WECA’s Rail Plans

Bi-mode trains at Bristol Temple Meads

There have been several reports in the press in recent weeks about WECA’s plans to improve rail services around Bristol and Bath. Rail magazine reported on plans to electrify trains between Bristol Parkway and Bristol Temple Meads, while Bristol Live ran stories about potential new stations and more frequent services.

These reports follow WECA’s approval of a report recommending the funding of some important projects which build on existing MetroWest plans. These projects will make the case for new stations, better service frequencies, electrification and station access improvements.

The Report

On 26th January 2024 the WECA Committee voted to approve the recommendations of a report on Transport Infrastructure Projects.

They agreed to fund these projects:

  1. Strategic Rail Plan;
  2. New Rail Stations Study
  3. Rail Electrification Study
  4. MetroWest 1 (Portishead)
  5. Zero Emissions Buses
  6. Electric Vehicle Charging Action Plan

We are pleased to see this emphasis on rail. It is also good to see moves towards electrification – not just of trains, but of buses and cars too.

It is worth taking a deep dive into the detail of what WECA agreed, so here’s what’s in the projects:

Strategic Rail

These projects develop and expand WECA’s 10-year rail plan:

MetroWest Connectivity South

This looks at improving services between Bristol and Weston-super-Mare, which pass through Bedminster, Parson St, Nailsea & Backwell, Yatton, Worle and Weston Milton. The project was a core recommendation of the Greater Bristol Rail Network Strategic Study and includes four-tracking from Bristol Temple Meads to Parson Street Station.

WECA needs other funders for this work (most of it is in North Somerset, which is not part of WECA). Interestingly Highways England may help, as they are keen to release capacity on the M5 motorway.

Branch Line study

Building on the success of MetroWest, this new study will look at the feasibility of running more frequent services to Henbury and Severn Beach. The existing two trains per hour from Bristol Temple Meads to Avonmouth could be enhanced to 3 trains per hour, and the proposed hourly service on the Henbury line could be improved to 2 or 3 trains per hour.

Station accessibility, enhancements and interchange

WECA will publish a new minimum standard for local rail stations, and produce a prioritised list of stations for improvement. This will include accessibility and interchange between rail and other transport modes.

New stations

A new piece of work, this will investigate opportunities to open new stations. Likely candidates are Saltford, St Anne’s Park, Ashton Gate and Lockleaze. £100,000 of funding has been allocated to study these options. The report reminds us that some of these stations could be discounted after the initial phase of the study. Bristol Rail Campaign will work to ensure they all stay in scope!

De-scoped schemes

Some other schemes have been ‘de-scoped’, but this isn’t as bad as it sounds:

Freight strategy

This work will now be funded by the Western Gateway Subnational Transport Board (STB) in conjunction with Network Rail and freight operators.

Connections to the East-West-North

This includes a review of the case for an hourly direct train service from Bristol to Oxford. Early stage development work is now being funded and led by GWR and Network Rail. GWR have already requested to run direct services between these cities on Saturdays from 14th Sept 2024.

25 year Strategic Outline Business Case

This has been removed from the 10-year rail pipeline. We agree that this is logical. WECA will instead prioritise their development funding on schemes that can be delivered within 10 years. This is partly because the risk of spending money on abortive schemes is higher for longer term projects. Also longer term schemes such as the upgrade of Westerleign Junction are better treated as standalone projects

Rail Electrification

Network Rail will lead this project once WECA has funded the the initial feasibility stage. The first phase would demonstrate that electrifying Filton Bank, the line between Bristol Temple Meads and Bristol Parkway, is affordable.

Electrifying Filton Bank will allow fully electric services between Bristol and Cardiff to operate. It also opens up the possibility of running electric or battery/electric trains to Severn Beach and Henbury.

Evidence from this work could also help make the case for further electrification through Bath to Chippenham, where the wires currently end.

The main focus of this work will be to find better ways of doing electrification. New techniques for installing overhead line equipment could allow this to be done at a much lower cost while retaining its reliability. It may be possible to install this equipment on two tracks at a time, reducing disruption on this four track main line. New bridge coating methods may remove the need to rebuild Church Road Bridge at Lawrence Hill, and a more efficient approach to wiring inside Temple Meads Station will be investigated.

Together these techniques may reduce the cost of electrification from £3-4 million per single track kilometre to £1-2 million.

This work is fundamental to Bristol Rail Campaign’s vision for efficient low-carbon local transport. We hope these preliminary steps can be taken quickly so that this overdue infrastructure can be delivered very soon.

MetroWest 1 (Portishead)

This decision approves the release of nearly £10 million of previously allocated funding to Network Rail towards the reopening of the Portishead Branch. This is conditional on funds being released by North Somerset Council and the Department for Transport.

This scheme has been a long time coming. All being well, we look forward to work starting to prepare for actual tracklaying later this year!

Zero Emissions Buses

In October 2023, the Department for Transport (DfT) announced the Zero Emission Bus Regional Area 2 (ZEBRA 2) fund. This enabled local transport authorities (LTAs) to bid for funding to support the rollout of zero emission buses across England.

WECA had to submit its funding bid very quickly to meet the DfT’s deadline. This meant that First Bus were the only operator able to produce a proposal achieving the strict ZEBRA 2 value for money and deliverability criteria. The First Bus proposal achieved a Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) of 2.05, which is considered ‘High’ value for money.

The funding would cover up to 75% of the cost of infrastructure and 75% of the cost difference between a zero emission bus and conventional diesel buses and required partnership working with operators to develop a suitable bid. North Somerset Council has
submitted a separate bid for £25m of funding.

The WECA bid, if successful, will include:

  • Upgrade of Hengrove depot including electrical charging infrastructure to support new electric bus fleet
  • A total of 74 electric buses – 67 Double Decker and 7 Single Decker (new zero emission buses to replace existing Euro 5 and 6 diesel buses)

Zero Emission Buses could begin operation in November 2025.

Electric Vehicle Charging Action Plan

WECA’s Electric Vehicle Charging Action Plan will support the transition to electric vehicles by giving the authority new powers to speed up the rollout of EV chargers.

By 2025 WECA anticipate that there will be nearly 40,000 EVs regiastered in its area, growing to 150,000 by 2030. To support this, over 5,000 public charge points will be required of which nearly half will require puiblic investment.

We accept that some journeys can’t be made by walking, cycling or public transport. For people who have to use cars, switching over to electric power as soon as possible is essential.

WECA or WEMCA?

In recent months we’ve noticed that WECA now refers to itself as the West of England Mayoral Combined Authority. We’ve not seen any official statement on this, and the WECA logo hasn’t changed. So should we now refer to it as WEMCA, or stick with WECA?

We’ve been given to understand that Metro Mayor Dan Norris prefers the authority’s full name to be used, but we (like most people!) find it a bit of a mouthful – especially with the word ‘mayoral’ inserted in the middle. So for now, we’ll carry on calling it WECA!

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