Rail re-openings aim to put Bristol & the West on the right track

Bristol and the West of England area has been something of a transport backwater over the last decades. Local authorities are now driving forward plans to bring about major changes to the railway network in and around the area. John W E Helm investigates.

Two rail re-openings and three bus rapid transit schemes form the central plank of an ambitious plan to transform public transport in Bristol and throughout the surrounding area. The rail schemes, marketed under the MetroWest banner, are to be introduced in two phases in May 2019 and May 2021, and include re-opening the Portishead and Henbury lines to passenger traffic. They are flagship projects which will account for the bulk of local transport funding.

Both schemes are being taken forward by what used to be known as the West of England Partnership, a local body comprising the four unitary authorities in the area: Bristol City Council; Bath & North East Somerset council; North Somerset Council; and South Gloucestershire Council.


These four local authorities agree major transport decisions collectively though the West of England Joint Transport Board, a body consisting of the leading transport members from the four constituent councils and other interested parties.

The £200m BRT project is branded as MetroBus with segregated running accounting for around a quarter of its planned 31 mile network. The Aston Vale to Temple Mills route is at the most advanced stage having been granted a TWAO order last year. It will be the only BRT route to use guided buses and should be operational by Summer 2016. The South Bristol route has obtained local authority planning permission and is scheduled for Winter 2016 completion. A planning application has been submitted for the North Fringe to Hengrove route, which involves a bus only junction on the M25 and a large element of motorway running.

The BRT scheme will be governed by a quality partnership and bus access will be restricted.

MetroWest  – cost & funding

MetroWest evolved from the original plan to re-open the Portishead branch but now has a much wider remit to upgrade local rail services generally.

The MetroWest programme is costed at £98.5m, comprising Phase One (£55.4m) and Phase Two (£43.1m), with funding shortfalls of£8.3m and £4.5m respectively. Phase One will be funded by a DfT devolved major scheme £44.9m grant; the shortfall should be made good through the Local Growth Fund (LGF). Funding for Phase Two has not yet been identified, though a preliminary business case has been made.

Phase One has BCR (benefit: cost ratio) of 2.51:1, which passes the 2.1: 1 minimum high value for money threshold. However, the four local authorities must stump up the anticipated revenue losses during the first three years of operation. These could range from anywhere between £400,000 to over £1m per year. However, if the service meets the DfT value for money criteria future bills could be picked up by central government.

The Joint Transport Board would like to see future financial responsibility passed to whichever company is awarded the new Great Western franchise in 2016.

Phase One is being progressed through four main stages: (1) option development, including Network Rail GRIP stages 1-2, between Summer 2013 and Summer 2014; (2) project case, GRIP 3, Summer 2014 to Autumn 2015; (3) planning powers & procurement, GRIP 4-5; and (4) construction & opening, GRIP 6-8, Autumn 2017 to Spring 2019.

Opening is provisionally scheduled for May 2019.

MetroWest Phase One – the details

Phase one has two main parts: re-opening the Portishead branch, and increasing frequencies on both the Severn Beach, and Bristol to Bath Spa lines to half-hourly status.

Taking  the Portishead branch first: Census figures show that the town’s population increased by over 3,000 in ten years and now stands at around 22,000, and the line has wider catchment area of some 35,000.

James White, West of England’s Rail Co-ordinator takes up the story: “For much of the way, the Portishead service will utilise the freight-only, single track Royal Portbury dock line branch, which joins the Bristol to Exeter main line at Parson Street, about two miles southeast of Bristol Temple Meads station . At Pill, the Portishead line parts company with the Portbury branch but the remaining four miles to Portishead will be re-laid on the old trackbed of the disused line.

“New stations will be built at both Pill and Portishead; the line will be completely upgraded and re-signalled to accommodate passenger trains. Level crossings will be taken out.   At the moment only one train at a time can run on the line. Freight train speeds are around 20-30mph, but passenger train speeds will need to be double this, and 70mph should be achievable on the re-laid Pill-Portishead section.  Line capacity will also be increased by installing two short double track sections.

“Portishead is around 11miles from Temple Meads and journey times between should take around 17 minutes. One of our biggest challenges will be dovetailing the passenger services with the freight trains – there are around 20 daily freight train paths each way, though not all of these are used.”

The Portishead branch will not operate in isolation, however, but is to be integrated with other local services to improve cross-city connectivity.

White elaborated: “Two MetroWest service options are currently being appraised, and Network Rail considers they  will provide a sound service pattern: One option – Severn Beach to Bath Spa; Avonmouth to Portishead; and Portishead to Bristol Temple Meads – would require six train sets. The other option – Portishead to Bath Spa; Portishead to Avonmouth; and Severn Beach to Bristol Temple Meads would need seven sets. Running through Temple Meads – instead of terminating there -makes better use of platform capacity. Our Railsys software timetable work indicates that Phase One will not require additional platforms, or extensions to existing ones.”

Much of the planning work was undertaken by the engineering consultancy Halcrow. The location of the new Portishead station has yet to be identified and a public consultation has just been launched. Bus services in the area will not be recast when the new line opens as they are seen as providing a complementary role.

Turning to the Severn Beach branch: This is mainly single-track, about 12 miles long, which joins the Bristol to Gloucester main line about two miles north of Temple Meads. It’s a curious mix of inner city and outer rural traffic, and also serves the busy port of Avonmouth.  White is impressed with its performance and its potential: “Figures from the Office of Rail Regulation show that passenger numbers on the branch – excluding the Lawrence Hill and Stapleton Road stations which are on the main line – reached 1.1 million in 2013, a 175% increase over the last ten years; And our own snapshot passenger number survey showed that the latest June 2014 figures were 16% up on 2013.

“Increasing passenger numbers means Bristol City Council and South Gloucestershire Council no longer need to support the line financially.

“The existing service requires three train sets. MetroWest’s plans will increase frequencies to half-hourly – to Avonmouth at least – and this can be done without recourse to line-doubling, although Avonmouth will need re-signalling to permit bi-directional running and facilitate other improvements there. Beyond Avonmouth we aim to run an hourly service to Severn Beach. Freight traffic – to and from Avonmouth Docks mainly – is not an issue since it takes the Henbury loop, though the branch can be used as a diversionary route if necessary.”

Phase One will also see improvements to local train frequencies on the Temple Meads to Bath Spa line: The two intermediate stations at Keynsham and Oldfield Park will go from hourly to half-hourly, though a new turnback facility will be required at Bathampton Junction (east of Bath Spa). Enhanced frequencies to the inner city stations at Parson Street and Bedminster (on the Bristol to Exeter line) are also under investigation.

Separate business cases are being considered for re-opening stations at Ashton Gate (on the Portishead branch) and at Saltford (on the Bath Spa line), as well as for a park and ride facility at Portway (on the Severn Beach branch).

Local train at Stapleton Road, Bristol
Local train at Stapleton Road, Bristol

Piggyback effect

MetroWest stands to benefit from a number of ongoing schemes, not least Great Western electrification and associated infrastructure upgrades that will greatly enhance area capacity. “These projects are entirely independent of MetroWest schemes, but we will be able to piggyback them for our purposes,” said White.

The wires will reach Bristol in 2017 and electric services to London will start in the following year. Network Rail will also be carrying out its £700m Western Hub programme, the centre piece of which is the quadrupling of the notorious two mile Filton bank on the Bristol to Gloucester main line . This has long been a bottleneck, and its ruling 1 in 75 gradient has presented operational problems for many years. “The line originally had four tracks,” explained White, “but when it was reduced to double track in the 1980s, these were slewed across the track bed to increase running speeds, which means that putting the missing tracks back into place will not be as easy as it first might seem.”

The three span steel viaduct at Stapleton Road will also have to be demolished. “The quadrupling of the bank is likely to be combined with electrification works, resulting in a blockade and disruption of the line for some time.”

Once complete, however, service frequencies to Paddington will be doubled from the current 30 to 15 minutes. The new electric IEP (Inter City Express) trains will be able to access Bristol Temple Meads from the north (via Bristol Parkway), as well as by the traditional southern route (via Bath Spa).

A master plan is also being drafted for Bristol Temple Meads station; the old Midland Railway train shed will be brought back to life and two of its platforms used for the IEP services to Paddington. Pedestrian access at the station will also be greatly improved.

All these developments will add capacity and provide opportunities for MetroWest Phase Two when (and if) it starts in May 2021.

Bristol Temple Meads station will remain the hub of the network but will undergo modernisation
Bristol Temple Meads station will remain the hub of the network but will undergo extensive  modernisation

MetroWest Phase Two –the details

Like Phase One, Phase Two consists of two major component parts: re-opening the Henbury loop, and doubling frequencies to Yate.

The Henbury loop – like the Portishead branch – lost its passenger trains in 1964 during the Beeching era, but survived as a freight only line. The mainly double-track nine mile railway connects the Severn Beach branch at Avonmouth with the rest of the network at Filton. Much of the fright traffic is dock bound.

“At the moment there is much debate whether we go for a loop, or a spur.  The loop option would feed into the Severn Beach branch to provide a circular route. This is the popular option favoured by local MPs and campaigners. However, our consultants Halcrow maintain that a spur (from the Filton end) would be quicker and easier to implement. We are currently undertaking research to ascertain which option enjoys the best business case,” added White.

“The site of the former Filton airfield is now being transformed into the Cribbs Patchway housing development, which will provide 5,700 new homes and 50 hectares of commercial development. By 2021, it will be nearly half completed. The housing development is not dependent on the Henbury loop for its success, but it makes a crucial contribution to the business case for re-opening the line.”

A number of station sites have been identified, including the old ones at Henbury and North Filton. However, re-opening may require derogation from RSSB (Rail Safety & Standards Board) rules governing the construction of new stations -stipulating a maximum gradient of 1 in 500 and a maximum radius curve of 1,000m – as both stations fall outside these parameters.

The other main part of Phase Two deals with doubling frequencies between Weston-super-Mare and Yate.  These will go from hourly to half-hourly. A turnback facility will be needed at Yate (on the Bristol to Gloucester main line), and new stations would be constructed at Ashley Down and Horsfield. However, as both these lie on the Filton Bank they would also encounter the same gradient and curvature problems noted above.

“We hope to benefit from the cascade of class 165/166 units following electrification of the Great Western main line,” said White. “Much of our existing rolling stock is old and needs replacing. However, the 165/166s will be in great demand. Long term, we would like to see electrification extending to all the local lines – to Portishead, Henbury, Severn Beach and between Weston-super-Mare and Yate. We have commissioned Arup to study the subject and it will report back this Autumn.

“Electrification costs work out at roughly £1.4m per kilometre and it is more likely to happen in Control Period 6 (CP6) between 2019 and 2024. Electrification would throw up a number of challenges: Firstly, there’s the crucial issue of obtaining rolling stock cascaded from other parts of the country. This has to be resolved before we go ahead with any electrification study.

“Depots are another issue:  Existing ones only accommodate diesel multiple units, but we will need add extra capacity to stable electric trains as well. Power supply, however, could be the make or break issue. The Arup study will establish whether the existing power supply is robust enough to feed all the proposed extensions.”

650/Jun 14

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