Alternative plan for Bristol underground to use existing and abandoned railway lines

-Credit:AFP/Getty Images
-Credit:AFP/Getty Images

An apprentice transport planner has come up with an alternative plan for a potential Bristol underground metro network. The alternative vision for how a mass transit system could be laid out would cost less than the current underground proposals, and avoid closing roads to cars.

A giant tunnel would be built under the city centre, but the rest of the routes would use existing or abandoned railway lines above ground. New metro stations would be built at places like Broadmead, the Centre, Clifton Triangle, Clifton Village and Eastville.

Jacob Cook, a volunteer analyst at Enroute, said this would be less disruptive, and likely cheaper than the current underground proposals championed by Marvin Rees, the Labour mayor of Bristol. Mr Rees’s plan for four metro lines was vetoed last year due to concerns about high costs.

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Mr Cook said: “Since I first heard about Bristol potentially getting a mass transit system, it’s always been a subject that’s interested me. I’ve been to lots of cities around Europe and had a look at even more cities around the world. How can we have a mass transit system that takes inspiration from a few different cities around the world?

“From Manchester I’ve taken the idea of upgrading existing railway lines into mass transit corridors, like they’ve done with most of the Metrolink lines. From places like Liverpool, I’ve taken the idea of putting it straight under the city centre, because that’s obviously a problem in Bristol, where every rail line goes into Temple Meads.

“In places like Germany, they build Stadtbahns or S-Bahns tunnels, where they have lots of services coming from the suburbs, and they’re all interlined in the city centre to give a metro-like frequency. In places like Rotterdam, they’ve managed to get tram, train and light rail service all into one complete system, without much changing of characteristics.

Metro Tube Map -Credit:Enroute
Metro Tube Map -Credit:Enroute

“In the last five, six or seven years, I’ve had probably up to about 50 different ideas on my laptop sitting in a GIS file. I always think when I’m travelling around Bristol, how can we potentially get this connected to that, and this could work on a mass transit and that might not.”

Enroute is a volunteer-run group publishing analysis on sustainable transport options, exploring ways to create a public transport network that’s greener, economically friendly and community-influenced. The group was founded in 2021 by another apprentice transport planner, Harry Burr, initially focusing on the Midlands, and now looking across the country.

“It’s all about connecting people to opportunities in a more sustainable way,” Mr Burr said. “People can drive their car from Portishead to Bristol, but they can’t get a train. Our goal, with our blogs and research, is to give those that take action or those that deliver a basis for a case for change.”

Mr Cook added: “It would benefit the average Bristolian on social exclusion, for example, bringing a lot more areas closer to the city centre. Bristol’s one of the most congested cities in the UK. This would really drive modal shift, and help people get to places easily without a car.”

The alternative metro plans include improving signalling to allow four to six trains per hour on each branch, and up to 24 trains in the centre. New branches would be built to Thornbury and Bristol Airport. The existing Severn Beach line would get a second track, allowing trains to run much more often.

It’s unclear how much the total project would cost, but the people behind it claim it could potentially be cheaper than the outgoing Bristol mayor’s underground plan. Estimates for that ranged from £8 billion to £18 billion, which critics said would be far too expensive.

The alternative vision put forward by Enroute claims to save money from digging fewer tunnels. The team also says the routes are based on either existing routes, whereas the mayor’s plan would require more to be built from scratch.

One potentially controversial part of the plans, however, is “considering” turning the Bristol to Bath Railway Path, a major cycling route running through the east of the city, as a new metro line. Instead, a new two-way segregated bike path could run along the nearby Fishponds Road.

Metrobus Tube Map -Credit:Enroute
Metrobus Tube Map -Credit:Enroute

“I did think that would cause a little bit of controversy,” Mr Cook said. “If it’s proposed to take that over, there would be significant opposition. However, if you’re able to find alternative measures, such as an LTN 1/20 cycle path down Fishponds Road as a mitigation, or potentially if you could fit some form of path next to it, there’s definitely scope to look into that.

“It’s great to have cycling infrastructure and I wouldn’t want to get rid of cycling infrastructure, but it’s also great to have mass transit connectivity. So it would definitely be one to review.”

Another part of their plans includes making major changes to the Metrobus routes. Currently these run from the outskirts of Bristol into the city centre, and back again. Instead, these buses could link up with future metro stations, and the routes could become more “orbital”, connecting the suburbs. The buses would also be replaced for longer ones with more doors, to save time at bus stops.

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Mr Cook said: “[Metrobus] acts like most of the bus routes in the city, in that its whole purpose is to bring people from the outer suburbs into town. It’s not particularly useful if you’re trying to get around the North Fringe, or far east of Bristol. You could make it really easy for people in the outer suburbs to get around without going into the city centre.”

One problem facing train passengers in Bristol is how current services run so infrequently. Along the Severn Beach line — which stops at places like Clifton Down, Montpelier, and Lawrence Hill — services only run twice an hour.

And in South Bristol, passengers have to wait at Bedminster or Parson Street for services into the north of the city for a single train only once an hour. But this problem could be solved by separate intercity trains and metro lines, so they run on different tracks.

Metro Core Alignment Map -Credit:Enroute
Metro Core Alignment Map -Credit:Enroute

“The problem within Bristol at the moment is very similar to the one that HS2 is trying to solve,” Mr Cook said. “You have slow trains and fast trains sharing lines, and the fast trains are the big ones going to London or Cross Country and take up quite a lot of time on the tracks.

“This proposal would involve quite a lot of segregation, for example between Temple Meads and Parson Street, four tracks would be reinstated, so you could have the slow trains on one line and the fast trains on another, so they can go simultaneously. The way the arrangement works at the moment limits capacity.”

Whichever plan for Bristol’s mass transit system politicians eventually agree on, commuters will be waiting many years before any future network opens to the public. An issue delaying every huge transport project is the hurdles politicians must overcome to get public funding. These aim to make sure public money is well spent — but at the expense of any work happening quickly.

“This is by no means a political comment,” Mr Burr said. “But in the UK feasibility takes ages. If they were to approve a feasibility study tomorrow, there might not be spades in the ground for another six or seven or eight years, just because of how slow the transport appraisal guidance is.

“It’s painfully slow. Everyone in transport infrastructure knows that it will take an age. Look at HS2. I believe there’s a review into that guidance at the moment. I know Labour has been all over reforming the planning process, but that’s more about when councils have to make decisions.

“In terms of nationally significant infrastructure projects, something needs to be done. They just need to make things faster.”