Rail heritage boosts Portishead revival scheme
By: Robin Jones
TOWNSFOLK in Portishead have turned to its heritage transport past as campaigners step up demands for the return of passenger services along its GWR branch.
A 40ft mural costing £6000 and depicting many aspects of the town’s railway history has been erected on land earmarked for a new station behind the Aldi store in Harbour Road.
Jointly funded by the Portishead Railway Group (PRG), site owners Persimmon Homes, Pure Offices and dock developers Crest Nicholson, the mural created by local artist Aili Purdy outlines the railway story of the North Somerset town from the broad gauge days of 1867 to a diesel railcar of 1954 and the future, when trains may take just 17 minutes to run through the Avon Gorge below Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge to Bristol Temple Meads.
The mural was officially unveiled by North Somerset MP Dr Liam Fox and other local dignitaries at a ceremony in April.
However, a hiccup occurred when the group was subsequently asked by North Somerset Council to apply for planning permission for the mural.
Portishead Railway Group chairman Alan Matthews said: "We checked with planning officers before the mural was put up and were told on two occasions that as effectively it was a piece of art, no planning permission was needed.”
The group is confident that it will be approved, and aim to keep the mural in place until the station is built. The site is earmarked for a station in the council’s own North Somerset Local Plan.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, September 29, train operator First Great Western ran a series of special free passenger trains from Bristol Temple Meads over the restored and currently-operational freight-only section of the branch as far as Portbury Docks.
Pro-rail campaigners point to the fact that major regeneration has taken place in the town since the passenger services were withdrawn under the Beeching Axe on September 7, 1964 and to ordinary goods on May 1, 1967.
The branch was not dismantled as it was still needed for private freight from Portishead docks until 1981. Four years later, the line was used for the GWR150 celebrations, for which a run-round loop was built in Portishead.
On September 15 that year, three round trips were run from Temple Meads to Portishead behind LMS Ivatt 2MT 2-6-0 No. 46443.
The line to Portbury was reopened at a cost of £21 million for the line in 2002, but the remaining 3.3 miles of old track still exists into Portishead, albeit covered by vegetation. The new station provided in 1954 is now covered by the site of the Waitrose supermarket filling station.
The council bought this overgrown section of trackbed in 2008 in order to preserve it for future rail use.
In April 2000, the Portishead Railway Action Group had been formed, and by 2007 was joined with the Portishead Heritage Rail Project to form the Portishead Railway Group. Its aim was to lobby for the reopening of the line.
The council has completed several studies in recent years looking at the branch’s ability to relieve worsening traffic congestion on the A369 corridor into Bristol, at a time when the future population of Portishead is estimated to soar to 28,000.
In July 2011 a meeting in Weston-super-Mare, the West of England Partnership decided to put forward a bid for £43.3 million of Government cash from the Regional Growth Fund to reopen the branch. Sadly, this bid was unsuccessful.
In January this year, the West of England Partnership launched the Bristol Metro 2013 campaign to fight for a half-hourly local train service at all existing local stations and any new potential new ones such as Portishead.
In June, the partnership asked the Department of Transport for £100 million for its Greater Bristol Metro project including the reopening of the Portishead line.
On July 6, a £1 billion City Deal for Bristol was announced. It may pay for the £100 million Greater Bristol Metro project including the Portishead railway, and trains could be running by 2017.
The electrification of the GWR main line from Paddington to Bristol has given the scheme greater impetus, with the possibility that Portishead may become a commuter town for destinations even as far afield as London.
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