When the Great Western Main Line was electrified, the section from Chippenham to Bristol Temple Meads through Bath was left out. Was this because the guardians of Bath’s heritage would not allow overhead wires there?
The original electrification plan announced in 2009 covered the routes from London through Bristol Parkway to Swansea, from Swindon to Bristol Temple Meads via Bath, and from Bristol Temple Meads to Bristol Parkway.
In 2015 it was revealed that costs for the scheme had risen from £874 million to £2.8 billion; following this the scheme was truncated leaving Bath and Bristol Temple Meads (and Swansea) running on diesel power.
Bath Preservation Trust
So where did the often-repeated claim that Bath is an obstacle to electrication come from?
Bath is a uniquely beautiful city, and its amenity groups are right to guard it. In its Winter 2015 newsletter, the Bath Preservation Trust said:
The Trust has worked closely with the Council, Historic England, the Georgian Group and indeed Network Rail… During the stakeholder meetings the Trust insisted that solutions which involved less intervention and harm should be pursued. As a result the Sydney Gardens proposals (subject to listed building consent) are now much improved. BPT submitted strong objections to the listed building applications for Pixash Lane and the Clay Lane bridges which proposed a harmful and standardised model to Brunel’s bridges. These applications have now been withdrawn. Other overbridge proposals are also being reconsidered in light of our objections.
So the Bath Preservation Trust did not block electrification. They did exactly what they are there for, insisting that electrification should be done in the least damaging way possible. It is also clear that by 2015 they had more or less agreed how it should be done.
But this idea that Bath is somehow a problem persists. Where did it originate?
In 2017, in an interview in the Bristol Post, the then Transport Minister Chris Grayling said:
The arrival of hybrid technology means we don’t have to put up unsightly overhead lines in places where either you wouldn’t want them, like historic Bath, or through attractive country areas where you are not getting the speed gains…
…do we really want to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money putting unsightly overhead cables through Bath? The new trains allow us to think differently about these projects.
Grayling’s statement implied that electrification through Bath was unnecessary and undesirable because Bi-Mode trains could plug the gap. But these Bi-Mode trains now contribute to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in Bath and Bristol.
Network Rail’s decarbonisation strategy, published in September 2020, identifies Chippenham – Bath – Bristol Temple Meads – Bristol Parkway as ‘core electrification’ routes.
Once the decision is made to go ahead with electrification, Bath will not be much of an obstacle. Much of the preparatory work has already been done – including finding a way to thread the wires through the city with minimum damage to its heritage.
Main image: Network Rail