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GWR Castle Class 5043 "Earl of Mount Edgcumbe", heads out of Evesham towards Moreton-in-the-Marsh with the first steam tour on the newly-redoubled line between the two towns, on the 17th September, 2011. (photograph by John Kyte - the author was on his way home from Swanage, Dorset at this point, and so wasn't able get any of his own photographs of this tour)
When I started this site nearly two decades ago, the future of the Vale's railways was perhaps not a positive as it is today. Only the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway was making any obvious progress; the Cotswold Line was forever being subject to suggestions of redoubling, which tended to die away when the issue of cost was raised. There was talk of relaying the line south of Stratford-upon-Avon back to Honeybourne, but that was all it ever remained - talk (I'll come back to this subject later). So what might the future hold for the "Railways of the Vale of Evesham"?
As far as the Redditch to Ashchurch and Stratford and Midland Junction Railways are concerned, they are almost certainly gone forever. The trackbed of the former has been too heavily developed, especially in the Evesham and Redditch areas to render it impossible to re-open it as a through route (a few short sections might be possible to re-open, but they are probably of no real practical use). The trackbed of the latter is perhaps not so heavily developed, but the Stratford Southern Relief Road would seem to render a connection to Stratford station extremely difficult if not impossible, and without this, I don't think there would be much point in re-opening this line.
More positively, the recent redoubling of parts of the Cotswold Line should go some way to increasing traffic and reducing the knock-on effects of late-running trains. It perhaps says much about the line that the work went ahead, despite the economic situation at the time, so I don't think we should criticise the fact too much that the line from Oxford to Worcester wasn't completely redoubled. However, I do think that the remaining single-line sections need to be redoubled, especially with the long-awaited Worcester(shire) Parkway station finally opened and if the proposals to re-open the line from Stratford to Honeybourne are serious. As of 2016, it is looking more positive that at least some of the line between Evesham and Worcester will be redoubled, but there are no firm plans. I suspect that the biggest hurdle to redoubling the line west of Evesham will be installing a second platform at Pershore, as the original one has been developed on since it was taken out of use.
Moving on to the Stratford to Cheltenham line, since I started this site, the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway has re-opened both to Cheltenham Racecourse, and to Broadway. A northern extension would seem to be technically possible, but taking ownership of the trackbed between Broadway and Honeybourne would present the railway with some major infrastructure liabilities, on top of those they already have. It is likely to take at least a decade and a lot of money to extend the railway to Honeybourne, and I suspect there might not be much of a business case to do so anyway.
Could the GW-R extend further into Cheltenham? This is now unlikely due to the levels of development along the trackbed since closure of the line, but a possible plan to build a new shorter line to the Birmingham to Gloucester line across fields to the north of the town has been suggested, although this would mean a sizeable land purchase (although land not required for the link could possibly be sold on for other purposes).
From what I gather from the shareholders’ meeting I attended in November 2021, further extensions to the line are not a priority anyway (the subject wasn’t even raised). The Covid pandemic has hit the line very hard, and the immediate priorities are (a) recovering from this and (b) enhancing the existing facilities. My feeling is that this is the right way to go and I think it is more likely that I will be travelling on extensions to the Dean Forest Railway sooner than I will be on the GWR (more on this subject can be found on the GWSR website).
Which brings me to the question of Honeybourne to Stratford, which has been a topic of several debates over the last few years. From the point of view of restoring the section as a heritage railway, Honeybourne to Long Marston is still in place, and from what I've seen of the "Greenway" path from Milcote to Stratford, it looks like it could support a single line railway from Long Marston to Stratford Racecourse (ok, a run-round at the latter would be required, and possibly Milcote or Long Marston being used as a passing place, but surely these aren't insurmountable issues) as well as the foot/cycle path. The trackbed at Long Marston might need a slight deviation to the west to take it round new buildings though. However, with the Stratford and Broadway railway now off the scene, unless another organisation takes this over, re-opening this section is probably a couple of decades away (at least), at least as far as the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway is concerned.
So, what about the section from Stratford Racecourse to Stratford (Alcester Road)? I've heard a lot of proposals over the last few years about re-opening the line south from Alcester Road, but none of them seem to deal with the question of what to do about the Southern Relief Road that was built on the trackbed. Unless there is a fairly major change in transport policy in the UK, I cannot see this road being torn up to be replaced by a railway, and certainly not by a private heritage railway. Even if it was, a level crossing at Evesham Road would almost certainly be a cause of major traffic congestion (in fairness to the GW-R, I don't think they've ever intended to go beyond Stratford Racecourse anyway).
However, it seems that a report published in 2012 (according to Evesham Journal, anyway) suggests that restoring the line from Stratford to Honeybourne is possible, but the cost is likely to be in the region of 100 million pounds. The idea is to be able improve services between Worcester and Stratford, and by restoring to the north-to-east loop at Honeybourne Junction, Oxford to Stratford as well. There are several questions that I would like answered:
1) How is it proposed to deal with the section between Stratford station and the beginning of the Greenway (see above)?
2) Will the Greenway be closed?
3) Does the Cotswold Line have the capacity to handle the extra services (I suspect not, at least not without re-doubling the remaining single line sections?)
4) Are provisions going to be made for the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway at Honeybourne (although these might not be needed – see above)?
For the moment, my opinion is that the money would be better off spent on finishing redoubling the Cotswold Line (assuming that is possible) first, and then revisiting the Stratford branch. Anyone wanting to travel from Stratford-upon-Avon to Cheltenham Racecourse completely by rail is likely to be in for a long wait.
Also, relating slightly to this section of the line, it seems that the proposed military heritage railway plans for the former Long Marston MOD depot, first proposed in 2011, will not be going ahead as the owners of the site have decided they want the land for holiday cottages instead.