Reports that a public consultation is in hand to identify the most suitable location for the new station in Portishead is an indication that another of the Beeching era cuts to Britain’s railway network may be reversed.
Similarly, the fact that the Welsh administration is willing to fund a survey into the reopening of the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth line suggests that this route too may have a future.
The Portishead branch was promoted by the Bristol & Portishead Pier & Railway Co, which was authorised on 29 June 1863 to construct a pier at Portbury and build a 10-mile railway linking Portishead to the Bristol & Exeter Railway at Bedminster. The line opened for passenger services to Portishead on 12 April 1867 and to the docks on 5 July 1879. During the course of construction, plans for the dock changed from a pier at Portbury, which was deemed to be too exposed to the westerly winds, to a rail-served dock at Portishead. Access to the new dock required the construction of a 23-span wooden trestle viaduct across Portishead Pill.
The line was originally built to the broad gauge (7ft 0¼in) and four stations — Clifton Bridge, Pill, Portbury and Portishead — were opened with the Bristol & Exeter Railway providing the locomotives and rolling stock. The Bristol & Exeter Railway was leased to the Great Western Railway on 1 January 1876 and taken over completely on 1 August 1876, following an Act of 27 June 1876. From this date the GWRT operated the Portishead branch.
As with the rest of the GWR’s broad-gauge empire, the Portishead branch was eventually regauged to standard gauge, the work on the route being completed between Saturday 24 and Tuesday 27 January 1880. In 1910, there 13 workings per day between Bristol Temple Meads and Portishead in each direction with an additional train in each direction on Tuesdays and Saturdays. There were two trains per day in each direction on Sundays. A single journey over the 11½-mile route took just over 30 minutes.
At Portishead, the station was also served by the trains of the Weston-super-Mare, Clevedon & Portishead Railway. This line had been originally authorised on 6 August 1885 and opened between Weston and Clevedon on 1 December 1897. Made a light railway following a further Act of 9 August 1899, the line was eventually opened through to Portishead on 7 August 1907 to give a total route of 14 miles. The line, which was not to be taken over at Grouping, was to become part of the ‘empire’ of Colonel Holman F. Stephens and was destined to close completely on 19 May. The line was sold by its sole creditor to the GWR and was quickly dismantled. There is little evidence that the line once existed in Portishead itself.
Returning to the Portishead branch, the line was Nationalised along with the rest of the GWR in 1948 and became part of British Railways (Western Region). On 4 January 1954 t6he Western region opened a new branch terminus just to the south of the original terminus; this was supposed to be a template for the future of branch railways but the realities of railway economics in the 1950s dictated that it was effectively a one-off. In March 1963 the Beeching Report listed the branch for closure and, on 7 September 1964, passenger services over the branch were withdrawn.
This was not the end for the branch, however, as it remained open for freight traffic to serve a power station that had been constructed at Portishead. The first power station at Portishead had been completed in 1929 and a second station was opened in 1955 on the site of the original passenger terminus in Portishead. However, the two power stations closed in 1976 and 1982 respectively and the line from Ashton Junction to Portishead was officially closed on 5 December 1983.
This was not, however, to be the end of the story as the track remained in situ and, in 1985 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Great Western Railway, limited passenger services operated over the branch. Still extant, the route from Ashton Junction to Pill was refurbished in 2000/01 and a spur added to the Royal Portbury Dock, the work costing some £21 million. The refurbishment of the bulk of the route gave added impetus to the campaign for the restoration of passenger services over the whole route and the MetroWest project, promoted by North Somerset Council, is the result.
Over in Wales, the line from Carmarthen to Aberystwyth is perhaps more of a long shot as far as restoration is concerned as it is much longer and more compromised that than to Portishead. The first section of the line to open was that of the Carmarthen & Cardigan Railway, which was authorised by an Act of 7 August 1854 to build a broad-gauge line from Carmarthen to Cardigan; in event, the line had a somewhat troubled history and opened from Carmarthen to Conwil on 3 September 1860, thence to Pencader on 28 March 1864 and to Llandyssul (on the eventual branch towards Newcastle Emlyn) on 3 June 1864. The company was eventually to be taken over by the Great Western, after a period in administration, following an Act of 22 August 1881.
The section north from Pencader to Aberystwyth was promoted by the ambitious Manchester & Milford Railway, which was authorised by an Act of 23 July 1860. The line opened from Pencader to Lampeter on 1 January 1866, thence to Strata Florida on 1 September 1866 and finally through to Aberystwyth on 12 August 1867. Again never financially viable, the line was run by a receiver from 1880 until leased to the Great Western on 1 July 1906 and formally absorbed by the GWR on 2 June 1911.
The entire route from Carmarthen through to Aberystwyth was listed for closure by Beeching and closed in two stages; officially line was to have closed throughout on 22 February 1965 but flooding resulted in services between Aberystwyth and Strata Florida ceased from 14 December 1964. The section north from Pont Llanio to Aberystwyth closed completely on the same day. Freight continued north of Carmarthen for a period. The section north from Lampeter to Pont Llanio closed completely on 1 October 1970. Freight facilities were withdrawn from Lampeter on 22 September 1973 and the line north of Carmarthen was closed completely on 1 October 1973 with the cessation of services to Newcastle Emlyn and Felin Fach.
Since closure, part of the line at Bronwydd Arms has been restored as the Gwili Railway but elsewhere development has seen the trackbed compromised, making reopening much more ambitious (and costly). The funding currently announced by the Welsh administration is very limited and no more than a preliminary survey; the reality is that the line was never hugely successful in the ‘golden age’ of railways and, whilst the university at Lampeter has grown since closure of the line, the cost of the line’s restoration may well be prohibitive.