Metrobus yes, but where’s the metro train?

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Anyone who had spent one hour 50 minutes on a bus travelling the ten or so miles from Cribbs Causeway shopping centre to Temple Meads station, as I did this week, would realise how serious Bristol’s traffic congestion has become.

Whilst my choice of a 73 bus, rather than the shiny new m1 metrobus and its route via the M32 motorway, inevitably slowed my journey, it still took around half an hour longer than scheduled and underlines the need for some radical action.

Rail-based solutions to Bristol’s growing traffic crisis have been under discussion now for more than 30 years, yet for all the bold talk of plans for a Metrowest network, nothing seems to have happened, apart from the recent re-quadrupling between Temple Meads and Filton Abbey Wood.

Besides increasing frequencies on local services to Bath and Severn Beach, the Metrowest scheme aims to help deal with congestion north of the city centre by the revival of rail services from Filton to Henbury, with the opening of new stations at Henbury, North Filton and Ashley Down.

Back in 1987 I went to the Clifton offices of a privately-promoted project called Advanced Transport for Avon, to write a feature for The Sunday Times on its ambitious plans for a new light rail network around Bristol that would have begun with a revival of the closed Portishead branch line.

This could have seen rail services returned to Portishead by 1991, but the project hit financial difficulties and collapsed. 28 years on and the talk continues, estimated costs escalate in the way that they do with every rail revival, and the most optimistic guesses are that it will now be 2022 before a passenger service reaches Portishead.img_1090

Ashton Gate metrobus stop (pictured above) is on a section of guided busway and is served by both m2 services and the A1 Airport Flyer buses to Bristol Airport

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Ashton Swing Bridge on 29 January 2019 (above) and the same view in October 1965 (below – photo by RJ Leonard)

img_3062Bristol has seen some progress in improving its public transport infrastructure. Apart from the 4½ miles of quadruple track to Filton, a staggering £230 million has been spent on creating its metrobus network – three routes where buses get priority at junctions and use bus lanes and a stretch of segregated busway to speed up journeys.

img_1082Besides the m1 route from South Bristol to Cribbs Causeway, which uses a unique bus-only exit from the M32, the most interesting route seems to be the m2, which runs from a huge park and ride side at Long Ashton, south-west of the city, to follow an anti-clockwise loop around the city centre.

A major feature of the m2 route is a purpose built fly-over at Ashton Gate, where it crosses the Portishead railway line at Ashton Junction. It then traces the course of a former railway line into Bristol Docks, crossing the Grade II-listed Ashton Swing Bridge, which was refurbished as part of the metrobus project.

img_1105Looking north from a road bridge close to the Ashton Gate stop, platforms of the former Ashton Gate Halt (last used for football specials in 1984) stand less than 100 yards from the Ashton Gate metrobus stop (above right), yet even the current Portishead branch plans do not feature  a station here, despite a strong local campaign in favour.

img_3061As Temple Meads is far from ideally situated for access to Bristol city centre, it seems blindingly obvious that, after all the money spent on the metrobus project, creation of an interchange at Ashton Gate between m2 buses and Portishead trains would hugely enhance the commercial viability of train services.

Pictured right is Ashton Swing Bridge Junction in October 1965 (photo: RJ Leonard) and the same location below on 29 January 2019.

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The most recent feasibility study into an Ashton Gate station was by consultants CH2MHill for Bristol City Council and published in November 2014, long before the metrobus scheme was developed and opened. Even then, it concluded that a £4.0m new station would be “very close to producing a positive Net Present Value (NPV)”.

To read more about the Metrowest plans, go to www.travelwest.info/projects/metrowest and for more about efforts to re-open the Portishead line, visit www.portisheadrailwaygroup.org

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