Reg Little talks to the man behind a bid to revolutionise commuting in West Oxfordshire

There is a senior colleague at The Oxford Times who has pledged to travel in swimming trunks from Witney to Oxford if a monorail is ever built.

Such is his confidence, that he did not even flinch when the leader of Oxfordshire County Council, Ian Hudspeth, repeatedly referred to monorail when launching his Connecting Oxfordshire initiative to provide “a new transport vision for the future”.

For right there along with Mr Hudspeth’s visions of a pedestrianised St Giles and a new rail link to Cowley, was the idea of Oxfordshire leading the way to a bright, modern transport future by pioneering a monorail system.

But while my colleague merely groaned at Mr Hudspeth’s readiness to consider monorail as a radical solution to the ever-worsening congestion — like many others who have seen guided bus schemes and calls for tram systems come and go — some have clearly found the idea inspirational.

None more so than engineer David Leach, who went along to hear the county council leader talk about Oxfordshire’s transport options in Witney.

“In July Ian Hudspeth held a number of roadshows to introduce the Connecting Oxfordshire initiative,” recalled Mr Leach, who works for Open Reach, the infrastructure division of BT.

“The meetings were held to present and encourage discussions of the council’s forward planning strategy. I went to the event at the Henry Box School in the summer,”

As someone all too familiar with the level of congestion on the A40 in both directions, Mr Leach had long maintained that the idea of a monorail system was one worth exploring. Earlier he had put forward monorail as a potentially viable means to relieve traffic on the A40 in a letter that appeared in our sister paper, the Witney Gazette.

His enthusiasm for a monorail was, it seems, shared by land surveyor Andrew Sharp, of Freeland, who was also at the event. They later struck up a conversation that has led to the creation of a new limited company, WestOx Monorail.

The new company, as a glimpse at its website (westoxmonorail.

com) reveals, is not short of ambition.

“WestOx Monorail will promote the concept and actively seek to secure working partnerships in order to turn the idea into reality,” it informs us.

“With ongoing research into design and implementation of an A40 monorail we feel we will strengthen the argument for this solution. We will continue to generate interest for the project from the travelling public and business community of West Oxfordshire in the hope that, with their support, the concept will be realised.”

The pair estimate that an 8.5-mile monorail would cost in the region of £125m.

Given the fact that Mr Leach, 51, has spent the last 34 years working first with Post Office Telecommunications and later BT, you do have to wonder what would persuade an engineer to take on a project that Richard Branson might blanche at.

Well, in the first instance, Mr Leach is a man on a mission.

He has seen other ideas coming forward such as a heavy rail link between Witney and Oxford, while a guided bus system has also been put forward as an option — following the example of Cambridge, which is home to the world’s largest guided busway, stretching 25km between Cambridge and the market towns of Huntingdon and St Ives.

But Mr Leach just happens to passionately believe that monorail has huge advantages over any of the alternatives.

Because space exists along most of the A40 margin, there would not have to be any costly land acquisition and litigation issues to face.

“The cost of providing the guide way beam would be far cheaper than constructing rail or widening the carriageway for dedicated bus lanes or more cars, “ he argues.

“Existing road junctions would be easily negotiated without the need for signal controls of vehicles. Existing structures such as bridges and viaducts also pose little problem from an engineering point of view.

“Safety of monorail systems is unrivalled by other forms of transport, being virtually impossible to de-rail and separated from other road users.”

As to the benefits, he believes monorail would add to the prosperity of Oxford and towns to the west.

According to Mr Leach, a well-designed system, operating at speeds up to 50mph, could transport large numbers of commuters from Witney to Oxford in a little over 10 minutes. Automatic and driverless operation would reduce operating costs.

“It is perfectly conceivable that with sufficient passenger numbers a system could operate profitably and would therefore require no subsidies,” he adds.

The company proposes a Witney terminal being sited near Oxford Hill, within walking distance of the large housing estates of east Witney, including Cogges and Madley Park, while the Oxford terminal would be sited near the Pear Tree park-and-ride.

The large housing and business development known as the Northern Gateway, being proposed at Pear Tree, has fuelled concern from residents because of its impact on traffic levels north of the city. A monorail could significantly mitigate its impact, it is claimed. A platform at Eynsham is also proposed.

But what about the not insignificant matter of £125m? Does WestOx Monorail Ltd, with its registered address at Clifton in Bristol, have some wealthy backers?

“The key thing is to get a positive reaction from Oxfordshire County Council,” said Mr Leach.

He points to the fact that £35m has been secured from the Government to invest in improving journey times between Oxford and Witney, with central government, the county council and Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership all committed to working together to find the best solution.

County council leader Mr Hudspeth said: “No one particular scheme or work has been identified as a stakeholder group is due to be set up in order to assess the best course of action. Possible options include fixed bus lanes, tidal flow bus lanes, re-instating the rail line, guided busways, tramways and non-conventional rapid transit systems such as ‘people mover’ systems, automatic light rail, monorail systems.

“A public consultation on the whole process is due to be held mid-2015.”

Monorail schemes exist in Asian cities and the United States, and Mr Leach and Mr Sharp are working closely with an American based consultant.

But no UK city has introduced a monorail system.

This does not, however, appear to deter this new company boss one jot.

With Mr Hudspeth urging the people of Oxfordshire to think the unthinkable and put forward their own vision for transport, who can say he is on the wrong track?

As for my colleague, that embarrassing journey from Witney still looks some way off.