010112ACtext.jpg - That crazy Princes Risborough track layout!

The bizarre track layout at Princes Risborough! When you thought British Railways planning couldn’t get any worse, here’s a particular example of its backwards philosophy. Its not like Seaton Junction where an entire station was left in situ with just one plain track through it which didn’t matter because the station had been closed! In the case of Princes Risborough it was a case of trying to shoehorn a main line onto one platform. That in some ways made a tiny bit of sense because this was the main entrance from the town itself and also the cross platform interchange for the Aylesbury branch.

That is of course something that is often done all over the world these days – switch a train across to the most convenient platform where possible. But unlike these other examples where there is at least plenty of other trackage and platforms for maximum flexibility – at Prince Risborough it wasn’t ‘where possible’ – it was mandatory! And that’s where the crux of the problems lie.

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The layout as it once was – possibly early 1900s. Pic from Great Central Then and Now (pub 1991)

This is a subject I have briefly mentioned in passing on my blog. Its long something I’ve wanted to write about but needed photographs – imagine my delight when I recently found some taken at Princes Risborough circa 1991!

Getting back on track, what happened at Princes Risborough was during the process undertaken to rationalise the former Great Western main line to Banbury, an entire half of the station was taken out of use and everything concentrated to its north side. In a way that made sense as there had been no trains to Watlington or Oxford (via Thame) for many years. Why force passengers to traipse over a long footbridge when trains could simply be sent across to the one most convenient platform?

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Map I drew of layout as in 1968. Tracks marked red fell out of use. 1 60 mph turnout onto up main 2 up main 3 up/down platform line.

What makes up the bizarreness of this project at Princes Risborough station is the entire line between Princes Risborough and Anyho Junction was singled. That made the Princes Risborough operation even more difficult. It must be said a loop was provided at Bicester North. Nothing wrong with that except it resulted in an extremely long single track section almost NINETEEN miles (30 kilometres) in length!

This must have been a record of some sort for a former main line – only the single track sections on the Far North line could be any longer (by a mere couple of miles!) Even the singled sections on that other greatly rationalised main line – the former LSWR route to Exeter – were not that long!

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Princes Risborough possibly late 1968 or early 1969 after the layout had been modded. In due course the down platform track would disappear. The up main clearly has a high speed turnout – 60 mph – no doubt the only merit within the entire installation!

The up track was removed leaving just a pair of sidings (one of which was the former up main line.) These extended a short distance westwards and it was for trains terminating at Princes Risborough. Much of the up main between Bicester and Princes Risborough was left in situ simply to rot away until it was removed during the early preparation works for Chiltern’s redoubling of that section.

Most bizarrely a new up fast track was provided however this led off the down/up main so it wasn’t really much use because it was a single lead off a long single track section. It had a 60 mph turn out which was quite unusual given the constraints of the scheme and no doubt that was to give the impression British Railways still thought of this route as an ‘important main line.’ This bit of track was originally a temporary section designed to facilitate the diversion of trains whilst the layout was being modified. Upon completion of the scheme it became the Up Main. Essentially it was contrived because to even enter this trains had to pass through the loop intended for stopping trains – what if a stopping train was using it? Well it couldn’t go anywhere could it – except through the station platform – and if that was occupied things were certainly buggered!

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The layout as it became in 1989. Pic from Great Central Then and Now (pub 1991)

The fast lines for all their apparent usefulness soon became rusty – because they were of no use! Perhaps British Railways’ managers were most happy for it meant less trains – ‘yippee no more silly timetable planning or devising crew rosters!’ Exactly! Frequencies were reduced to a two hourly service between Princes Risborough and Banbury – a timetable a five year old kid could have drawn up given the constraints of this rationalised route!

Despite ‘modernisation’ (for example Inter City 125, the APT, electrification to Glasgow or large amounts of track welding) there were many attempts at further decimation of the network – pulling the rug from under Britain’s once excellent rail network. A case in point is the Hunstanton line (which I remember because we used to visit Heacham.) British Railways deliberately ensured the line became a loss maker then ripped up its tracks so no other than a barebones train service could use it. No wonder people voted with their feet and were soon in their cars. Undoubtedly British Railways were their own worst enemy!

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West Norfolk report on possible reinstatement for Hunstanton – and acknowledging British Rail deliberately ran down its railways.

In terms of the convoluted layout at Princes Risborough the down platform was taken out of use. The down slow basically remained as a link to the Chinnor branch but too was removed. The down fast, well it wasn’t ‘fast’ it simply led into the loop formed by the old up and down lines – if a train was coming the other way well too bad the train heading out from London was no longer a fast! Beyond that the line was singled. The layout meant stopping trains had to use the main platform in either direction and meant any up trains from Bicester that were wanting to enter the platform had to be held in the loop if it was occupied. The down would then have to move off onto the ‘fast’ down line (to all intents and purposes the loop) to allow the up to proceed.

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At Princes Risborough’s platform – and about to move towards the loop section. Note the very rusty fast lines at left!

What the whole thing shows is British Railways simply slewed or plain lined what was necessary to make this particular track layout. It wasnt an improvement of any sort and it highlights Princes Risborough as one of the worst excesses of British Railways planning. Oh yes we, the UK as the inventors of railways, have the world’s crappiest track layouts! Old Albion’s simply bustling with pride!

Much like Hunstanton and numerous other examples, this too was a deliberate intent to throttle any possible future expansion of services into Marylebone. Not only that it would instil a mentality that, ‘well this railway and its track capacity is just useless – no-one uses the services so we might as well be shot of it!’ Hunstanton all over again! And in fact it almost happened because the route out of Marylebone was set to be sold off and become an express busway.

Fortunately after strong representations were made, the line didn’t become an express busway but instead struggled on another decade or so. When Chiltern arrived on the scene this sort of layout simply wasn’t suitable in any way or form – imagine a supermarket where everyone had to reach the checkouts via an aisle which people could only use one a time in either direction. The customers’ response would have been something like ‘Sod this convoluted crap! We’re taking our shopping elsewhere!’ Of course it was something Chiltern didn’t want.

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My pic of the entrance to the Princes Risborough loop – and the ‘fast’ lines clearly unused.

The above photograph was taken was just after the rationalisation that took place in 1991 and its why the remains of the semaphore signals can be seen behind the route indicator. The down main tracks have by this time been removed and the Chinnor/Thame branches connection had been relocated.

Chiltern in its early days had a hard time because they frustratingly had to contend with this silly layout – it was at the time the only means of getting any sort of increase in train frequency north of Princes Risborough. Non-stopping services were introduced but these were hugely limited by the layout and the very long single track section. Mere slippage in schedules meant substantial delays. Often trains had to sit outside the station awaiting available paths.

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The arrangement as seen from the platform in Chiltern’s early days with the fast up/down back in use. Source: Mapio

With Chiltern’s ‘Evergreen’ upgrade programme (which consisted of redoubling, station upgrades and the new route to Oxford) British Railway’s awful mess was finally sorted. The early part of the project is mentioned below – and as can be seen there was no fast line through Princes Risborough for a time – however it was soon restored and speeds of at least 85 mph can now be attained. This and other aspects of Evergreen can be read in this document from Chiltern Railways

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It simply shows what can be done with a railway given the determination. No more Hunstantons or Princes Risboroughs please!


2 thought on “That crazy Princes Risborough track layout!”
  1. Very interesting! I would love to know more of the track layout at High Wycombe- now it’s as simple as can be, but I know as late as 1989 it still had its two centre roads… when did they vanish?!

    1. It did look as if the station still had two centre roads in those days as you say – but they were not of any use for non stop services. The centre road arrangement as it originally was had the purpose of providing a pair of fast non-stop tracks through the station (as was the case with most of the stations along this route.) Those at Princes Risborough had that purpose ended in 1968 with the complete remodelling of the line to Aynho Junction. The new arrangement which I highlighted still had ‘centre roads’ but they were not what they looked like, and their severe lack of use eventually led to their removal in the early 1990s. If you look at the 1968/69 photo of the station its clear the centre roads no longer existed in the original form.

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