Portishead Railway Group – The story so far …
The Portishead to Bristol line opened on 18th April 1867 and operated until 7th September 1964, when it closed for passenger traffic as part of Dr Beeching’s cuts. Private freight traffic for the docks continued until 1981 and recommenced in 2002, but apart from occasional ‘Specials’, the line has sat idle, collecting rust and buddleias for more than fifty years.
The Portishead Railway Group was formed in April 2000, born out of frustration with the congestion at the M5 Junction 19 and a desire to see a valuable transport corridor being put back into use, as thousands of new homes started to be built in the Portishead docks area. We have campaigned for, promoted and encouraged the reopening of a passenger rail service between Portishead and Bristol for over 20 years, supporting and developing the sound technical and business cases that a project like this requires.
Initially known as the Portishead Railway Action Group, the group merged in 2005 with the Portishead Heritage Rail Project. We spent many years campaigning against a tide of anti-rail sentiment in government circles, during a difficult period for the whole rail industry. Since 2013, with the formation of MetroWest and strong support from North Somerset Council, huge but always slow progress has been made and success is tantalisingly close.
The early days
It all began at a noisy meeting in Portishead Folk Hall on 23rd March 2000, organised by Graham Kennedy. Graham was fed up with the daily congestion and delay getting to the M5 and well over a hundred people turned up to agree with him that night.
Within days a committee was formed, a newsletter sent out and a membership of some 70 people established. The first of many meetings with Railtrack, local councillors and First Great Western took place and a petition of some 2,600 signatures was raised and delivered to North Somerset Council in May 2000.
It was already clear that acting as a protest group, waving flags and marching the High Street was not the way forward. Railways are re-opened and developed because there is a sound business case, not because local people would like one. We needed to campaign by influencing the decision makers and challenging each obstacle and instance of negativity that arose.
To that end, Liam Fox MP, arranged a meeting in September 2000 for all the major parties involved – rail industry, SRA, train operators and local government - and during 2001 we produced our first brochure and strategic plan.
With the Marina development starting in 2001 and thousands of new homes imminent, our case seemed strong, but it would prove to be a long, slow haul ….
Campaigning to the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA)
During the early years the SRA was the key decision maker, in a climate that strongly favoured bus over rail.
In our favour the Marina development had set aside land for a station next to what became Waitrose car park. The track was all still there and the Bristol Port Authority announced plans to reopen the line in 2002 as far as Portbury Docks. However accidents at Hatfield, Potters Bar, Southall and Ladbroke Grove created an over-reaction in the rail industry, a massive bill for improvement work and an anti-rail climate in Government. The collapse of Railtrack into State ownership in 2001 created further uncertainty. All the doubts meant that neither local nor national government, nor business, would be taking any visionary or risky actions.
Locally, we were also faced with major capacity constraints on the tracks in and out of Temple Meads, which have still not been fully addressed today.
In April 2002 we also became aware of plans to cut the line and hence isolate the station site in order to create Quays Avenue. We knew that this would be a future problem, but checks revealed that legal process had been followed and the necessary planning permission for a new right of way had been granted by North Somerset Council.
In this frustrating period, Graham Kennedy, our founder and Chairman, moved away. Laurie Reed took over the position in July 2002, ably assisted by Secretary John Rickard.
The opening of the freight line into Portbury Docks in 2002 was a big encouragement and we awaited the SRA’s rail capacity study. Crest Nicholson were supportive of the railway and some of the Section 106 moneys they had paid were available for rail developments. However, the SRA announced a moratorium on all new rail projects until 2004, so progress stopped again.
During 2003 and 2004, we explored Community Rail Partnerships, but these were focussed on improving existing railways and offered no way forward. The Portishead Heritage Rail Project (led by Alan Taylor and Roger Sainsbury) formed with the intention of seeking Heritage Lottery Funding. We persuaded SRA officials to visit Portishead and see our situation first-hand.
The SRA visit took place in January 2004 and was of great value. We learnt how rail project approval worked first-hand. We obtained the financial models to allow us to prepare our own business case. We showed the absurdity of the Portishead situation and learnt what the ‘powers that be’ perceive to be the key issues. But with a moratorium in place, nothing could happen ……
2004 – 2005 Refranchising
Sadly, our Chairman Laurie Reid passed away in March 2004. In May, Colin Medus for North Somerset Council said that “the line is unlikely to open in the medium term”. Work on Quays Avenue began, ripping up the track and Sustrans gained permission to lay a cycle path on part of the line at the Avonmouth Bridge.
We investigated the Dartmoor Railway between Okehampton and Crediton, a successful privately run line. However it became clear that establishing a new privately run railway was impossible in the current environment. A local authority sponsor was essential.
More bad news followed. Railtrack’s successor, Network Rail, described the Portishead line as “Pie in the sky”. First Great Western and other Train Operating Companies were actually quite keen to provide services on the Portishead line, but their role is to operate trains, not take on infrastructure projects. Refranchising of the Wales and West region meant that the TOCs were more focussed on securing their own futures than exploring potential new projects. In September 2004 the PHRP Heritage Lottery Fund bid failed. It was not the best of times!
In November 2004, we circulated another brochure “Re-opening the Portishead Line - An Outline Proposal” and established that the land for Portishead station had been offered to North Somerset Council for £1 by Crest Nicholson, valid for the next 15 years. John Rickard took over as acting Chairman.
2005 began more optimistically. From the earliest days, local MP Liam Fox has been a strong supporter and in January he secured an adjournment debate about the Portishead line in the House of Commons. Offering the government our brochure, he spoke forcefully about our situation publicising the now often quoted description of the A369 as “probably the most overcrowded cul-de-sac in Britain”.
The Government response was weak, stating that “we look to the region and the local council to come up with their plan for local transport”, but failing to mention the moratorium on new rail projects they had imposed for the past two years.
In May 2005 the Government Office for the South West confirmed that policy was still no new rail projects and PHRP petitioned Bristol City Council to no avail. Local businesses were now contacting us, concerned at the traffic problems for their staff entering/exiting Portishead.
2005 – 2008 All Change!
On 13th September 2005 PRAG and PHRP combined forces as the Portishead Railway Group. It was clear that success could only come by working with councils and government agencies to build support for the business case for the line.
Alan Matthews from Avon Valley Railway took over as Chairman and Paul Gregory created www.portisheadrailwaygroup.org our award-winning and informative website.
In 2005 the Department for Transport was still blocking new rail projects. First Group preferred buses to trains. The Greater Bristol Transport Study (Atkins) proposed a second crossing of the Avon at a cost of around £100 million (GBSTS para. 6-173), but failed to even include the Portishead line on transport maps.
We revamped our business case for the line in March 2006, proposing that existing Severn Beach trains could run out to Portishead between services to Severn Beach. We circulated some impressive financial measures - the Benefit:Cost ratio and NPV/K figures - that perhaps helped others to re-evaluate their views.
In 2007 John Rickard, a key figure since our campaign began, moved away, leaving only Peter Maliphant of the original committee. Roger English took over as Secretary. Door-to-door leaflet distributions transformed our membership.
In spring 2008 the Halcrow GRIP2 report, commissioned by North Somerset Council, looked at all the evidence and options for the Portishead line. It presented a clear, well-reasoned, thorough case with several feasible service options for the line, all with reasonable financial justifications.
In September 2008, North Somerset Council purchased all the disused track for £75,000. Things were looking up.
2010 – 2020 Inching towards a working line
In autumn 2010 the GRIP3 report, produced by Network Rail, recommended a four carriage, 17-minute service running half-hourly at peak times and hourly off-peak, stopping at Pill, scheduled to commence in 2017. This was an impressive outcome, but as has often happened before, bad news followed good. Public spending cuts delayed many projects for years, including ours.
In 2011 we had strong support from local newspapers and national TV featured a 30-minute programme about our line. In 2012 a High Speed Train running out to Portbury made a great photo opportunity and a mural at the station site was unveiled. In Spring 2013 the track was cleared, a consultation over potential station sites began and a proper Bristol Metro scheme including the Portishead line took a huge step forward with the formation of MetroWest.
MetroWest linked together all Bristol’s rail services delivering two re-opened lines, Portishead and Henbury, and up to ten new stations. Portishead became the key project in Phase 1, aiming to start half hourly services between Portishead and Temple Meads in May 2019.
The West of England Local Transport Body committed funding for Phase 1 and work began to redo the GRIP process for the whole MetroWest project.
In 2014, crossing Quays Avenue was the major issue. A bridge was ruled out due to cost and impact on surrounding properties and the Office of the Rail Regulator would not accept a level crossing, so a station site at the roundabout was chosen as the best compromise, with Quays Avenue deflected westwards.
Funding was more certain than ever, with £55 million at 2019 prices committed from the devolved major transport scheme budget. All the local authorities – and particularly North Somerset – committed money and a team of staff to the project. It seemed, at last, a question of not ‘if the Portishead line reopens’, but when ….
Throughout 2015-2018 work continued on the very detailed business case and Development Consent Order required. We are somehow a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project!
With all four local authorities committed to the project, PRG’s role became one of communicating and explaining what was happening to the public, plus nudging and challenging local and national government action or inaction when needed. We appeared frequently on local TV news and gave presentations to dozens of local community groups. We probed on subjects as diverse as funding and knotweed. We helped public consultations about the project achieve exceptional levels of public responses, both quality and quantity.
PRG continue to meet regularly with the MetroWest Project Manager and with Liam Fox.
However in March 2017, Network Rail dropped a bombshell. The detailed work in GRIP 3 revealed a likely cost between £145-170 million, way above the £58 million previously assumed. This massive challenge was addressed by MetroWest replanning the service to basically one train per hour, eliminating the need for most of the expensive work in the Avon Gorge and at Ashton Vale. The travel time rose from 17 minutes to 23 minutes due to the 30 mph limit in the Gorge, but the budget dropped back to £116.4 million.
In April 2019 the final piece of funding was secured. However fears remained that the Department for Transport could reverse this. In October, Liam Fox raised a second parliamentary debate (in which he described PRG’s contribution as “utterly invaluable”) and obtained written assurances from ministers that the final £31.9 million was secure. For the first time, the Portishead line had a clearly defined, realistic timetable with full funding in place.
The DCO was completed and submitted to the Planning Inspectorate in December 2019.
At the time of writing, the four councils continue to work well together and have collectively spent about £22 million so far. The DCO should be approved in mid-2021, which would allow the project to be completed and trains running in early 2024.
The contract for the construction works was put out to tender in February 2021.
Membership Secretary. April 2021