THE FAIRFORD BRANCH LINE

HISTORY

The Fairford Branch Line was built in two stages by two separate private companies. The Witney Railway Co. was formed locally after the residents of the prosperous blanket making town were repeatedly thwarted in their attempts to get connected to the booming railway network during the early Victorian era. The locally dominant Great Western Railway was continually trying to scupper rival company's proposals and although various routes were put forward which would have put Witney on a main line route, the continual brinkmanship ensured that nothing was done. Against this background, on 23 December 1858 a meeting was held in the town which led to the formation of the independent Witney Railway Co. Royal assent was granted to a bill to build a line from the Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway at Yarnton to Witney on 1 August 1859. The line was surveyed by the well known engineer Sir Charles Fox and a considerable amount of the building work was carried out by local builder Malachi Bartlett. The line opened with the customary festivities on 13 November 1861.      

What might have been. This 1849 map clearly shows the Witney Railway diverging from the Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway near Wilcote and heading in a southerly direction towards the town. At this time there were numerous abortive attempts to reach the town, but it has to be said that this was surely not the most logical route, as it would have involved considerable gradients in the North Leigh area. As the junction is shown trailing in towards the Oxford direction (as eventually built at Yarnton), the route cannot have been chosen for quicker access to the Worcester end of the line. It also demonstrates the perils of basing a map on proposals rather constructed lines! 
Martin Loader Collection

1849 map of the Witney area

2-2-2 at Witney

This fine Edwardian photograph shows the station staff at Witney posing by a spotless Great Western Railway 2-2-2 locomotive (possibly 'Sir Alexander' Class 1128), the station master is on the left of the group. The Fairford Branch was the final home to these single wheelers, with the final example being withdrawn just prior to the First World War. 
Stanley C. Jenkins Collection

The East Gloucestershire Railway had initially been conceived as a cross country route linking Witney and Faringdon to Cheltenham via Andoversford, indeed earthworks were already underway at Andoversford when the operation was scaled down to a purely local line from Witney to Fairford. In 1869 work commenced on this less ambitious plan, although the layout of the station at Fairford clearly indicates that it was never intended as a terminus and that Cirencester and a connection with Midland & South Western Junction Railway was their ultimate aim. The line from Witney to Fairford opened on 14 January 1873 and the resultant 22 mile branch line was operated by the GWR until that company took over the two local companies entirely in 1890.

A pair of trains cross at Witney in the Edwardian era. A 2-4-0 'Metro' tank is seen taking water whilst working an Oxford to Fairford train. These locomotives were synonymous with the Fairford Line during the first half of the twentieth century, and the line was indeed their last stronghold. They were used on the line right up until 1949, when the last example, No. 3588 was withdrawn. 
Stanley C. Jenkins Collection

Metro tank at Witney

For the first half of the twentieth century the Fairford Branch like so many rural lines up and down the country continued to serve the local community with remarkably little change in the pattern of services. The second world war did however bring an increase in traffic to the line and numerous track improvements were put in place to cater for the extra traffic. Aerodromes at Fairford, Broadwell (near Alvescot), Brize Norton & Stanton Harcourt, as well as various army camps all ensured a large number of military personnel using the line. However, after the war, the increased use of road haulage of goods and the ever increasing rise in the use of the private motor car saw traffic on the line reduce considerably.

Horse bus at Bampton station in 1908

Now here is something a little out of the ordinary. A horse bus poses for the photographer at Bampton station in 1908. The board on the roof indicates that W. Payne & Sons are operating the service on behalf of the GWR. Walter Frederick Payne is listed in Kelly's Directory as a carrier from Bridge Street, Bampton. The wording on this bus advertises fine omnibuses, horse and brakes for hire, plus cartage and removals. There are plenty of staff in this view, yet no passengers, indicating this is a specially posed photograph, although presumably there was some local service operating at this time. Incidentally, the horse looks a little undernourished! Integrated transport of a century ago! This view is also particularly interesting as it shows the eastern end of Bampton station building prior to the addition of a parcels office during WW1, which completely altered this end of the building. The chimney seen here was replaced by one much lower down the roof on what is the very corner of the building in this view. The building was considerably extended and lost its half-hipped roof.
Martin Loader Collection

7412 Oxford Station

74xx 0-6-0PT 7412 waits in the up bay at Oxford with a train from Fairford in 1958. Oxford station had, and even after recent rebuilding, still has only two through platform faces, admittedly with the addition of two through roads. This limited capacity was a severe handicap, and in steam days on busy summer Saturdays, trains were often queued up block to block as far back as Kennington Junction. Passengers on down trains were left contemplating Osney graveyard as their train stood on 'Cemetery Curve' awaiting their turn at the platform! The train on the left in this view is a down service to either Worcester or Birmingham. Note the gas tanks on the right and Oxford North signal box in the distance. 
Martin Loader Collection

Avro York on the railway between Carterton & Brize Norton

Oops! On 28 November 1946 an Avro York MW168 belonging to the Transport Command Development Unit at RAF Brize Norton failed to become airborne and instead crashed onto the railway line between Brize Norton and Carterton stations, coming to rest in a field, as pictured above. Needless to say the line was closed for several days while the RAF effected recovery. 
Martin Loader Collection

A rare picture showing the interior of Witney station during the late 1950s / early 1960s. Note the amount of paperwork involved in the running of even a small station like Witney. 
Stanley C. Jenkins Collection

Interior of Witney station

The reduction in traffic finally led to the Witney to Fairford section being closed to all traffic on 18 June 1962. This being a Monday, the last trains ran on Saturday 16 June 1962. As with other line closures, the trains on the last day were packed (I wish I could say "I know I was there" but although I did indeed travel from Carterton to Fairford and back, I was only four years old at the time and cannot remember a thing about the day!). A freight service continued from Oxford to Witney until 2 November 1970. 

9653 at Wolvercote 16 June 1962

57xx 0-6-0PT 9653 races along the main line at Wolvercote with the 16:26 Oxford to Fairford train on the final day of passenger operations - 16 June 1962. This train is also pictured on the Brize Norton & Bampton page. The train is running on the down main. The down goods loop (opened in 1942) can be seen on the extreme right, with a ditch between it and the other running lines. This has long since been removed. The up goods loop (still extant) is on the extreme left, with a junction trailing into the up main at this point. 
Colour Rail

Crew of the last steam train to leave Witney

Witney station master John Barnby shakes hands with the driver of the final steam locomotive to leave Witney on the evening of 30 December 1965. The driver was A. Johnson of Oxford shed and the fireman was J. Compton. This was most unusually working by a 2-6-2T rather than one of the ubiquitous pannier tanks. The final steam hauled train on the Western Region ran just four days later.  
J. Barnby (Stanley C. Jenkins Collection)

The diesel era commenced on the Witney branch on 3 January 1966, when North British Locomotive Company Class 22 diesel hydraulics started to work the thrice weekly freight. Occasionally Class 08 diesel shunters substituted, but their 15mph top speed was a little limiting even for this backwater. The Class 22s performed well for the next five years, and like the Metro tanks before them, found that this to be their last stamping ground. Of this small class of 58 locos, at least 13 individual locos are known to have worked to Witney.

In the latter days of the Fairford Branch, during the freight only period, the line was worked as a long siding, obviating the need for any signally, once the train was locked 'inside' at Yarnton Junction. During this period, Class 22 diesel hydraulic 6326 is pictured crawling over South Leigh level crossing with a Witney to Hinksey freight. The secondman is seen climbing back into the cab after opening the gates. As can be clearly seen here, one of the "gates" is in fact a length of rope - a makeshift replacement for one of the damaged originals. At this stage in the line's life no money was being spent on renewals! 
Stanley C. Jenkins

6326 South Leigh

A number of railtours visited the branch in the final years, with the final tour running on 31 October 1970, utilizing an impressive nine car DMU formation. The 'Witney Wanderer' was a Paddington to Witney special which also visited the Abingdon and Morris Cowley branches, before heading for Witney, where it arrived at about 17:00. The tour stopped just short of the second Windrush bridge, leaving the tour participants to walk over the bridge to the old station. The line closed officially two days later, when a Class 22 diesel hydraulic collected the last few wagons from Witney.