There has been talk for many years about re-opening the old Portishead railway. This 16 km branch line runs from Parson Street Junction on the main Bristol to Exeter mainline to Portishead.
Portishead is one of the fastest growing towns in the South West. Its population has risen to approximately 30,000 residents and pressure on the area’s road network continues to increase. The main commuter routes from Portishead to Bristol (A369 and M5) are regularly congested during peak times. Re-opening the Portishead railway line is key to the town’s future.
Portishead line closes to ordinary passenger service.
Line closes to freight.
Talks take place between Railtrack and the Bristol Port Company (BPC) about opening up the line for freight to the Royal Portbury Dock. Railtrack funded by BPC (via a Freight Facilities Grant) and Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) to renew this 6.5 mile section of line, install a new signalling system and provide a long running-loop to pass trains in the Bedminster area.
Portishead Railway Action Group formed to campaign for the line to be reopened to passengers.
£21m refurbishment of the line to Royal Portbury Dock complete, leaving 5.5 km of mothballed track leading to Portishead.
Portishead Railway Action Group and Portishead Heritage Rail Project merge to form Portishead Railway Group.
“Greater Bristol Metro” scheme includes a serious proposal for re-opening the Portishead line to passenger service. Phase 1 of this proposed scheme aims to provide a re-opened Portishead line, with stations at Portishead and Pill – as well as a half‐hourly local service for the Severn Beach line and for local stations on the Bath to Bristol line.
Feasibility study, Governance for Railway Investment Projects (GRIP) Stages 1 and 2), carried out by Network Rail to look at potential engineering problems, any conflicts with the freight-only service which operates along the first part of the Portishead route to Portbury Docks and the cost of re-opening a full passenger service.
In 2014 the preliminary business case for “MetroWest Phase 1” deduced that the £58.2m scheme was affordable and deliverable by 2019. Virtually all of this budget was subsequently obtained from the City Deal and topped up from the local Councils and the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership’s Local Growth Fund.
After a multi-option consultation on the new location for Portishead station, North Somerset Council decide on a site east of a re-aligned Quays Avenue.
It becomes apparent that significantly more work is required to enable the desired passenger service. In Network Rail’s GRIP 3 study of the Portishead line re-instatement the estimated costs has risen to £145-£175m – a three-fold increase!
Why did the costs escalate so much?
- The original budget (£58m) was based only on a desk study – this was two-dimensional and did not take account of the topography of the Gorge. The subsequent GRIP 3 study was based on a much more detailed approach – with site visits, detailed technical work and consideration of the three-dimensional state of the Gorge. GRIP 3 cost around £7 million, compared to the £164,000 paid for GRIP 2.
- In order to meet the aspiration for a 2 train per hour service from Temple Meads to Portishead, it would be necessary for the trains to run at 50 mph along part of the Avon Gorge which at present has a 30 mph speed limit (also to run at 75 mph on the re-opened Pill to Portishead section). Apparently increasing the line speed from 30 to 50 mph has a large impact on the way the track should be laid; the camber would need to be changed and the tunnels re-modelled. There are also other engineering works needed on the track, such as repairs to the retaining walls, especially between Clifton Down No.1 tunnel and Pill tunnel.
- Doing the necessary engineering works is complicated by the lack of highway access along a 5 km stretch of the Gorge, together with the environmental considerations (protected species such as great crested newts, bats, whitebeam trees, etc.).
- It is an active freight line and so Network Rail says the works can only be done at weekends. Because of this, they estimate that the necessary engineering works would need 50 weekend closures, with rails put down again at the end of the weekend to allow the freight to run in the week.
- A passenger train frequency of 2 trains per hour plus the freight traffic on the level crossing at Ashton Vale crossing would cause unacceptable effects on rail safety, highway safety and traffic accessing the industrial estate. This particular problem has been known for some time and WEP had already consulted on the options for an alternative access from the A370 near the entrance to the Long Ashton Park and Ride site.
A staged approach?
On 17 March 2017 an alternative staged approach to MetroWest Phase 1 is agreed at the West of England Joint Transport Board to reduce the £145m-£175m price tag.
- Stage One: provide half-hourly services on the Severn Beach Line and to Bath Spa (Phase 1a)
- Stage Two: provide an “initial” hourly passenger service on the Portishead Line instead of the half-hourly service originally planned (Phase 1c)
- Stage Three: provide half-hourly trains on the Portishead Line “at a later date”.
- Initially it was planned to run 2 trains per hour but this has now been reduced to 1 train per hour plus some additional peak time trains
- The journey from Portishead to Temple Meads will take 23 minutes, calling at Pill, Parson Street and Bedminster (not Ashton Gate)
- The service will be operated initially using three carriage trains (with approx. 270 seats); this can be increased to five carriage trains in the future as the platforms for the new Portishead and Pill stations will be sufficient for operating longer trains
- The revised proposals have no significant effect on the infrastructure works required for the section from Pill to Portishead but do reduce the works required on the section from Pill back to Bristol
- Increasing line speed increase from 30 mph to 50 mph east of Pill to Parson Street Junction is no longer necessary. So there will be a speed of 75 mph from Portishead to Pill and 30 mph from Pill to Ashton Vale
- The extent of track renewal works and works to railway bridges, retaining walls and other structures is reduced
- Double tracking from Bower Ashton to Ashton Gate and new junction (Clifton Junction) is no longer needed
- Changes to Parson Street Junction are no longer needed
- The impact of trains on the level crossing at Ashton Vale Road is reduced so much that alternative highway access to the Ashton Vale and Longbrook Trading Estates is no longer needed. The left-turn flare lane to Ashton Vale Road from Winterstoke Road with be lengthened and the Winterstoke junction traffic signal phasing will be controlled by Microprocessor Optimised Vehicle Actuation (MOVA) which responds to live traffic volumes.
In late 2017 it was announced that the 1 train per hour proposal, plus consequent reduction in works required had reduced the overall cost of the Portishead Line project to £116.4m of which £69.5m was already secured; this left a funding gap of £46.9m.
MetroWest fails in its bid for £46 million funding from the Department for Transport’s Large Local Major Transport Schemes fund.
West of England Mayor Tim Bowles meets Transport Minister Chris Grayling about plans to improve rail services across the region. At this meeting the idea of a light-rail or tram-train option is put forward as one way to reduce the cost of re-opening the line. WECA thus commissions another study on relative costs, which recommends heavy rail as the better solution.
North Somerset Council agrees to allocate up to £15m of regional funding from the Economic Development Fund – this reduces the funding gap to £31.9m.
IIt is announced that the Government will supply the remaining shortfall of £31.9m. Thus the funds are in place to progress the project.
Because the route from Pill to Portishead is no longer part of the national rail network, a Development Consent Order (DCO) is required before work can start. This DCO has to cover the entire route from Portishead to Ashton Junction .
North Somerset Council submit the DCO for the MetroWest Phase 1 scheme to the Planning Inspectorate along with a formal letter of support from West of England Mayor Tim Bowles.
The DCO application seeks powers to build and operate the disused section of railway from Portishead to Pill, gain environmental consent to undertake works to the existing freight railway through the Avon Gorge and obtain powers for the compulsory acquisition of land.
The Secretary of State for Transport is expected to make a decision on the DCO within 18 months. Subject to final business case approval, construction work is expected to start on the Portishead to Bristol line in December 2021 and take around two years to complete.
Portishead Line re-opens? Time will tell!