New Rail Link Hope

 

by John Warren  - Evening Post April 7 2005

 

CAMPAIGNERS fighting to reinstate a rail link between Bristol and Portishead have been given a new glimmer of hope by one of the region's rail operators. First Great Western has hinted that it continues to have an interest in the line and has not abandoned the possibility of its reinstatement.

 

Alison Forster, First Great Western's managing director, said yesterday that, although the company was not suggesting the­ line will be reinstated, it should not be dismissed before it is properly costed.

 

John Rickard, secretary of the Portishead Railway Action Group, said: "It sounds very promising although the Strategic Rail Authority, through the Government department, has said that it doesn't support proposals to reinstate the line in the immediate future. If it's just down to money and First. is prepared to put up the finance, then reinstatement may be possible, but it does seem to go against what was said by the SRA and Government. It raises a number of questions and it will be interesting to see what happens.”

 

The rail operator is one of three companies bidding for the new Greater Western rail franchise, which will bring all train services in the region under the control of a single company.

 

Ms Forster made the pledge on Portishead at a briefing held by the company at the Marriott Royal Hotel in Bristol yesterday. She said that if First Great Western was successful in its bid it would carry out a full study and costing exercise to establish if a scheme would be viable. She said: "We are going to look at how much the Portishead and Portbury link would cost. 'We need to see if it is deliverable and to properly cost it, we can take it on from there."

 

Ms Forster was responding to questions from Councillor Peter Crispin, chairman of the Bristol Transport Forum. He suggested much more could be made of the city's urban rail network, which he said was under-utilised in some areas while overcrowded in others, calling for increased investment. He said: "The thing that concerns us about the new franchise is the impact it will have on the local service. The biggest problem we have is how to get people from the surrounding urban area into Bristol and we see the rail network as key to that." He argued the local service was being "squeezed out" to make way for high-speed trains but, if restructured, could play an important part in reducing congestion.

 

Ms Forster later added: 'I don't know how much it is going to cost to reinstate the line. "If it's going to be £100 million then we have no chance but if it was £10 million it would be something we could look at."

 

Her comments contradict those made by Transport Minister Charlotte Atkins who said in January this year that she believed it was unlikely a. train service would be reinstated on the line "in the foreseeable future". She argued it would cost between £5 million and £7.5 million to upgrade the three and a half miles of track needed to run trains between Bristol and Portishead. Another £2.5 million would be needed each year in operating costs - with train fares only being able to cover between 50 and 60 per cent of those costs. Ms Atkins said the Strategic Rail Authority could not pick up the bill because its priority was to maintain the current network.

 

National Express and Stagecoach are the other companies which will be invited to tender for the Greater Western rail franchise in June.