Are Bristol’s Transport Problems Really That Bad? Part III

In the final instalment of my series of three blogs (click here for the first and second) I look forward and consider what might be done to improve the situation.

In the first and second posts I reflected first on the current situation with transport in Bristol and then compared the city’s performance against a range of other cities in England, and with Copenhagen. In this final blog, I will turn to the future to ask “What should we do in Bristol?”

I’m reminded from what we learnt in Copenhagen that it takes a long time to plan and deliver transport infrastructure because no matter what it is, somebody will always object.  So we need to plan a long way in advance, and I mean a very long way, and we need to streamline our systems so objectors have fewer opportunities to frustrate delivery.

With this in mind I’m delighted that the city region’s authorities are in the process of commissioning studies early in 2015 to put together a Strategic Transport Plan looking ahead to 2040.  I think it needs to focus on: public transport, especially rail based; walking and cycling, especially in central areas where there is simply no scope for increased traffic; and, yes, away from urban centres, even road building.


The current Joint Local Transport Plan theoretically looks ahead to 2026 but, with the five major schemes that were its raison d’être well on their way to delivery, the rest is more vision than a real plan.   John Savage and Business West’s book 2050 High in Hope provides a longer term spatial vision and embryonic transport strategy but turning that into a Strategic Transport Plan is a job for the local authorities.

One problem that needs to be addressed is connectivity between Bristol and its North Fringe and the growth areas of Portishead, Avonmouth and Severnside. These areas are served, to an extent, by the M5 motorway but, as noted previously, it has experienced 20% growth in traffic (2001 to 2013) and, even with the newly introduced managed motorway scheme, queues can be seen at several locations around the Bristol motorway box on a daily basis1.  So the scope for further road traffic growth is distinctly limited.

As noted by Business West, under an initiative titled Enterprise Arc, the M5 creates a significant barrier to east/west movement and this requires a strategic solution.  The West of England Partnership’s Metrowest Phases 1 and 2 comprise welcome passenger rail packages that are gathering momentum and should be delivered by the end of the decade, or thereabouts.  Phase 2 includes the reintroduction of a rail passenger service on the Parkway to Avonmouth freight line but current thinking sees the service terminating at Henbury.  Yet the rail corridor to the west represents a rare commodity, a public transport corridor that bridges the M5.  So, whether viable now or at some stage in the future, surely we should plan to make use of that asset by reintroducing passenger services that can connect the homes of the North Fringe to the major jobs growth areas of Avonmouth and Severnside.

Looking beyond Metrowest Phases 1 and 2 we need to take a thorough look at what else can be done to improve our suburban rail network and to assist, the plan below shows the pre-Beeching network.

How many disused stations on the existing lines can see passenger services reintroduced at places like Flax Bourton, Ashley Hill and Horfield within a 25 year time frame?  Does the freight line to Tytherington provide potential to reconnect Thornbury?  Can Radstock be reconnected to Bristol via the Bristol and North Somerset line, or to Frome? I realise these may sound like pretty crazy ideas at present but keep in mind, Copenhagen didn’t build its oh-so-useful and efficient Metro lines without knocking down some buildings and felling some trees.

Improvements to bus services have been delivered through the Greater Bristol Bus Network package, which is reported to have seen increases in patronage since the 2011 Census figures I examined in my second blog. And more improvements are on their way through the Metrobus schemes from Ashton Vale to Temple Meads and from the North Fringe to Hengrove.  Delivery of these schemes, and a new service along the South Bristol Link, should see continued improvement in Bristol’s bus mode share in the next few years.

And then what?  South Gloucestershire Council has plans to extend the Metrobus route from The Mall at Cribbs Causeway, through the new development area on the disused Filton Airfield and back to Parkway Station.  Then what?  Surely, we should work out now which lines will be brought forward next, and the order of priority.  The Weston, Clevedon and Portishead railway closed in 1940, long before the Beeching axe fell, so it was clearly not viable then as a passenger rail service.  Yet all three settlements have seen huge growth in the time I’ve lived in the area, and are destined to continue growing.  So is there a case for a Metrobus service on that corridor, perhaps continuing over the long talked about low level crossing of the Avon – doubling up as a flood defence – to connect Portishead to Avonmouth and Severnside?  In reflecting on this, keep in mind that one advantage of guided bus over rail is its flexibility to deviate off line where the former rail route has become impassable.

Walking and cycling networks need to be very fine grained, so they are too detailed for specific comment at this level, though I do support a continued programme of improvement.  Also, as for public transport, with finite space available on our city centre road corridors, I do support the principle of transferring space from cars to other modes where appropriate but, as ever with such matters, the devil is in the detail, and each case needs to be considered in its merits.

Turning finally to road traffic, I have noted before that the car is the travel mode chosen by the greatest number of people, so I do not agree with some of our politicians, who seem to think it is the enemy of the people and should be eliminated as quickly as possible.  That is simply not realistic.  Yet our city centre roads can’t cope with any more traffic, so in locations such as this, I say to those who choose to drive, get used to the congestion because it is here to stay and it’s an inevitable consequence of your and my decision to drive.

On the other hand, I do not support the Mayor of Bristol’s mad rush to introduce residents’ parking schemes across a wide area of the city.  My opposition is not because I object in principle: it’s simply that I think they are being introduced with undue haste, without reasoned justification and due analysis of the consequences for the city’s businesses and other institutions, like schools, universities and hospitals.  In many mixed use areas, there simply is no realistic alternative to the car for people to get to work, and the long predicted consequence of this haste is already evident: for example, empty parking bays in parts of Cliftonwood, where employees once parked, and “To Let” signs going up on businesses in Clifton Village.

I’m less concerned about the extensive roll out of 20mph zones because in areas with lots of crossing pedestrians and cyclists, such as residential streets and shopping areas like Whiteladies Road, in Clifton/Redland, or West Street in Bedminster, there could be a discernible safety benefit.  But where those conditions don’t apply, and there is no history of accidents to justify the change, like Pembroke Road and Jacob’s Wells Road, I do not agree with their introduction.  Judging by the behaviour of other road users, and the minimalist response of the Police to enforce the new limits, it seems many others share this view.

All that said, there are things I think we can and should do to reduce the impact of the car.  I’ve touched on air quality and the ever increasing efficiency of the internal combustion engine in my cars.  This time round, I did check out the potential of an electric car, which obviously produces zero emissions at the point of use. Unfortunately, electric car technology has yet to reach the stage of providing a suitable car for my needs – you can’t fit a towbar on any electric car because the battery is always under the boot.  Setting aside my particular requirement, with the government subsidy, the economics of electric cars do now look interesting.  So I am a supporter of low and zero emission vehicles and think every reasonable effort should be made by central and local government to encourage you and me to go down that route next time we change our car.  That means we need increasing charging provision in our city centre car parks, on street and at motorway services so that as manufacturers extend the range of their vehicles, that concern will fall away.  In Bristol’s case, I believe the Council should also extend the offer of free permits for electric cars in the residents’ parking zones to businesses, which is currently a significant omission of the scheme.  Over time, this will lead to improved air quality in our urban

On the outskirts of the city centre, unpopular as some may see it, I think we will still need some new roads.  I have already touched on the low level crossing of the Avon to serve the multiple purpose of removing local traffic from the motorway bridge, while enhancing tidal flood protection for the city centre and creating a non-tidal leisure amenity along the waterway.

M4emersonsIn due course, as traffic between the North Fringe and Severnside increases on the B4055, the village of Easter Compton will need a bypass. (Indeed, if this were Norway, to overcome environmental constraints, they’d simply build a new road tunnel right through from somewhere near The Mall under the ridge that the M5 follows, right down to the Severn estuary plain.)  I also think that, even with the South Bristol Link providing a legible route to the M5 at Avonmouth, viewed from the east along the M4, south Bristol will always seem remote and unattractive to investors until the Ring Road is completed around the south-east quadrant of the city and a link between the M4 and the Ring Road is constructed at Emerson’s Green.

Up to this point I have really only considered the transport issues facing those living and working in the Bristol and the West of England sub-region. However, in this age of the global economy, connections into and out of the area should also be reviewed, as they will have a growing impact on the success of the city region. The electrification of the mainline between Bristol and London is due to be completed by 2016 and between Bristol and Cardiff by 2017. This will offer improved travel times across the country, which is a positive step forward. But as the Government plans to develop a High Speed Rail network connecting core cities in the North of England with London, do we need to start lobbying for a South West high speed rail line of our own?

Bristol Airport’s masterplan will see a significant improvement in the facilities available to travellers, although only modest changes are currently proposed with regards to access. The table below lists the UKs top fifteen airports by passenger numbers against a simple summary of the transport connections linking to each.

It can be seen from the table above that Bristol is the only airport in the top 10 without road access to at least dual carriageway standard, and one of only two airports in the top 15 without a dual carriageway (or better) road link. John Lennon Airport is the only other airport in the top 15 with a single carriageway link and this handles around 2 million fewer passengers per year than Bristol. Bristol is also one of only three airports in the top 10 without a rail or tram link.

If Bristol Airport is going to grow to 10 million passengers and beyond, as seems likely in due course, significant improvements to the surface transport infrastructure are going to be needed. Given the location of the airport, away from the strategic road and rail networks, any major improvements are likely to take decades to design and implement, so it is important that ideas and proposal are brought forward sooner rather than later.

Many people I talk to about the subject dismiss the rail option, suggesting that with the airport located on top of a hill the gradients involved are beyond what is capable with rail. However, if you compare the gradients required to those used on the Flåm Railway in Norway you can quickly see that this should not be an issue. The Flåm Railway runs from Myrdal on the Bergen Line to Flåm, it has a maximum gradient of 5.5% and over 80% of the line has a gradient of 2.8% or more. If a Bristol Airport spur were built from somewhere the west of Parson Street a straight railway line could be built with an average grade of 2.2%. Any realistic route would have to respect topographic and environmental constraints, so it would inevitably be longer and, therefore, have a lower average gradient. I realise some will think this fanciful but the point is there are no railway engineering reasons why Bristol Airport can’t be served by rail based public transport.


That leads me on to my final point.  We need to streamline our systems to speed up delivery of both local and national schemes and could probably learn from our continental cousins.  I do not know a great deal about the process of securing permission to build new infrastructure on the Continent – nor indeed am I an authority on the matter in this country – but I was struck by a report on an international rail conference in a professional institution journal.  There it was reported that the French thought they could plan and build HS2 in about one third of the time predicted by those in charge of the project.  If memory serves, one thing the French do is pay above market value when compulsorily acquiring property.  Offered a one off opportunity to sell above market value is, I understand, apparently sufficient to entice many would be objectors to sell up and move on. I wonder what else we can learn from other countries to improve the delivery of our strategic infrastructure? If you have some ideas, feel free to respond.