Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways (FoSBR) held its Annual General Meeting at Alma Church Hall, near Clifton Down station, on 24th March 2023. This is a brief report. The formal minutes of the AGM will be made available shortly.
Chair Rob Dixon welcomed members, speakers and visitors to the meeting. There were around 30 attendees. The FoSBR 2022 Roundup was circulated with meeting papers.
Rob was pleased to say that sixty years after the Beeching Report, we have at last seen some progress in reversing some of the cuts it led to. The Portishead railway has finally gained its Development Consent Order – we will keep up the pressure to get this line delivered – and new stations are being delivered at Portway Park & Ride and Ashley Down.
We were sad to lose Julie Boston, whose campaigning was key in getting Portishead approved. Julie recognised the importance of connecting people and causes, and of having fun doing it. Rob was really glad that Julie saw some of the achievements that she worked on, such as half-hourly cross city services.
FoSBR’s focus for the year ahead will be on improving services, and encouraging people to use them. In particular, bus and train services need to be linked. The new station at Ashley Down needs to be integrated with local buses.
We will continue to press elected officials for better funding of public transport, and for better accessibility.
FoSBR look forward to celebrating the new half-hourly MetroWest services to Gloucester and Westbury in May, and plan to have other social events such as trips to Severn Beach during the year ahead.
Rob then welcomed Dan Okey of GWR as our main speaker.
Dan Okey, Head of Regional Development GWR
Growth and Communities Team
Dan listed the members of his Growth and Communities Team, all of whom have strong backgrounds in planning or public transport. Their job is to connect with transport operators, local councils, community rail partnerships and other stakeholders and find ways to grow the railway.
The team is very interested in future stations and how people get to them. They worked with South Gloucestershire Council on the Bristol Parkway station masterplan. They employ architects and town planners to help plan integrated transport and to provide better for rail customers.
GWR currently has ten community rail partnerships, and would like to extend this to cover the whole network.
Customer and Communities Improvement Fund
The Customer and Communities Improvement Fund (CCIF) allows GWR to support projects across its network, helping customers, charities, community groups and voluntary organisations to deliver benefit in the communities it serves
As an example, CCIF was used to help Grub Hub in Didcot, who wanted to offer a day out in the summer for communities in deprived local areas with food as part of that experience.
The Growth and Communities Team is promoting ‘Bus branch lines‘, joining up the bus with the train in terms of timetabling, ticketing, and branding. These are already operating at Totnes and Okehampton in Devon, where GWR have seen a 20% rise in people using the connecting bus. Wiltshire Council are interested in this concept.
Branded cycles and E-bikes will be rolling out as well to support door-to-door services.
Dan outlined projects to improve stations at Castle Cary, Reading West, Taunton and Newbury. He pointed out that improving the railway is very painful. It takes a long time and is hard graft. But GWR is proving that we can however do these things. Projects are driven by stakeholder relationships, the industry’s plan, annual business plans, and the extent to which these overlap.
Passenger numbers have recovered to almost 100% of 2019 levels, but revenue is still slightly down. The comparison with pre-COVID levels is becoming less relevant, as things change and grow.
GWR now have a National Rail Contract rather than a franchise, which means they now operate a business plan agreed with the Government. The big structural changes to be implemented as Great British Railways is established are still awaited.
GWR is hoping for an agreement with the RMT soon so that we can move forward.
Portway Park & Ride
- Test train operated with no issues raised
- Process commences to obtain safety certification for entry into service
- Opening day plans drafted and marketing plan in place
GWR are excited about the stations announced for MetroWest.
- WECA funded additional Bristol – Gloucester and Bristol – Westbury services to start in May.
- Full business case being produced for re-opening the line to Porishead – due for submission in early 2024.
- WECA committee approved the full business case.
- Also Ashley Down is looking likely to happen. [Work has now started]
Dan’s job is the engage with people in Devon and Cornwall. This area is served by the main line from Taunton to Bridgwater and Bristol, coming through Exeter, down to Plymouth and to Cornwall. There are also the branch lines to Barnstaple, and Paignton. There is a lot of strong development in Devon, where the 15 year growth plan offers many opportunities to grow rail traffic.
Exeter alone has a population of over 125,000. There are nine stations there, with a tenth at Marsh Barton coming along.
Devon Metro Strategy
When Dan joined they were still running very old trains, and on Sundays trains only ran hourly. Devon County Council wanted more capacity and more stations.
The council wanted to improve services and they decided exactly where on a map where they wanted it to go. A number of station locations were identified, such as Cranbrook, Newcourt, Marsh Barton and Edinswell. The most realistic approach was to prioritise and build the case over time, rather than try to boil the ocean and do everything at once.
GWR developed strong partnerships with Network Rail and the local authorities. The Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership acted as the glue for all of this, and brought in OkeRail, the Tarka Rail Association and the Avocet Line.
The timeline for delivering the Devon Metro started in 2016, with station improvements. From 2017 to 2019, newer and refurbished rolling stock including Intercity Express Trains were introduced. Service frequencies were improved in the December 2019 timetable, and in 2021 Okehamption line services recommenced and Exeter Depot was completed.
According to Dan, the keys to the Devon Metro’s success were:
- Strong partnerships
- Realistic asks
- Consistent and clear messaging
- Incremental steps
- Make the case for the community / benefits
- Promote, Promote, Promote
Keith Walton, Severnside Community Rail Partnership
One of the key themes for Severnside CRP is integrated transport: train and bus connections. The CRP are looking at every station in the WECA and North Somerset area to see what can be done better. Examples are cycle infrastructure at Severn Beach, and coordinating timetables at Weston super Mare and Nailsea.
The CRP employs four qualified teachers to deliver the ‘Platform‘ education scheme, which empowers young people in accessing the railways. Access to this award-winning scheme, which is sponsored by GWR and CrossCounty, is free of charge to schools.
The traditional Day Out By Train activity has suffered because of COVID, but is back running. It has helped people who are hard of hearing, or have dementia, or who are elderly and suffering from loneliness. It has also helped asylum seekers.
Strawberry Line Cycle Adventure Days involve catching a train to Yatton and a guided cycle trip. The CRP has decorated the cycle storing equipment at Yatton station, with a different type of mural that has been received very well.
The CRP continues to support Community Art Work. It recently put a ‘pioneers of the railway’ gallery at Filton Abbey Wood. Patchway has new artworks, as well as student art Nailsea & Backwell from Backwell School. It also supports Incredible Edible at Avonmouth station, helping to grow food at the station and cook food for the community there.
Severnside CRP’s annual report should be available soon.