Christina Biggs shares her thoughts on the proposals in the West of England Combined Authority’s JLTP4 plan

Grant Shapps, the new Secretary of State for Transport, said last month that ‘Britons need to use cars less and public transport more’ just as the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) agreed the final version of their next Joint Local Transport Plan, JLTP4. WECA claim this £9 billion plan will completely transform Bristol and Bath’s travel to work habits, but £6 billion of this money is yet to be found. Could the job be done for less?

The JLTP4 schemes, in descending order of cost, are:

• Road schemes (£3.1 billion): new motorway junctions – J21a on the M5 and J18a on the M4; motorway and highway junction remodelling, three new village bypasses, and completion of a South Bristol orbital road. 

• A new mass transit scheme (originally £2.6 billion): three radial routes in Greater Bristol possibly ‘tram-based with some underground running’; a route from Bristol to Bath to be initially bus-based but with an aspiration for light rail later on; and consideration of a light-rail system for Bath. The Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, is now pledging a £6 billion fully underground system. 

• Rail (£1 billion): fuller use of suburban passenger and freight lines: reopening of the Portishead and Henbury suburban rail lines, regional and suburban frequency enhancements and station reopenings.

• Bus investment (total £0.83 billion): four new MetroBus (guided busway) routes to Nailsea, Thornbury, Severn Beach and Keynsham, and multiple new Park and Ride bus-based sites around Bristol, Bath and Weston super Mare.

• Cycling and walking routes (£0.4 billion).

Introducing the curious science of saturated road systems

The idea that Bristol and Bath’s extreme road congestion and air pollution could be relieved by building new roads while providing new separate public transport routes might seem to be common sense, and certainly is the prevailing view of both the Department for Transport and local planners across Britain.

But this could not be more wrong, as Dr Steve Melia of the University of the West of England explains: ‘All the evidence suggests that in car-saturated cities, if traffic hotspots are tackled with more road-building, then this simply creates more traffic, which in a short period of time reaches saturation again, but at a higher volume of traffic. 

‘This means that building more roads just results in more road traffic, which means more exhaust fumes and tyre dust. The only way to reduce pollution is to reduce the road-space available to cars and reallocate that space to other forms of transport.’

The implications for public transport are worth considering. According to this reasoning, even a high-volume underground system would not reduce road congestion while the roadspace is still available for cars to fill. All that would result would be still-gridlocked roads, with air pollution now both above and below ground, as in London. Is that what Bristolians want?

The neatest solution, then, is that new public transport routes should not be separate from roads, but rather should encroach on roadspace so as to actively squeeze out cars. This may seem an intimidating and vote-losing prospect for politicians, but is the nettle that must be grasped.

This can be done most simply and cheaply with a bucket of paint, by creating conventional bus lanes, but street trams would also do that job, perhaps more elegantly. 

But – the tram or bus should also have continuous priority over cars, especially at junctions, so that people know they will always get to work on time by public transport. This is the challenge that Bristol is yet to overcome.

A tale of two cities?

Bus or trams? The debate rages on. Professor Lewis Lesley of the campaign group Bath Area Trams Association (BATA) argues against using buses as the major public transport component: ‘Experience has shown that motorists are very resistant to using any form of bus, but a significant percentage of motorists are willing to switch to rail services, whether trams, light railways, or ordinary suburban trains.’

Another argument against tyre-based transport is from research by Emissions Analytics which suggests that 1,000 times more PM2.5 and PM10 particulates are generated by tyre wear and brake wear, and the associated dispersal of road dust, than by tailpipe emissions, and therefore that tyres are much more damaging to health than rail.

The inclusion in the JLTP4 mass transit proposals of a light rail system for Bath was due to the sterling efforts of BATA, who proposed a tram system within and around Bath. Bath and North-East Somerset council (BANES) then funded an Atkins study, which found no showstoppers on four routes. The international engineering company Egis, who are the lead designer for the Midland Metro Alliance, gave a presentation at a recent Bath Trams conference which extended the Atkins study and came to broadly the same conclusion, that it is likely to be feasible. WECA has now allocated £1.45 million for a mode-agnostic study for  the four Bristol mass transit routes now proposed, and a £450,000 mode-agnostic transport study for Bath.

Although urban light rail/tram routes could be electrified such as in Birmingham, an obstacle in Bath are the large numbers of heritage bridges which would make overhead wires problematic. An alternative would be biomethane powered trams, such as is now used in over 27 million vehicles, including 100 of the buses in Bristol. The trams could be built locally in the West Country, potentially costing less than half the price of imported European trams.

What about Bristol? Whenever the subject of trams is revived, Bristolians generally cite cost and congestion and the idea soon gets dropped again. At least the buses in Bristol are already there, and generally well used. But getting to work on time? At least you can read a book on the hour-long bus journey home from school.

The campaigners are currently pinning their hopes on a street-tram trial on the trendy Gloucester Road. If a Bristol tram system used the same gauge as for the suburban rail system, then there is the option to connect these street trams to the existing and future suburban commuter lines to form an integrated mass transit network.

But what about MetroBus – is that the answer? Sadly, it turns out that, at least for Bristol, it isn’t.

MetroBus in Bristol – neither one thing nor the other

The term ‘MetroBus’ may not be familiar to readers, but the idea is getting dangerously fashionable across Britain.

The original concept was a guided busway – a concrete trough, shaped so that cars cannot travel on it. This is cheaper and quicker to construct than rail, hence the low price-tag and its popularity. But the joke is that even the existing £200 million MetroBus system, with its three cross-Bristol routes, was not planned with continuous bus lanes. To save costs, the lanes rejoined the traffic at pinch points such as bridges and roundabouts. Despite warnings from campaigners, it was only when the service finally started to run in January 2020 that full effect of this was realised. James Freeman, Managing Director of FirstBus West of England, expressed his frustration: ‘It’s largely wasted if we can’t run the service properly or at all. Somehow the way has to be found to make these MetroBuses able to run through these areas of increasingly chronic congestion.’

Mr Freeman and the Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees are now concluding a deal to double the number of conventional buses on key corridors in exchange for ensuring continuous bus lane priority.

 

Can we now talk about railways?

All the above notwithstanding, it is obviously vital to have at least one public transport system completely independent of roads. And according to some people, rail is the most cost-effective and least polluting form of transport. It is heartening, then, to read of WECA’s plans to make better use of the existing suburban passenger lines with the 28 operational stations and three freight lines, for a mere £1 billion:

• MetroWest Phase 1A, a clockface half-hourly service from Temple Meads to Avonmouth, hourly to Severn Beach with a through service to Westbury – currently a 40-minute service to Avonmouth, every two hours to Severn Beach, with a ridership of 1.4 million passengers per year. As part of this, Portway Park and Rail is due to be delivered by December 2020. The scheme also includes through services eastwards to Bath and Westbury, to give stations such as Keynsham a half-hourly service in place of the present hourly service. The £9 million delivery funds have now been committed, but negotiations on the extension to Westbury are ongoing.

• MetroWest Phase 1B, the long-awaited reopening of the Portishead Line with a new station at Pill – although the freight line to Portbury Dock is operational, Portishead with its 25,000 inhabitants is currently not connected to the national rail network. The final £48 million in funding has been awarded, for delivery in 2024; Ashton Gate Station will be developed later.

• MetroWest Phase 2, also to be delivered by 2024 – this Henbury Spur would run north from Bristol Temple Meads, via a new station at Ashley Down, then westwards via North Filton (for the Brabazon Arena, just granted planning permission) to terminate at Henbury. The line would see half-hourly rail services alternately to Bristol Parkway and Bristol Temple Meads; the full Henbury Loop to Avonmouth is included as a longer-term aspiration.

• Five further station reopenings – Charfield (now allocated £2 million in WECA study funds), Constable Rd (in Horfield, north Bristol), Ashton Gate (on the Portishead Line), Saltford and St Anne’s (between Bristol and Bath), are listed as ‘schemes under development’.

• Enhancements to the frequency of regional trains – Cardiff–Portsmouth, Bristol–Taunton/Exeter, Bristol–Swindon, Bristol–Yeovil and Bristol–Cheltenham corridors; and £2 million in funding to develop a Bristol Temple Meads masterplan. 

• Longer term suburban service improvements – further enhancing the frequency on the Severn Beach Line to once every 20 minutes, with local rail stations as multimodal exchange hubs; and a new zero-carbon fleet of trains, with electrification of lines mentioned.

• Infrastructure improvements – comprising a new rail chord at Uphill Junction south of Weston super Mare, to allow local trains to run round the loop back to Bristol without having to reverse.

• A mention of ‘new links to Thornbury and Pilning’, with the Thornbury rail line as a long-term aspiration, including the need to remodel the nearby Westerleigh Junction – currently there is an operational freight line to Tytherington Quarry, one mile short of Thornbury itself. Pilning currently has a limited service of just two trains a week (on Saturday, both eastbound), as the footbridge was removed in 2016 during electrification and not replaced.

Each of these schemes has been promoted for tens of years by the ceaseless work of many national and local rail campaign groups and individuals – Railfuture, Severnside Community Rail Partnership, Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways (FoSBR), Portishead Rail Group, Pilning Station Group, Transport for Greater Bristol Alliance, the rail columnist David Wood and the tireless David Redgewell, who are all much relieved that their cherished schemes have finally got a hard-won mention in the final draft of the JLTP4. 

However, FoSBR Chair, Rob Dixon, is sceptical: ‘In our experience of WECA, even where public transport schemes are in the mix, they take longer to develop. Despite being more expensive, the road schemes, having the resources and budgets of Highways England, are the ones that get worked on first and are quicker to reach fruition, whereas public transport schemes cast around local and central government for piecemeal funding. That’s why the JLTP4 rail schemes are fragmentary with unambitious timescales.’

But there is hope. Schemes such as MetroWest Phase 1A are nearing fruition and, given the political will, could see delivery in 2020. Even a station like Pilning could be quickly brought into full use as a regional Park and Rail for commuters from Wales with the simple restoration of a £2 million footbridge.

The main need now is to upgrade the ageing rail infrastructure. FoSBR suggests that WECA could fund the Westerleigh Junction remodelling, which could be delivered instead of the proposed £95 million M4 Junction 18a, perhaps by using the existing Westerleigh oil depot line and restoring the Ram Hill loop. This would make a direct half-hour Thornbury rail service to Bristol possible – FoSBR calculates a 48-minute travel time compared to the 1.5 hours by bus at rush hour.

FoSBR also suggests capacity improvements at Filton Junction and Bristol Parkway. This would allow local rail services from Weston super Mare in the south to terminate at Parkway rather than currently being turned back one station short at Filton Abbey Wood. Another suggestion for infrastructure improvements would be selective double-tracking of the Severn Beach line, as the single-track sections are causing problems when trains are delayed.

Further FoSBR suggestions are to reopen stations at Coalpit Heath, Chittening, Corsham, Long Ashton and Uphill. Coalpit Heath station, just east of Bristol Parkway, would serve commuters who would otherwise use the northern Bristol ring road, and there is level land at Coalpit Heath for a passing loop. 

FoSBR’s full recommendations for the West of England rail network is summarised in the FoSBR Plan for Rail.

And in the future, who knows? Perhaps Network Rail could introduce moving-block signalling to allow trains to travel closer to each other, but that may mean a slower lifestyle.

So, here’s the proposal to WECA for the JLTP4: rather than building yet more roads or new segregated mass transit routes, WECA should start with their MetroWest suburban rail plans. Rather than building yet more MetroBus routes, WECA should improve the existing local bus network by giving bus lanes continuous priority and anchoring routes to the local rail stations, and ensuring that Park and Ride sites are located at rail stations. As for the JLTP4 mass transit plans, these should take the form of street trams or trolleybuses, with continuous running onto the local suburban rail network, and with cycling and walking routes on reclaimed roadspace. These plans could well fit within the £3  billion of identified funds – but can Highways England find it in their hearts to spend their £1 billion on – local rail?

Christina Biggs is campaigns lead for Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways (fosbr.org.uk). She is finally about to leave the world of rail campaigning after a joyous ten years, for a postdoctoral research fellowship investigating cheap ways to produce hydrogen.

Thanks to Rob Dixon, Martin Garrett, Carol Durrant, Mike Godwin, Dave Andrews, Prof Lewis Lesley, Christopher Maltin, Steve Melia, Bruce Tyldesley.

References

https://inews.co.uk/news/environment/britons-cars-public-transport-reduce-emissions-grant-shapps-2521249 

https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/travelwest/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Adopted-Joint-Local-Transport-Plan-4.pdf 

https://thebristolcable.org/2020/01/plans-for-new-road-threaten-bristols-countryside-and-undo-action-on-the-climate-crisis/ 

https://bathtrams.uk/how-the-runcorn-busway-demonstrates-that-car-drivers-will-not-use-buses-even-if-they-are-quicker/ 

https://www.emissionsanalytics.com/news/pollution-tyre-wear-worse-exhaust-emissions 

https://bathtrams.uk/solving-baths-traffic/one-set-of-proposals-for-a-new-tram-layout/ 

https://www.egis-group.com/content/egis-rail 

https://www.egis-group.com/action/realisations/extension-tram-network-birmingham 

http://biomethane.co.uk/christopher-maltin/ 

https://www.firstgroup.com/bristol-bath-and-west/news-and-service-updates/news/open-letter-james-freeman-md-first-west-england 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-51235880 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/oliverwyman/2019/09/24/forget-ride-hailing-rail-is-a-citys-most-cost-effective-least-polluting-transport/#11077a067ba1 

https://fosbr.org.uk/campaigns/fosbr-plan-for-rail/