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

An ideal environment for research

October 5th, 2013

I’ve been very fortunate to work in a number of research institutions over the years. These are places set up specifically for people to work on new discoveries and developments – in my case, mostly in engineering, though it applies equally to many other fields. I really, really love good research institutions, and this evening I’ve been musing on what would make an ideal one. Here are my thoughts.

Firstly, you want the right people. It is, after all, mostly about the people. You want people that are interested and committed, and who have a varied range of skills and experiences. You’ll want several flavours of researcher from different fields, and then to support them with enthusiastic and helpful support staff. However, don’t employ too many – I think that about 200 people is the largest practical size. Why?

Firstly, geography – you can fit 200 people and all their stuff into one sprawling building, or a cluster of interlinked ones. You really don’t want to be having more than one building, or worse a split site with half the institution several miles down the road. This results in two institutions and not one. Most people can get to know 200 people and remember their names (mostly) within a year or two, given the right environment. Any bigger than this and you start to think of your colleagues as functions (“Purchasing”, “Geophysics”, “IT Support”) rather than as people, which really hinders collaboration.

If possible, you should provide opportunities for people to have casual conversations. These provide the vital cross-connections between people working in different offices. The key to ensuring casual conversations are two concepts from the world of retail – footfall and dwell time. Footfall is the number of people who pass through a space. If all your offices radiate from a central lobby, that lobby will always have high footfall as people move about the building, making it more likely that two people will meet in the lobby. However, if your offices are arranged into corridors by department, with the corridors interconnected at the central lobby, most people will only move about within their departmental corridor and the central lobby will be mostly quiet. In this situation, you can improve the chances of people meeting by increasing the dwell time in the central lobby. Put a coffee machine, a tea kettle. or a water cooler, and some chairs and tables in the lobby. People passing through will be encouraged to stop by, and people wanting coffee or water will come to the lobby deliberately and hang around. Increased dwell times mean more casual conversations.

Another great place to have casual conversations is in the canteen. You should definitely have a canteen – you don’t want your staff to disperse at lunchtime and not talk to one another, or worse to sit in their offices eating packed lunches whilst surfing the web. You should offer a choice of various types of food. You should allow people to eat their packed lunches in the canteen if they’d rather bring their own. You should have only just enough chairs and tables, so that people have to sit with other people that they don’t know when the place is busy. I think that having rectangular tables that seat four, that can easily be moved around, should be encouraged – these tend to then form a few long refectory tables for the gregarious types, whilst also providing quieter tables elsewhere. Make sure that the food is good and not too expensive. Make sure your catering staff are enthused and motivated – and perhaps even consider employing them directly rather than contracting out. For bonus canteen action, serve breakfast snacks mid morning and cake in the afternoon to encourage people to go, eat, talk and discuss their work with one another. If possible, make your canteen a through space, with multiple entrances to different parts of the building, so that it forms a natural meeting-place.

Now, the introverts reading this will say “but I need a place to think!” which is indeed very true. People need space to think and concentrate at times, without distractions. So, I’d recommend that you provide a number of tiny “carrels” – little quiet rooms with a desk and a chair and plenty of light – that people can book to use when they need a small, private space to work. Providing access to carrels means that you can continue to put your staff in shared offices – perhaps 3-4 to an office – which makes for better group-working than individual offices.

You’re also going to want meeting rooms of various sizes. Again, make these bookable by everyone, rather than reserving them for particular departments.

Now, on to the thorny topic of support staff. There’s always a reticence to employ support staff because they’re a “fixed cost” and seen as “not contributing directly” to research output. This is a fallacy. You have brilliant researchers, you want to enable them to do stuff they’re good at and give the stuff they are lousy at to other people that are better at it. Speaking as an engineer, I would strongly recommend that scientists are discouraged from building their own equipment without help from engineers! Huge amounts of time and resource can be wasted while people reinvent wheels or build Heath Robinson apparatus because they’re unaware of techniques or equipment that come from other fields. Likewise, good technicians are worth their weight in gold. Good mechanical technicians can make things out of bits of metal in an afternoon that would take me a week. Good electronic technicians can wire up cabinets neatly, and solder delicate components without damaging them. Employ good technicians, pay them properly, make them feel valued.

Give your research staff a briefing on how to use the support departments effectively. This isn’t rocket science, but a surprising number of people don’t get it.  The simple rules for dealing with support departments are:

  • Be polite.
  • Ask nicely.
  • Explain clearly what you want, and when you want it by.
  • Be reasonable.
  • Say thankyou afterwards.

If you do this as a researcher, you will find that your support staff will go the extra mile to help you when you find yourself in a difficult situation. If you take them for granted, they’ll get jobsworthy.

As a manager, please don’t ask your support departments to charge internally for their time. This causes two levels of evil – firstly, the researchers go “how much!?” and then try to do the support task themselves badly, or circumvent it by some other method to avoid paying. Secondly, your support departments become less helpful, because the response to “can you help me with this?” becomes “what’s your charge code? it’ll cost you!”. By all means have your support staff keep job logs, so you can see which individuals/departments are making heavy demands on support departments if you think they are being abused.

Information is the lifeblood of research. You need to know what is being done elsewhere, and also crucially what has been done in your institution in the past. So, you need access to books, journals and conference proceedings. A lot can be obtained electronically but you probably will still need a library to keep physical media in. This also provides another useful quiet workspace. Please have everything in some sort of electronic catalogue or portal page so that staff can easily find out whether the institution has access to the particular paper they’re looking for. Consider partnering with a university library to buy information services from them, or to allow your staff to have “visiting scholar” access if required.

Almost as critically, make sure that you retain information within your institution. Knowledge that doesn’t get published in peer-reviewed journals should nevertheless be held onto within an internal publishing system. I’m strongly in favour of the BBC’s system for doing this, which is called the Technical Note. TNs can pretty much contain any content you like and be of any length, though most are 10-30 A4 pages. When a member of staff writes a TN, it is signed off by their Head of Group and circulated to all the other senior managers and anyone else involved in the work. It is also archived and catalogued. The distribution of TNs ensures that information flows between departments, via the managers, and crucially provides some helpful validation for the researcher in question when senior people meet them in the corridor and say “Oh, I found your TN very interesting!”. TNs are also a convenient, measurable deliverable thing that results from any piece of work – a few hours of exploratory research, a new proposal, the outcome of a brainstorm – all these things can be captured, archived, and distributed around the institution.

Provide great facilities, the best that you can afford. Make sure someone take responsibility for looking after them – research labs often suffer “crisis of commons” effects where valuable equipment gets damaged through lack of experience and training. Provide “general” lab space, and make sure that you avoid departmental turf wars over lab and bench space. If you are constrained for lab space (and who isn’t?), I suggest a leasing system – a bench is “leased” to one project for a given period (weeks or months) and the lease is then reviewed when it “expires”. If the project is continuing, a new lease can be issued. This avoids the problem of dead projects squatting facilities that are needed for new ones. Some sort of “warm storage” facility would be nice – then you can put equipment into store that may not be used for a few months, rather than have it sit there gathering dust in the lab.

Administration is necessary and helpful, and admin people should not be looked down upon as lesser beings. On the other hand, you should not allow your administrators to dictate business processes for their own benefit! Make your purchasing and budgeting systems streamlined. If possible, provide regular updates to budget holders about how much money they have committed from their budget to purchase requests and how much has actually been paid out against invoices. Most accounting systems I’ve seen only keep track of payments and not budgets, so nearly every manager I’ve ever worked for has run some sort of parallel accounting system in Excel to work out how much budget they have left. This is a waste of everyone’s time – build the budgeting into the purchasing system and make it work for everyone. Train your research staff in how to interact with the admin and business processes, and make sure you have guides to common procedures in a staff handbook or on an intranet.

To summarise – hire awesome people, help them work together, with excellent facilities and well-thought-out processes. Produce excellent research. Profit!