Bicester Military Railway – Book Review

The Bicester Military Railway. …

This book, written by E.R. Lawton and Major M.W. Sackett in 1992, [1] gives a comprehensive history of the Bicester site which extends from the original concept to the date of publication of the book.

In the 21st century, large areas of the complex have been given over to civilian use.

Lawton and Sackett chose, when putting their book together, to frame the whole text with two hand-drawn images showing the rail map of the site. These are placed inside the front and back covers of the book. My scans below are not of the highest quality. The two drawings are centred on Graven Hill, closest to Bicester; and Arncott.This book is written by two people with extensive experience of work on the railways, and particularly at Bicester. …

“Ernest Lawton served for 42 years on the LMS and later BR, including wartime duty with the Royal Engineers. During this time he became a locomotive driver on the Bicester Military Railway followed by promotion to Locomotive Supervisor at Arncott Depot. After the war he had various appointments on BR(LM) until retirement in 1981 from the Divisional Passenger Manager’s Office, Liverpool.” [1: dust-jacket]

“Major Maurice Sackett ISO [came] from a railway family, his grandfather working on the LSWR and his father on the SECR. He joined the LNER in 1937, became a member of the 6th Railway Battalion of the Home Guard on its formation, and left the Railway in 1942 on being called up to the Corps of Royal Engineers, which he served until 1947, his last military appointment being O.C. of the Railway Operating & Maintenance Detachment at Bicester. On demobilisation he accepted an appointment as a civilian operating officer on the BMR, which he served until promotion to Divisional Officer at Reading in 1961 and subsequently as the first civilian Superintendent, Army Department Railways in 1979.” [1: dust-jacket]

The introduction to the book provides a potted history of the military use of railways within the UK. The first such use was way back in 1830 when a ‘Regiment of Foot’ was transported over the recently opened Liverpool to Manchester Railway. “The movement took 2 hours compared with a march of two days after which the soldiers would have arrived exhausted and with some 20% stragglers.” [1: p8] Since then full uses has been made by the military of the civilian railway system. “Additionally they have developed their own railway expertise in the Corps of Royal Engineers and since 1965, in the Royal Corps of Transport.” [1: p8]

“It was soon recognised that railways had an important part to play in the running and organisation of military stores depots. Not only did they make connections with the civilian railways for the transfer and transport of military stores but also provided internal transport for the movement of goods within the depot.” [1: p8]

In 1805 military trials were undertaken at Shoeberryness, Essex to evaluate shells developed by the military. “By 1849 a Detachment of the Royal Artillery arrived in the tiny village of Shoeburyness to set up a School of Gunnery. … Sappers constructed a standard-gauge tramway to connect the various installations.” [1: p8] After a time using canal barges on the Theames, the military decided that a rail link to the site was required and the War Office cajoled the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway (LT&SR) to “extend their line to Shoeberyness ao as to connect with the tramway and this was completed in 1884. The size of the guns increased, the ranges were expanded as was the Tramway. … It was also required to provide a quite intensive passenger service.” {1: p8]

Shoeberyness became the forerunner of a series of different sites around the UK: Vickers made use of Eskmeals in Cumbria as a Test Range; Aldershot was provided with sidings; the LSWR constructed a line to serve military establishments at Amesbury and Bulford. During the 1914-1918 war, “a depot was built at Chilwell just outside Nottingham, which by 1916 was producing shells in great quantities. By the end of that War the railway serving the Depot had moved some 227, 000 inward loaded wagons and despatched 224,000. It was just one of six such installations.” [1: p8]

“By the mid-thirties it was becoming increasingly likely that there would be another major war and the War Office began to plan new depots to meet the situation. In sortie cases construction was commenced, such as the under-ground ammunition depot at Corsham and the large Ordnance Depot at Donnington. Amongst those planned was that at Bicester, …. Kineton (Ammunition), Long Marston (RE Stores), Longtown (Ammunition), Steventon & Lockerley (Motor Transport), West Moors (Petroleum), Cairnryan and Marchwood (Military Ports). Some were entirely new projects, others the adaption of an existing industrial facility. In the case of the Ammunition Depot at Nesscliffe the War Department took over the Shropshire & Montgomeryshire Railway in 1941 with a detachment of officers and men from 193 Railway Operating Company RE. The Depot was built alongside the main line with connecting lines to the various sub-depots and in addition to providing the military railway requirement the Royal Engineers continued to run a minimal public freight and passenger service. The line experienced the busiest period of its entire life!” [1: p9]

Detailed looks at a number of the military sites mentioned above are available on my website ( [2][3][4][5]

By 1942, there were some 39 significant military railway systems in the UK. Around 600 miles of track were in use, with over 200 locomotives. In addition there were a further 200 sites where sidings existed and agents undertook work on behalf of the military! “Some 2,400 personnel were controlled from … Headquarters … through six Divisional Commanders. … There were additionally six Railway Construction Groups.” [1: p9]

This is the context in which the Bicester Military Railway was developed, Lawton and Sackett look in detail at the development of the site. In the first Chapter of the Book, the site is developed. Known initially as ‘X’ Depot, it was renamed Bicester Central Ordnance Depot in 1940. Land was acquired in 1941 and tented camps were set up for the people involved in the building work. Early in 1942, around 1,500 Royal Engineers were working alongside others (including prisoners of war) on the building of what was becoming a vast Depot. By early 1943, over 30 miles of track had been laid. by the end of the year, the system was almost complete – over 47 miles of track and 234 turnouts/points.

The second chapter focusses on signal control system and level-crossings. The third chapter is substantial and covers the railway system at work. It is copiously illustrated with photographs coming for the life of the system from the 1940s to the late 1980s. The fourth chapter covers the Motive Power used by the military at Bicester from the early ‘Dean Goods 0-6-0 locomotives, later ‘saddle tanks’ and the series of different diesel locomotives in use in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.0-4-0 Diesel Locomotive – Storeman – on the BMR in 2014 [8]

I particularly found the examples of small railcars, photographs of which are shown alongside the text, which were supplied by Wickham, Baguley-Drewery, Hudswell-Clark and Clayton of interest.

Chapter 5, a really short chapter, highlights arrangements made for passengers on the network. There were 12 passenger platforms provided, none of them provided with passenger facilities such as waiting rooms.

Chapter 6 covers maintenance arrangements for the motive power and rolling stock; and Chapter 7 covers the maintenance of the permanent way. A final short chapter then covers the main line links to the site.

Comprehensive appendices tabulate first steam locomotives, then diesel locomotives and finally the railcars in use on the system.

The authors offer a final postcript [1: p156] which reflects on reviews which were undertaken on the value of the site up to the early 1990s. Their final comment being, “after half-a-century the BMR is still fully operational, a valuable asses in the deference structure of the United Kingdom.” [1: p156]. Sadly, with the benefit of hindsight we can say that the operation of the site was kept under review and over the years it has been downsized as parts have been sold off for civilian use.

The Garrison once occupied an area of 12½ square miles. The Garrison roads stretched over 32 miles and the Army railway had over 41 miles of track. The storage areas were enclosed by 21 square miles of perimeter fence.

In April 1999, the depot changed its name to Defence Storage and Distribution Centre (DSDC) Bicester.

In 2000, the Garrison had 850 servicemen and 2500 civilians working within its boundaries. They were the largest employer within Cherwell District Council. [6]

The BBC reported, in 2013, on the opening of Bicester Bomb Disposal Training Base. [7] So the future for Bicester Garrison is not all bleak. The railway, however, seems top have a very limited role in whatever that future might be. Perhaps others can enlighten us!


  1. Ernest Lawton & Major Maurice Sackett ISO; Bicester Military Railway; Oxford Publishing Co., 1992.
  2. Roger Farnworth; Bicester Miltary Railway;
  3. Roger Farnworth; MOD Kineton and its Railway History;
  4. Roger Farnworth; The Shropshire & Montgomersyshire Light Railway and the Nesscliffe MoD Training Area and Depot – Part 1;
  5. Roger Farnworth; The Shropshire & Montgomersyshire Light Railway and the Nesscliffe MoD Training Area and Depot – Part 2;
  6., accessed on 12th October 2019.
  7., accessed on 12th October 2019.
  8., accessed on 12th October 2019.



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