Beeching Report: The fight to reopen Portishead's rail link

Bridge over disused railway line in Portishead
Image caption Work to clear the disused railway line has already begun to find out how much work will be needed before trains can start running again

Campaigners have been fighting for more than 20 years to get the rail link back in a North Somerset town.

Members of the Portishead Railway Group have even set the date of 18 April 2017 - 150 years to the day the line was opened - to have trains on the track.

Fifty years have passed since Dr Richard Beeching restructured Great Britain's railways, but the effects of his cuts are still being felt.

In 1964, the railway station in the Severn Estuary coastal town closed for the last time because of low passenger numbers and falling freight use.

The campaign group is supported by the West of England Partnership which argues there is a "very good business case" for using the branch line once again.

"Bridges, tunnels, cuttings - it's all there - none of it has been built on," said Alan Matthews, chairman of the group.

"The line has never been lifted and the track is still there but all overgrown."

Image caption Despite an extra long platform at Portishead for day trippers, passenger numbers continued to fall

The nine miles of single track line between Ashton in Bristol and Portishead was opened in 1867.

Running along the Avon Gorge, it offered passengers a regular service with stations at Clifton Bridge, Pill and Portbury.

"It was run to a timetable and was definitely profitable up to the start of the 20th century," said Mr Matthews.

"It was very busy during both world wars but Dr Beeching said the line had to do £5,000 per week or it would have to close."

Despite a "very long" platform being built in Portishead to accommodate large numbers of day trippers, passenger numbers fell and in 1964 the line was closed to all but freight and by 1981 was closed completely.

Twenty years later, it was re-laid as far as Portbury Docks but for freight use only.

The remaining 3.3 miles of redundant track - from Portbury into Portishead - has been sitting idle for the last 49 years "collecting rust and buddleias".

'Overcrowded' town

In 1861 the population of Portishead was just 1,201 - this has risen to about 22,000 according to the town council.

With new housing developments in the area it is expected to increase by a further 8,000.

But with just one major road, the A369, linking Portishead with Bristol, the town has been described by North Somerset MP Dr Liam Fox as "the most overcrowded cul-de-sac in Britain".

A study by Network Rail in 2010 showed travel time from Portishead to Bristol by rail would be 17 minutes, compared to an hour by road during rush hour.

In 2008 the redundant line was bought by North Somerset Council to stop the track being taken up or built on.

Image caption An opening date of 18 April 2017 has been set - 150 years to the day it was opened by Brunel

And now the West of England Partnership is in discussions with Network Rail to develop the Greater Bristol Metro which will include Portishead.

James White, from the partnership, said it would make sense to bring the branch line back.

"The proposal is for two stations; one at Portishead and one at Pill, and a possible station at Ashton Gate," he said.

"The idea is to have a half hourly service at peak times, in the morning and evening, and an hourly service the rest of the day depending on demand."

With the organisation estimating up to 400,000 passengers a year and 1,300 a day, Mr White said he was confident trains would be running by 2017.

Funding blow

But with the cost estimated at more than £40m, a Network Rail spokesman said the work start date depends on when North Somerset Council obtains the funding.

"Reinstating the Bristol to Portishead line for passenger services is not our proposal," he said.

"It is a third party aspiration.

"It is not in the Network Rail strategic business plan for 2014 to 2019, although we are working with other interested parties to try and make it happen."

North Somerset Council has already had a £43m bid to reopen the line rejected by the government.

The authority applied for the money from the Regional Growth Fund back in 2011.

The Department for Transport is expected to make an announcement on funding later this year.

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