With ambitious plans to overhaul public transport in the coming years, in order to resolve the city’s congestion problems, Bristol’s rail projects are taking on added significance. DANIEL PUDDICOMBE reports
With ambitious plans to overhaul public transport in the city, Bristol’s rail projects are taking on added significance.
Last month, a major piece of the Filton four-tracking works was completed, doubling the number of lines between Bristol’s two major stations - Parkway and Temple Meads. The three-week blockade removed a bottleneck between the two stations, increasing the amount of freight traffic that can run along the lines and creating extra space for more passenger trains.
According to Michelle Scogings, Principal Programme Sponsor at Network Rail, the works will “provide the foundations the network needs until 2043”.
She explains: “It will add dividends straightaway, and is a fairly complex bit of work. It will provide foundation. The Bristol area is a key part of the network that has experienced growth, and has aspirations.
“Filton four-tracking is the building block to this because it will add capacity and allow funders to meet their ambitions for whatever new services they want to run. With two lines
it was a fairly busy section of railway, so with two extra tracks it gives us the capacity to run more trains on the network and improve the robustness of the timetables. It’s the right building block to start from the bottom and work our way up.”
Ambition is a word that seems to go handin-hand with Bristol at the moment.
The much-vaunted MetroWest scheme may have been delayed and its costs ballooned, but with the four-tracking completed a light is appearing at the end of the tunnel for the cross-city project, which includes running passenger trains and opening new stations on what at present are freight-only lines.
It’s easy to see why Bristol City Council, which is working with the West of England Combined Authority (the body that’s leading on the MetroWest scheme), wants to see improvements.
There is currently one train every two hours between the city’s main station (Temple Meads) and Severn Beach, and one train every hour to places such as Keynsham and Yate. In this day and age, that’s not good enough - especially as it’s claimed that rail usage in the area is growing year-on-year.
MetroWest aims to address those problems in two core phases. Phase 1 seeks to open stations at Portishead and Pill, double the number of trains to Severn Beach, and open a new station between Avonmouth and Shirehampton at Portway Park and Ride. Phase 2 involves opening new stations at Ashly Down, Henbury and North Filton, and increasing the service pattern to one train an hour between Temple Meads and Yate.
“We have ambitions to fix our transport network and look at new and emerging challenges,” says Mhairi Threlfall, the former Bristol City Council Cabinet Member with responsibility for Transport and Connectivity, who stepped down shortly before this isue- of RAIL went to press to concentrate on her efforts to becoming an MP.
“One of the key things at the moment is we need to build 105,000 new homes to solve the housing crisis. In order to unlock those new homes and to ensure the city isn’t completely gridlocked, we need to be proactive and reactive to the situation. And rail plays a key part in that.”
She says that one of the main challenges faced by MetroWest is funding, and the fact that promotors have to adhere to Network Rail practices: “The challenge for us is Phase 1, where we had an initial costing of £ 58 million but that went up to £116m once we went through the GRIP processes with Network Rail. So the challenge is the funding gap.”
Threlfall says the city is moving into the unknown to try and bridge that gap. It has come up with a range of measures which may help it to gain extra revenue, such as workplace parking levies and congestion charges, but these will take time to implement - if they make it past the drawing board in the first place, with a high probability of local objections.
However, she claims the main problem is that the Government is being slow to respond to the desires of the group. Nor does it help that electrification has been deferred on the
The South West is the second-least funded region after Yorkshire and Humberside, and that’s an equality issue that needs to be challenged. Mhairi Threlfall, Former Bristol City Council Cabinet Member with responsibility for Transport and Connectivity
Great Western Main Line via Bath. “Back in June, [Secretary of State for Transport] Chris Grayling made a statement because we had quite a big representation about electrification through to Temple Meads,” she says.
“It said he was still committed to the Portishead line, which is the key part of Phase 1, and that he was seeking delivery in CP6 (Control Period 6, 2019-24]. Obviously we have an ambition to deliver Portishead much sooner than that, but you have to operate within the fact that the costs have gone up. So I’d like the Government to step up.”
She continues: “It was an expectation we were going to have electric trains into Bristol. And given we’re getting a lot of the pain and only some of the gain, it’s frustrating.
“When that happened, we had a statement saying the Government had a commitment to deliver other programmes in the area, but we’ve not yet seen that come forwards. We could have accepted this if we had other benefits such as them saying ‘we’ll support Portishead in the meantime’, but in the meantime we haven’t had anything and there’s still no indication on Portishead.”
Despite the four-tracking work and recent investments in new rolling stock, Threlfall bemoans the lack of central Government funding the area receives in order to improve rail connectivity.
“The South West is the second-least funded region after Yorkshire and Humberside, and that’s an equality issue that needs to be challenged. We need sufficient funding in order to deliver our ambition, but you need to have the ambition in the first place.”
Andrew Davies, Principal Transport Planner at Bristol City Council, adds: “I think the Department for Transport needs to recognise we’re a third-party funder investing in the rail network, and that’s the way Network Rail is being pushed.
“As a region we’ve spent a lot of time and money developing these projects, and we’ve taken a lot of risk ourselves. The DfT needs to recognise that.”
Davies wants the first services to run to Portishead by 2021, but acknowledges that the next few months are key for the project, with discussions ongoing about how the funding gap is going to be plugged.
“We’re just waiting for some costs to come through by the end of the year on Phase 2, which will help us outline our business case in the spring,” he says.
“It’s key we get good connectivity to the new stations. We don’t want to just open basic stations, we want to ensure all areas are properly connected. We really need a certainty it is going to be funded, because it is really hard to deliver these schemes if there’s a movable baseline.”
Painting a rosier picture of the MetroWest project is West of England Mayor Tim Bowles.
“Rail’s importance to the region is enormous,” he tells RAIL.
“Top of my agenda is to help get people out of the car and use suburban rail instead. MetroWest is progressing really well, and we’re looking to start motoring on it because it will make a real difference to the region - it will give people a real modal shift opportunity. It will allow 80,000 people to use rail services, and that sort of thing will make a real difference to the region.”
Despite his claims that the project is well-
Filton four-tracking will add capacity and allow funders to meet their ambitions for whatever new services they want to run.
Michelle Scogings, Principal Programme Sponsor, Network Rail
advanced and that formal announcements would be made in the new year, Bowles is not yet ready to suggest opening dates: “Some of the level of this work hasn’t been seen since the rail networks were first built. This is huge in terms of what’s involved, and to be pinning dates as to when we can be cutting a ribbon is always dangerous.”
Unlike his council colleagues, Bowles does not bemoan a lack of investment in the region, telling RAIL: “When I look at the investment we’ve received around the four-tracking, around the electrification and around the signalling works that’s going on, there’s a huge amount of investment that’s going into the railways. And there will be an awful lot more.”
You might think passengers will be similarly enthused with the improvements being proposed, but Rob Dixon, chairman of the Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways campaign group, thinks otherwise. The group has proposed a number of new openings on the map, but he tells RAIL the group’s main aim is to “make sure promised things actually happen, such as MetroWest and Portishead”.
Explaining the reasoning behind the calls for action on new stations, Dixon says: “We’d like the Combined Authority to put in more stations in areas that we feel aren’t wellserved, such as the northern fringes of the city. Focusing on what we’ve got and making the most of the freight lines is the logical thing to do, and when Filton Bank is finished that will unlock capacity. We think the stations we’ve proposed in addition to the WECA study will make a real difference to congestion and air quality.”
Dixon echoes the council’s views that Bristol’s railways are underfunded compared with other areas of the country, and claims that part of the problem is because the locals “don’t kick up enough of a fuss” compared with transport chiefs in the North.
“One of the things we’ve found is that getting people together to apply pressure has had some success,” he says.
“MetroWest has come about because a lot of different people were saying the same thing. We’ve also found that when MPs have put pressure on the Government there have been movements, but more needs to be done.”
Dixon concludes: “I think willpower is a concern, but there is a lack of confidence and a belief that rail is difficult. It isn’t easy, but part of the problem is that historically there haven’t been things like transport authorities bringing together their own staff who can put schemes together and control things.”
Disabled users will be relieved to hear that the platforms for the new MetroWest stations are being designed to comply with the national standard height of 915mm.
Davies explains: “We’ve designed our platforms to the national standard because we know we’re still going to get cascaded rolling stock. But it magnifies the challenges going forward to offer step-free access when we eventually do get newer stock.”
Threlfall adds: “Accessibility is a key part of what we want to deliver. We’ve identified three stations that don’t offer step-free access. In my mind, stations should be community assets.”
But Bristol’s ambitions aren’t just limited to the MetroWest scheme. Dig below the surface and you’ll find other ambitious projects in the pipeline in and around the city, such as one to better link the city and the airport that serves the region.
Currently, buses link Temple Meads and the airport. And while the bus timetable has been created to fit in with the arrival of local trains, Simon Earles, Planning and Sustainability Director at the airport, believes more could be done - especially as it has ambitious growth plans of its own for the coming years.
He tells RAIL: “There’s a gap. There’s scope to improve public transport access, and masstransit is the next step. There are a number of airports around the UK that have better public transport access between the airports and the main city they serve than we have.”
Studies are currently ongoing and Earles says more information will be made available next year.
“I refer to myself as modally agnostic at this stage because we don’t know what the best option is,” he adds.
“Everything is possible. The Victorians built some brilliant railways, so if the desire is there the technology is there. We need to decide if heavy rail is the right answer, or whether or not it could be a tram, or maybe Movement as a Service.
“The reality is that there is scope for some phasing - a tram could be succeeded by heavy rail in the longer term. There are plenty of examples in Europe where both technologies can be laid, and one can be delivered in the shorter term and one will be delivered in the longer term.”
The link could also take the form of an underground railway. Late last year, Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees surprised many by
As a region we’ve spent a lot of time and money developing these projects, and we’ve taken a lot of risk ourselves. The DfT needs to recognise that.
Andrew Davies, Principal Transport Planner at Bristol City Council
announcing he was looking at the feasibility of tunnelling beneath the city.
Threlfall explains the thinking behind what many consider to be a pie-in-the-sky white elephant: “We have to be proactive if we are going to tackle our legacy and emerging challenges. In order to do that, we need to be thinking about mass transit and we need to be thinking about how we move a large number of people within the city.
“We’re one of the few cities in the country without a transit system. The key thing for us is going through the feasibility study, so that by Christmas we can see if it is feasible, and by early next year we can start to think about how to go about with our studies and go out to a public consultation.”
Earles previously worked at Heathrow. Discussing the possibility that his current workplace be connected to the city by Tube, he said: “You only have to look at Bristol as a very congested city, and you would only need to bury sections of a public transport network underground to see how beneficial that could be. We’re the gateway to the region to make it easy as possible for people to get out of Bristol and visitors coming in, and we need to make it as easy as possible for them to come in.”
Rees has stated that mass-transit in some form should reach the airport in the next decade. Earles says this is “eminently doable”, but only if it wins support from all the relevant stakeholders, including those in central government.
“It is such an exciting time for the region - we’ve been a net contributor and we want to continue doing so, but it will require investment. When you compare us with other regions we’re bottom of the pile when it comes to investment from the Government, and that needs to change,” he concludes.
Depending on who you listen to, some of these projects are a long way off, fairly close to completion, or won’t happen at all. However, one recent innovation that is now taking place is the use of passenger trains to carry freight as well as people on a daily basis.
Organised by Intercity RailFreight (ICRF) and with backing from the council, medical samples are carried twice a day from Bristol to London on Great Western Railway High Speed Trains and Intercity Express Trains. An electric bike picks up the samples and takes them to Temple Meads, where they are loaded onto a waiting train bound for London Paddington.
Threlfall is a big fan, and believes the use of passenger trains to carry cargo could open up other uses for smaller stations.
“It’s interesting from my perspective that these small stations are near small businesses who may not have distribution networks, so we’re looking at doing something with those stations,” she says.
“You’re almost looking it as a redevelopment at the same time. We have lots of buildings that are associated with stations that aren’t being used, so the project at the moment is to look at how we can use stations to aid freight distribution.
“There’s a lot of opportunity, and as you’re using passenger services you don’t have the challenges of pathing freight trains - you can just stick a carriage on the end and have things that wheel in and out.”
InterCity RailFreight Managing Director Jeff Screeton tells RAIL: “Bristol could wield a big stick and force behavioural change by clamping down on cars and vans in the city - but this provides the carrot.
“Everyone wins. Bristol per se gets a less congested and polluted environment, stations are more secure and nicer places to go, freight can be carried more sustainably into the city, and GWR gets more passengers for doing and spending nothing.
“ICRF is also looking to run high-speed freight services into the former waste transfer facilities at Barrow Road. Bristol Council is very keen to see this developed - not only to further demonstrate the important link between rail and sustainable lastmile transport, but also as a secondary development whereby some of the land around the site forms part of its strategic cycle network.”
While there may be arguments on whether or not there is sufficient funding for the region, there is clearly huge ambition to improve the region’s public transport - and that can only be a good thing for passengers, residents and businesses in the years to come.
For some time, Bristol may have been seen as being behind the curve in terms of rail developments. But it is clear that all the stakeholders want that to change - sooner rather than later.
CrossCountry 220015 prepares to leave Bristol Temple Meads on September 6 with a service for Manchester Piccadilly.
Friends of Suburban Bristol Railway’s aims for MetroWest Phase 3
On September 6, two Great Western Railway Class 166 Turbos pass each other near Lawrence Hill, where Network Rail’s project to reinstate 4½ miles of double track at Bristol’s Filton Bank is in full swing.
Approaching the site of the former station at Pill on October 6 2016, DB Cargo 66171 leads the 0330 Warrington Arpley Yard-Portbury Automotive Terminal freight service. MetroWest aims to return passenger services to the line by 2021.