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09:30 - 14 December 2005
Gridlocked Portishead has moved a major step forwards in the campaign to reopen its railway line yesterday after the pledge of a study by the region's new train operators.

Firstgroup promised to undertake a feasibility study after being announced yesterday as the winners of the newly created rail franchise Greater Western. It will run all the trains throughout the South West and South Wales and the routes from London.

Campaigners have fought for years for the reinstatement of the rail link that was axed in the infamous Dr Beeching cuts of the 1960s.

"This is great news," said Alan Matthews, chairman of the Portishead Railway Group last night. "It's another piece of the jigsaw towards getting it reopened."

Meanwhile, passenger and transport groups welcomed FirstGroup's being awarded the new franchise.

The West will have more rail routes and better trains, the company said. They were also given the new Thameslink-Great Northern franchise in a deal worth 1billion.

A 100million investment will be spent straight away on improving the trains, while other investments include new ticket offices at Bristol Temple Meads and Bath Spa.

And Weston-super-Mare station will have new toilets, stairs and footbridge.

There are plans to increase car and cycle parking, add more ticket machines, information points and CCTVs and improve signage.

The franchise will start in April 2006, and the current timetables will remain the same until December next year.

After that, there are plans to add extra services between Bristol and Exeter and to improve services to Filton Abbey Wood. There will be new routes between Worcester and Taunton and Cardiff to Weymouth.

The Westbury to London service will become hourly, and the Cheltenham to London journey time will be faster.

The move was welcomed by transport and passenger pressure groups yesterday. David Redgewell, from Transport 2000, the environmentally-friendly transport campaigners, said: "I am absolutely thrilled that First have got the contract and hope they take up the very many opportunities to improve regional rail - we need long term investment to finally upgrade stations, improve rolling stock and generally lift us into the modern age.

"Transport 2000 hope that this is the opportunity which will finally give rail passengers the service they deserve."

The South West Public Transport Users' Forum also welcomed the move. Chris Irwin, chairman of the Forum, said: "Passengers want a railway that is both reliable and affordable.

"FirstGroup has the muscle to ensure the first. We need reassuring that it still has the will to deliver affordable fares."

The 10-year contract for Greater Western combines the existing First Great Western and Link franchises, both of which FirstGroup already runs, and Wessex services.

National Express and Stagecoach were also bidding for the franchise.

FirstGroup also said they would stand by a promise made in the summer to carry out a feasibility study on Portishead.

"We will be involved in a feasibility study, our managing director committed to that," said Elaine Wilde, spokeswoman for First Great Western. She said no date had yet been set for it to start.

Reopening the line would bring a passenger service to both Pill and Portishead for the first time in decades.

MR Matthews, chairman of the Portishead Railway Group said he didn't believe it would be particularly difficult to reopen the line, which is currently used just for franchise.

"It's one of the biggest towns in the area, and it only has one road in and out," he said.

"I have only been with the group for about five months and it's quite amazing the number of people who have come up to me in that time who want the line back. The developers want it and the residents want it."

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-de-sac in Britain" by local MP Liam Fox, the railway stands idle.

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