My local paper, the Bristol (UK) Evening Post, has thrown its influential weight behind a cause in which I believe strongly; the need for better public transport. The first five pages of yesterday’s issue (30 June) focus on the theme and the first two sentences on the front page sum it up:

“It’s time Greater Bristol had a transport system fit for the 21st century.

Most experts believe the key to this is railways, and our map shows a bold vision for the future.”

(I would have reproduced the map but my editing skills are yet up to it)

The paper also states its support for the creation of an Integrated Transport Authority for the Greater Bristol area; an area covering four different local authorities that don’t at present all agree on the rail option.

See below for link to their full story.

Scotland takes the lead

About a week ago I heard a fascinating programme on BBC Radio 4, about the recent trend to expand railway services in Scotland: reopening lines that had been closed during the Maudling / Beeching cuts of the 60s and since.

There was talk of the “business case”, e.g. reconnecting St Andrews, with its university, golf and tourism, but also much talk of the social case, when there was not a strong business case. Strangely to my ears, it seemed that the social case had more traction in Scotland than it does in England. Or am I wrong about that?

High-speed rail interesting; local rail boring?

However … the coalition has restated its commitment to HS2, the high-speed line from London to Birmingham, subsequently to Manchester and Leeds. The cost? £37bn, maybe. But wait … Philip Hammond, the Minister responsible, said in the Financial Times (June 24) that it will probably be much less than that. Why? Because we don’t have to pay for the whole project ourselves. In other words, we can move most of the cost off-balance sheet. So, to summarise: it could be £37bn. It could, of course, be much more, judging by our track record in such projects. Or it could be less; but only if we hand the private sector a “licence to print money”. Sorry, I meant a PFI project.

When it comes to rail, it seems that the Westminster village can only get interested if the project is big enough and the sums are eye-watering enough. Improving services and reducing fares on 95% of the country’s lines, where we pay the highest fares in Europe for arguably the worst service, is clearly a boring matter.

Sketchy local rail in Bristol

Where I live (in Bristol, surely one of the UK’s major cities and a mere 120 miles from Westminster) we have a pretty sketchy suburban rail service, with trains that should have been pensioned off 30 years ago. That’s why I’ve joined a lobbying group called FOSBR, which stands for Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways.

Severn Beach Line success

FOSBR’s lobbying has been successful in improving frequency and reliability on one of the local lines, from Bristol Temple Meads to Avonmouth and on to Severn Beach. After that positive outcome, there is another focus of interest for those in favour of expanding access to local rail in this area: the former passenger line from Bristol to Portbury, on the North Somerset side of the Avon Gorge.

That’s a wonderfully scenic run that’s experienced by no passengers, as freight trains constitute the sole traffic. There has for years been a proposal to reintroduce passenger services and to extend the line a mere three miles to the rapidly-growing town of Portishead.

Portishead: growth and congestion

When I arrived in this area I was told that Portishead was the fastest-growing town in the West. In fact, according to local railway lobbyists, its population has doubled in recent years.

I’ve been told that Portishead is now the largest town in the country without a rail link. It has one congested single-carriageway road connecting it with Bristol, to which a high proportion of residents commute. The rush-hour journey of eight miles (via a predictably congested junction with the M5) often takes well over an hour; a headache highlighted by a 2008 BBC4 programme. In fact, on the day presenter Simon Calder made the journey it took over two hours. Two hours for eight miles?

Despite this, the rail proposal has got nowhere. Instead, the local planners have been proposing to address the commuting problem by means of a BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) scheme. The words Rapid Transit sound impressive and modern (and rapid), don’t they? But will the vehicles be the bendy buses London doesn’t want? And where exactly will these rapid buses run, without taking a fair chunk of Green Belt?

Hope for the future?

However, I am optimistic that with the very strong support that’s been shown by the Bristol Evening Post and of the local MPs there is now a hope that the BRT decision can be reversed and the funding reallocated to rail. After that, why not a real 21st-century transport system for the Greater Bristol area? After all, if it makes sense to reverse the Beeching cuts in Scotland, why shouldn’t we emulate that trend in the West of England?

Watch this space!



For the Bristol Evening Post’s coverage 30.06.11:

About “Reversing Dr Beeching” (BBC Radio 4 programme):

About rail pressure groups in the Bristol area:

About former Bristol / Portishead / Minehead line (BBC4 TV programme):



On Sunday I had my first introduction to an organisation I’d read about many times in the seven years since I moved to Bristol and started using the public transport here. The organisation’s full name is Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways; admittedly a bit of a mouthful, so they tend to be known by their initials FOSBR. (well, OK, acronym, as it could be a word)


The occasion was a celebration of progress made in several of FOSBR’s campaigns and the location was a pub near Bristol’s Temple Meads station. Being fond of trains and pubs, I found it an easy decision to attend; I also found that FOSBR has even produced a guide to pubs along the Temple Meads / Severn Beach line, called FOSBEER of course.

Serious content

Enough of the fun side of it; the content of the meeting, even though billed as a celebration, was deadly serious, i.e. the possible / probable negative impact of the recent McNulty Report. I was impressed with the presentations by three local rail union officials (RMT, TSSA and ASLEF respectively); incisive and fact-filled.

Correction; I’d assumed they’d be local union officials but in fact two of them had national status: Alex Gordon is national President of the RMT and Manuel Cortes is Assistant General Secretary of TSSA.

They also had a local councillor speaking; importantly, he represents an area in North Somerset that could be served by rail once more if passenger services are restored to the (currently freight-only) Portbury branch and it’s extended a couple of miles to Portishead.

Subsidy five times higher since privatisation

I’ve often read, (e.g in The Economist) or heard it said verbally (Richard Wilson’s recent impassioned plea on behalf of harassed British rail users on Channel 4) that the level of public subsidy of our railways was now higher than it was pre-privatisation, despite our fares being the highest in Europe. However it was not made clear in either of those sources if the comparison was inflation-adjusted.

At this meeting, though, the guy from TSSA filled in the blanks; the subsidy is now five times higher; £5 bn, compared to £1 bn at today’s prices back then. How can that be? McNulty apparently thinks that staffing levels and pay costs are a big part of it, which concerns the unions, naturally, including the possibility of DOO (driver-only operation). Maybe his brief didn’t allow him to conclude that the fragmentary and thus potentially chaotic way the railways were privatised had a big impact on costs and that should be addressed first.


I learned some other interesting stuff, all of which I shall check out in the interests of balance; for example that First Group will be able to exploit a loophole and avoid large subsidy repayments by giving up the Great Western rail franchise three years early.

The feeling of the meeting was summed up for me by FOSBR member Mike: “McNulty is Beeching Mk 2”.

I’ve now joined this worthwhile and effective organisation and will be blogging about rail in the West, so watch this space.


On the McNulty Report:

On Driver-Only Operation (DOO):