Tuesday, January 23, 2007

How To Dismantle A Good Idea

Last, but by no means least in our brief tour of the madness of the railway network is the case study closest to my heart, inasmuch as it’s the case study from my own home town. Gloucester, for the unbelievably large population who don’t know where it is, lies between Bristol and Birmingham at the lowest bridging point of the River Severn. In railway terms, it is the location of the triangular junction of the Bristol-Birmingham and Cardiff-Birmingham lines, so theoretically a significant strategic spot.

The fly in the ointment is that Gloucester’s station sits at exactly the wrong point on the junction, specifically on the Cardiff apex of the triangle. Bristol-Birmingham trains therefore have to reverse directions to serve the city, adding a good ten minutes to journey times. Once upon a time this didn’t matter, but in the privatised world where punctuality at any cost is key, it is crucial.

Virgin Cross-Country stopped serving the city around the turn of the Millennium, claiming that Cheltenham (six miles and ten minutes up the road) could adequately serve the whole area. Political and business leaders immediately decried the move and called for a new station that could properly accommodate Bristol-Birmingham trains.

The popular choice for a site is the junction itself. A massive area of waste ground, the Barton Triangle has seen redevelopments come and go for years, with IKEA and Gloucester Rugby Club being two of the more recent candidates. The only concrete change in the last quarter-century, however, was the construction of the inner ring road in the late 1980’s, running right across the triangle and linking the city centre and the eastern suburbs. With that in place, the Birmingham apex of the triangle became a proper contender for a new station, being on a major bus route with plenty of space for parking and only ten minutes walk from the original station.

The alternative is to use a greenfield site north of the triangle towards Birmingham. The site of choice for such a station is Elmbridge Court, which consists of an old DEFRA office site and some surrounding farmland (at least theoretically). However, given the size of the Barton Triangle site and its road connections, there might seem to be little advantage to shipping the whole kit and caboodle a couple of miles out of town.

What you actually get is a bizarre and unholy alliance of special interests;

  • The train operator, Virgin Cross Country, want Elmbridge Court as it would be close enough to Cheltenham to allow them to swop their existing Cheltenham services to Gloucester and thus not interfere with the Bristol-Birmingham timings.
  • The bus operator, Stagecoach, want to use the Elmbridge Court site to boost their express Gloucester-Cheltenham bus service (Barton Triangle would be served by a different service and would only gain traffic from the Gloucester end)
  • Network Rail want the Elmbridge Court site as it would be cheaper for them (requiring two platforms rather than four and simpler signalling)

But the real villain of the piece are the group who should exist to navigate their way through all these petty concerns to the advantage of the people of Gloucester; namely, the city and county councils. To explain, notice that when I mentioned the DEFRA offices at Elmbridge Court, I did so theoretically; the plan presented recently does not use that site at all and is entirely greenfield.

The point is, for a railway station such an infringement of green belt can be justified, but for a shop it never could be. So if you can get the station built on that site, you leave the brownfield sites where you can have shops for shops. Never mind that Barton Triangle is a better site for a station and would free up the existing station site for some redevelopment, never mind that Gloucester has a number of large-scale brownfield sites that have seen plan after plan fail for a good quarter-century, if we can blow a greenfield site in order to have more sites…

I’d come up with a “clever” ending at this point, but the will has run out…

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