When I was small, my grandparents lived in Bristol. My dad would drive us down at autumn half-terms to wander the Downs looking for conkers and to visit the zoo.

From the Tyne Valley, he’d take the Hartside Pass over to the M6. As we passed Alston I’d look out eagerly for a glimpse of a train. I don’t recall ever seeing one. The town’s branch line to Haltwhistle closed in 1976 so I never will see a standard gauge train there.

Another line that I always hoped would show me a train but never did was Bristol’s branch to Portishead. Running alongside the Avon Gorge, I could see the tracks from Brunel’s famous suspension bridge. Yet tracks were all I ever saw. In the 1970s, I was too late for passenger trains along the branch. However, the linestill served the docks at Portishead and much would later serve the newer docks at Portbury.

That should change over the next few years. The MetroWest project plans to return passenger trains to Portishead by rebuilding a disused line and upgrading the existing route. It needs ministers to agree a development consent order but the project’s developers expect permission this autumn. Network Rail produced outline details for potential contractors in February and talked of construction being complete by March 2024.

The bodies behind the project are NR, local councils, the local LEP and the West of England Combined Authority. They anticipate their work bringing a service of up to 20 trains per day (10 on a Sunday) to Portishead, calling at Bedminster, Parson Street and Pill on their way from Bristol Temple Meads with a 23-minute journey. This needs the 5.5km of disused track relaying from Portbury Dock Junction to Portishead. The track’s still there but it’s not seen trains since the 1980s.

The trackbed remains intact on all bar the final few yards into Portishead. Here Quays Avenue cuts through it. MetroWest will build its station (Portishead’s third) on the Bristol side of this obstruction with a single, 126-metre platform. 

Over the years, Portishead’s station has gradually crept closer to Bristol. Its first opened in 1867 by the docks and served also the light railway towards Weston-super-Mare. British Rail closed this station in 1954 to make way for a second power station. It built a replacement closer to the town’s centre. However, this modern, concrete replacement lasted only until 1964 when Beeching’s BR withdrew passenger services. This station sat between Harbour Road and Old Mill Road, close to the town’s Waitrose supermarket.

Meanwhile, the railway kept the two power stations supplied with coal until the early 1970s when they were converted to oil. One closed in that decade while the second lasted into the 1980s. The land on which they stood is now flats that flank a busy marina. The railway retreated to end with a run-round loop (installed to allow celebratory trains to run for GWR 150 in 1985) that is today sandwiched between a large Sainsbury’s supermarket and Harbour Road.

The whole line slumbered through the 1990s until Royal Portbury Docks pursued a rail link. It laid its own line to meet the Portishead branch near Pill at the now partially dismantled Portbury Dock Junction. From there the new track forced the restoration of the line south alongside the Avon Gorge to Parson Street Junction where it joins the main Taunton-Bristol line. Traffic comprised coal and cars and it’s still open to traffic.

Taking the line in the opposite direction with mileages measured from Paddington via Box, Parson Street Junction sits at 120 miles 23 chains. NR plans to renew this junction and provide a Down Relief Line freight loop between it and Bedminster. The branch becomes single line at Ashton Junction (121mi 0ch). It will continue that way until Pill Junction which will see the single line split into two routes. One will serve Portbury on the east side of the trackbed and one will serve Portishead on the west side. Pill station’s single platform will sit at 126mi 10ch serving the westernmost line before the two lines diverge at 126mi 32ch. Finally, Portishead station will sit at 129mi 28ch.

North Somerset Council submitted the development consent order application in November 2019, (with project costs standing at £116 million). Despite track running all the way to Portishead (albeit  decayed beyond use), the application to return trains comprises of 287 documents with 20,735 pages. If you printed them to fit A4 paper and placed them end-to-end, you’d cover 6.1km – rather longer than the length of disused railway they aim to reopen.

This council is not part of the West of England Combined Authority which has done most of the lobbying for improved rail services around Bristol. These improvements sit under a MetroWest banner. MetroWest has three phases. The first (Phase 1a) covers hourly services on the Severn Beach Line to Bristol Temple Meads, half-hourly services from Avonmouth to Temple Meads calling at a new station at Portway (between Avonmouth and Shirehampton, to act as a park-and-ride) and half-hourly trains from Temple Meads to Bath and possibly Westbury. Phase 1b reopens Portishead. Phase 2 would return trains to Henbury, using the freight line from Filton towards Hallen Marsh Junction. It plans new stations at Ashley Down, North Filton and Henbury. Phase 2 also brings half-hourly trains to Yate with a possible extension to Gloucester. The West of England Combined Authority wants these improvements delivered by 2025.

So while the young me never saw a train from Clifton Suspension Bridge, I can now look forward to going one better and riding by rail out to Portishead – assuming ministers grant the development consent order.

Yet welcome as this revived route will doubtless be, it’s taken a very long time to get this far. It was back in 2008 that North Somerset Council bought the line to prevent it being built-on or developed. That was five years after the Strategic Rail Authority told the council it had no money to put towards the line’s reopening.

If there’s one thing reopening campaigners need more than money, it’s patience. Timescales stretch into decades even with widespread support. You need only need look at Skipton-Colne or the Blyth and Tyne to see how long projects can take. It must be pretty dispiriting but at least the current government appears to be making the right noises and has put some money into developing plans.

It’s moving neither as far nor as fast as I’d like to see but it’s opened the floodgates to ideas and now has to sort through and decide on the nearly 200 applications it has to its ‘restoring your railway’ scheme. I hope it takes forward those with merit because I’m keen to see rail restored as framework for public transport. Not just because it can be more environmentally friendly than cars but because it allows people to travel without the hassle and expense of owning a car.

Rail holds the prospect of once more becoming the country’s skeleton, holding different parts together and opening opportunities for all. As we all wonder how rail will recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, keep hold of that wider idea and let’s ensure rail plays its part in our prosperity.

A version of this article first appeared in RAIL Magazine https://www.railmagazine.com on March 24 2021.

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.