What is planned to happenWhen fully implemented, the MetroWest project will provide half-hourly train services on most routes within the main Bristol commuting area, although the frequency between Bristol Temple Meads and Bath Spa will be every 15 minutes including InterCity trains to/from London Paddington.
Phase 1 of the scheme includes upgrading the Severn Beach line with train services becoming half-hourly east of Avonmouth and hourly to St. Andrews Road and Severn Beach. There will also be half-hourly train services at Keynsham, Oldfield Park, Parson Street and possibly Bedminster. The main capital works involve reopening of the Portishead branch to passenger trains, with stations at Portishead and Pill. Public consultation on reopening the Portishead line included the design of these two stations and closed in August 2015. The Railfuture submission asked for land to be safeguarded at Portishead for future enlargement of the station and at Ashton Gate to develop a station as soon as practicable after the Portishead line is open.
A station at Ashton Gate is not included in the Development Consent Order for works on the Portishead scheme but official MetroWest literature shows it and Saltford (between Keynsham and Oldfield Park) as possible stations on the Phase 1 network, subject to a separate business case. Portway Parkway station, between Avonmouth and Shirehampton, was not part of the original Phase 1 proposal but is now under construction following a successful bid to the New Stations Fund and is expected to open in late 2021. Reopening of St. Annes Park station, between Bristol Temple Meads and Keynsham, is another aspiration of rail campaigners.
Phase 1 cost escalation in 2017 challenged by RailfuturePhase 1 had been intended to be delivered in late 2019 or the first half of 2020 but further delay to Portishead reopening arose in 2017 when the GRIP 3 Stage of the scheme identified higher than expected costs in upgrading the freight-only Parson Street-Pill section of the route to allow passenger trains to run at 50 mph. Network Rail said that easing out curves to raise line speed would require complex engineering work in the Avon Gorge.
We were not convinced that the March 2017 estimate of £145m to £175m was a true reflection of the work actually required, as we understand that about a third of the estimate was for contingency. Nor do we consider that a 50 mph passenger service is necessary on the Portishead line, at least not initially. A 40 mph or even 30 mph service would not require drastic realignment of tracks and would still be competitive with road transport, especially in peak hours. We urged the West of England Partnership (predecessor of the West of England Combined Authority) and Network Rail to lose no more time in delivering a realistic service because the longer it is delayed, the more difficult it will be to reduce car usage from new housing developments in the area.
Despite the cost escalation, the West of England Partnership’s Joint Transport Board remained committed to the project and agreed to progress Phase 1 in stages, Stage 1 involving the upgrade of services to Bath and Severn Beach; and Stage 2 providing an hourly service on the Portishead line. Cost estimates were revised down to £116m, although this still resulted in a funding gap of nearly £32m. In 2019 the Secretary of State agreed to make up the shortfall, and the project then appeared at step 3 of 5 in the DfT's Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline. This funding decision allowed North Somerset Council, the scheme’s promoter, to apply for a Development Consent Order, which after process delays caused by the pandemic completed its examination stage in April 2021. The Planning Inspectorate was due to submit its report to the Secretary of State in July 2021 and his decision is expected by the end of October.
Assuming the decision is positive, North Somerset Council then has to approve the full business case for the scheme. The next stage will be for the Department for Transport to seek Treasury approval for the project. Only when this is given can North Somerset Council award the contract for construction works, which may not start until early 2023. This means train services to Portishead are likely to start in the second half of 2024. However in May 2021 Network Rail Infrastructure started tendering for a contractor to re-open the freight-only line for passenger services.
Phase 2 - Railfuture calls for Henbury loop serviceOn 17 July 2015 the West of England Partnership’s Joint Transport Board resolved to prepare an outline business case for MetroWest Phase 2 including the extension of Weston-super-Mare-Bristol Parkway local trains to Yate; and a Henbury spur service with new stations at Ashley Down, North Filton and Henbury. Consultants to the Partnership dismissed the case for a Henbury loop service extending west to Avonmouth via Clifton Down to Temple Meads, claiming this would attract only 8,000 more passengers per year than the proposed spur. This was challenged by Railfuture in a letter published in the Bristol Post and by Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways. At a MetroWest Update meeting at Worle on 22 July 2015 there was a lively discussion of the consultants’ conclusions, although there was a consensus that MetroWest required phased implementation. It was also confirmed that the spur service would not prejudice its extension into a loop, although campaigners fear this may be many years after 5,000 additional homes have been built along its route. Consultation on the siting of Henbury station took place later in 2015 and Phase 2 is due for completion in 2023.
The project was renamed from Greater Bristol Metro to MetroWest in 2013, ostensibly in an effort to involve neighbouring local authorities such as Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Somerset. Many existing train services extend far beyond the boundaries of WECA and North Somerset but it is not yet certain how far MetroWest will extend, although there is strong local authority support for extensions to Gloucester and Westbury.
Analysis of the schemeRailfuture strongly supports MetroWest as it has long argued that the Bristol area has been the poor relation of other major UK conurbations in terms of local train services and integration with other modes of transport. The local rail network was depleted of routes, stations and track capacity in earlier decades when there was overwhelming emphasis on car transport. MetroWest would unlock the potential of the rail network to improve the economy and environment.
Prior to the Covid pandemic, usage of Bristol suburban stations had risen dramatically in recent years and this augurs very well for the success of the additional stations and routes which MetroWest may introduce. They could be largely self-financing, as demonstrated by the 40-minute interval service operated on the Severn Beach line since 2008, which required less subsidy from Bristol City Council because more trains produced more passengers.
A successful campaign by Railfuture, Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways and other stakeholders resulted in the reinstatement of four tracks on the main line between Bristol Temple Meads and Filton in 2018. This is essential for the segregation of slower and faster trains to make MetroWest work efficiently. Work to remodel Bristol East Junction between July and September 2021 will also greatly enhance capacity of the network.
Railfuture’s responses to three GW Franchise Consultations, in 2012, 2014 and 2018, called for more electrification of suburban routes to follow the GW Main Line electrification which reached Bristol Parkway from London in 2019. Until the local routes are electrified, it is very important that the Metro services are provided by diesel rolling stock of a high standard with passenger comfort in mind. We welcome GWR's cascade Class 165 and 166 trains to the West of England which had been displaced from the London and Reading areas by electrification, but are concerned at the delay arising from the deferral of electrification to Bristol Temple Meads.
Buying a ticket to travel on an enhanced network needs to be made as convenient as possible. Railfuture’s submission to the Fares & Ticketing consultation by the DfT in 2012 called for a wider range of retail outlets to sell tickets as well as for the retention of station ticket offices. The M Shops at Merseyrail stations are an example of how staffing of suburban stations can be viable. However MetroWest is managed, all its ticket outlets should sell tickets to all destinations on the national rail network. Likewise there must be integration with ticketing systems for bus, ferry and any future light rail systems in the Bristol area, eg with Smartcards valid on all modes of public transport.
If you support this proposal please contact Nigel Bray of Railfuture Severnside at nigel.bray2 at railfuture.org.uk