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09:30 - 10 December 2005
Campaigners say Portishead will soon be the biggest town in England without a railway link. They have started a new group to battle for the return of trains - and yesterday they explained to Chris Roe why they won't give up AS a student in the late 1950s, Roger Sainsbury used to take the train from Bristol to Portishead to go to school.

In those days, services ran straight from the city and were a valuable way of getting about for the coastal town's 7,000 residents.

Almost 50 years later, after retiring as Bishop of Barking and returning to Portishead, Bishop Sainsbury once again finds himself thinking about the railway.

But now the three miles of tracks that form Portishead's branch line stand idle, as they have since Dr Beeching's axe fell on the service in 1964.

Apart from the birds and squirrels there is silence on the route. Yet in the decades since the last train pulled away from Portishead station, the population of the town has more than doubled, to about 17,000.

More residents are on the way, as one of the West's biggest house-building schemes adds 3,500 homes and takes the population to about 25,000 over the next five years.

Although the town has notorious rush-hour traffic jams - and was dubbed "the most overcrowded cul-desac in Britain" by local MP Liam Fox - the railway stands idle.

The situation frustrates Bishop Sainsbury and many others in the town. "Obviously there is a greater need now for the railway than there was when we used to travel in before.

Portishead is a much bigger place, and is still growing, " he said.

"I think it would be a good thing for Bristol to get the line in as well as Portishead - Bristol is increasingly getting choked up with traffic and if the railway was there it would help."

His belief in the railway as a solution to local traffic chaos and a greener way of travelling have led the Bishop to join the new Portishead Railway Group, which hopes to highlight the argument for a return to rail.

Born last month after a merger of two long-standing pro-railway groups in Portishead, the PRG has a head of steam behind it. In the summer an impressive 1,500-signature petition from locals and supporters called for Bristol City and North Somerset councils to take another look at reopening the line.

The group's new press officer is Matt Skidmore, a proud Bristolian, who believes the railway would bring a great deal of benefit.

"Portishead is one of the fastestexpanding towns in the region, " he said. "A lot of people were promised when they moved into the area that a railway would be going back in. In fact developers have been required to put away money to build some of the facilities.

There is one route in and out of Portishead at the moment, which gets very busy. Also, increasingly, there is a business argument - some of the biggest firms in Portishead have been complaining.

"We have had lots of setbacks, but we are not going to give on this. We are absolutely determined to see this through. We won't go away.

"It is a commonsense argument and I can't see an argument against it."

So why hasn't the track reopened?

Hopes rose four years ago when the 21million Parson Street to Royal Portbury Dock link, via Pill, was reopened. It meant that only three miles of rails need to be relaid to link Portishead to Pill, and then connect to Bristol.

But spirits fell again in 2003 when the Strategic Rail Authority announced there would be no money for the Portishead project, as part of wider project cutbacks.

Another blow came this year in the recent Greater Bristol Transport Study, which is backing a bus-based rapid transport scheme to link Portishead with Bristol, instead of rail. Critics say more buses would cause extra tailbacks on the congested Portbury Hundred to the M5.

Ultimately money for the project, roughly estimated to cost at least 7million, would have to come from the Department for Transport.

A chink of light was offered yesterday when the Department told the Western Daily Press it would be happy to consider plans for reopening the line - in theory.

First a business case and feasibility study would need to be prepared by North Somerset Council, then it would go before operators Network Rail, and finally to the DfT.

"At the moment there is nothing on the table, " said a spokesman for the Department. "The local authority would have to make an official request."

Potential pitfalls could include capacity at Parson Street junction and Bristol Temple Meads, he added.

"If it got as far as us we would definitely consider it, " he said. "The stronger the business case, the better."

Yesterday, however, North Somerset Council said a previous business case had been rejected by Government and no new one is being prepared.

It seems the railway campaigners still have some way to go before they see the first locomotive triumphantly pull to a halt in Portishead.

But they are determined their dreams haven't hit the buffers. Their case will only strengthen, they believe, as Portishead's grows to become North Somerset's second biggest town after Weston-super-Mare.

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