we wanted to move quickly and said that he’d expect us to be sold subject-to-contract within two weeks of going on the market. And that is indeed what happened – a flurry of offers resulted in us selling the house to a BTL investor for £500 more than we’d advertised for. Much, much later on – after the sale completed (a bit of a mad scramble in itself) – Kevin continued to take an interest and helped us get meter readings from the new owner, as we’d neglected to take them ourselves before leaving! So yes, good estate agents *do* exist…

I’ll put in good mentions here for Chris Wingfield, of Woodfines – our solicitor – and for Fulcher’s Removals – both of whom have been consistently friendly and helpful. I’ll write full recommendations when we’ve finished our business with them.

The Bad: I’m afraid I have to say that I am underwhelmed by London & Country, the mortgage brokers. They are a no-fee, telephone service, and their sales operation is extremely efficient and helpful. However, the follow-up left quite a lot to be desired: there’s a “case manager” who liaises with the bank, and now that banks are a lot more picky, the case manager’s workloads have shot up. Our case manager was very helpful when I spoke to him, but getting through to him was nearly impossible. I fear that L&C’s business model is gradually becoming unsustainable as hassling the banks is going to take up more and more of their time. I’m not inclined to use them again.

The Ugly: Clydesdale Bank – don’t touch them with the proverbial bargepole! Clydesdale are the lenders that L&C recommended – for two reasons: firstly, they had one of the best rates on the market at the time; and secondly because they do their underwriting “by hand” and therefore it’s possible to explain unusual circumstances to the underwriters, where other lenders would just have said “computer says no”. Our recent changes of job, my recent period as a grad student and the fact that Mike isn’t a British citizen have all put other lenders off us – in fact I got a flat “computer says no” rejection from Yorkshire Build Society’s online system – and so we went along with Clydesdale. However, they are slow. Slower than you can possibly imagine. From us putting in an offer to a survey being conducted on the house took two months – admittedly, two weeks of that were a postal delay which was my fault – but then post-survey they faffed about and eventually we were told that a specialist damp survey was required, which took time to arrange and for the surveyor to make his report. By the time the survey was completed, Clydesdale’s computer system had closed our case due to lack of progress! It took a week for them to reinstate the case and get it going again. I complained vigorously to both Clydesdale and L&C, each have blamed the other. The vendors got fed up and put the house back on the market. Now, 3-and-a-half months after we first applied for the mortgage, do we have a mortgage offer. Never again!

The relocation game

March 8th, 2012

After four-and-a-half years in Cambridge, I’ve moved to Oxford. Plus ca change, plus ca c’est la meme chose, perhaps – Oxford is like Cambridge but more so (no doubt some might say that one is a pale imitation of the other…) – the university is even older, even more full of bizaare jargon and traditions (Christ Church College keeps “old Oxford” solar time rather than the newfangled Greenwich time that was imposed on them by the coming of the railways), and the city is bigger, with broader streets.

I’m working for Sharp Laboratories of Europe, a big box of boffins an R&D department out on the Science Park. (Is it me, or should the term Science Park refer to a lively outdoor space where children can play with particle accelerators? Sorry…)

Part of the package of benefits offered by the firm is relocation – a wodge of money designed to offset the cost of moving. HMRC very kindly allow you to take the first £8000 of relocation expenses tax-free, as long as you claim them before the end of the tax year after the one in which you take the job. This is slightly daft, because it means that if you join a company on April 7th (one day into the tax year) you have two years to claim your relocation allowance, whereas if you start your new job on April 5th, you have only one year. Anyway, my contract started at the end of February 2012, so I have until April 2013 to claim the money.

Knowing this, we cracked on with trying to buy a house in Oxford. As it happens, we found somewhere we like very quickly, and had an offer accepted. We were also very fortunate that the house in Cambridge sold very quickly. But it did surprise me how much everything costs – the stamp duty on the new house in Oxford exceeds the £8k relocation allowance all on its own! Even just taking the legal fees, removal costs and agent’s fees there’s barely going to be much change.

A few notes of warning: in the present financial climate, mortgage lenders are becoming ever more finicky about their terms and conditions. This makes relocation quite tricky. Some things to watch out for: most lenders will not lend to you during any “probationary period” in your contract – which may be as much as six months. If you haven’t had a steady job with the same employer for the past few years, they may ask to see copies of your previous contracts of employment. This can result in a hectic paperchase, further complicated by the fact that all of these documents have to be presented as originals, which means posting them. Don’t do as I did and accidentally send off a bunch of papers with insufficient postage (contracts are printed on thick paper, and are thus quite heavy…) only to have them impounded by the Royal Mail – it can take up to two weeks for them to be released from custody!

We’re currently waiting for the decision from the mortgage lender, the survey and then the final round of negotiating.