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That at the sitting on Wednesday 26th January, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Mr Peter Hain relating to sitting hours, connecting Parliament with the public, and car mileage allowance not later than three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first Motion; such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved, except that the Speaker shall put a single Question on any Amendments which are consequential on an Amendment to which the House has already agreed; proceedings may continue after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.[Joan Ryan.]
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for giving me this opportunity to raise an issue that is of immense importance to many of my constituents in Portishead. Over the past decade, and even longer, we have been subjected to a rollercoaster ride, where expectations for a passenger rail link have been raised only to be dashed soon after.
The consequence of the growth in housing and population in Portishead, combined with inadequate transport infrastructure, has resulted in what is now probably the most overcrowded cul-de-sac in Britain. If I may, I will outline the history of the railway line in question, the rate of population growth in Portishead, the current transport problems, the transport studies already undertaken, and a proposed solution. Much of what I intend to say is contained in the eloquent and succinct document produced by the Portishead railway action group, entitled "Reopening the Portishead linean outline proposal", which I will give to the Minister at the end of this debate. I recommend that she adds it to her list of essential reading.
The original railway line came into being to meet one of Brunel's schemes to operate a steamship service to America. It was opened in 1870, was converted to standard gauge in 1880, and passenger services continued until 1964. In 2000, a freight facilities grant enabled a new spur to be constructed to serve royal Portbury dock, and the line to Bristol to be relaid for freight traffic. To put it in perspective, the basic length of track needing to be relaid from this spur to a platform at the allocated station site within the development area at Portishead is a mere 3.3 miles.
In the mid-1950s, Portishead had a population of about 8,000. By 1995, this had risen to some 15,000, and the current figure is around 18,000. Perhaps more importantly, however, recent redevelopment of the area around the dock has created the largest marina and housing development in the country, and the population is now predicted to rise to around 28,000a startling increase.
The biggest problem is that Portishead has only one primary road route out of the town, the A369. Traffic heading for Bristol must cross the M5 at junction 19 at Portbury. The Greater Bristol strategic transport study described it as a "heavily trafficked junction", which many will consider to be an understatement. The study also explained that development growth in Portishead and on the royal Portbury dock site continues to place pressures on the performance of the partially signalled roundabout that forms the junction. Not only does the roundabout accommodate eight entrances and exits; there is high traffic use of the local access roads to the village of Portbury, which joins the A369 close to the motorway junction. Severe congestion is a regular occurrence, especially during the evening peak period.
Public transport in the area is limited, and bus services to Bristol are not well supported for a number of reasonsnot least the journey time, which is heavily influenced by road congestion at key times.
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Employment opportunities in Portishead are limited as well. While provision for employment development has been made in east Portishead, the town as a whole is constrained by green belt requirements, so further expansion is restricted. The 2001 census showed that 63 per cent. of the town's adults in employment travelled out of Portishead to work. Many of those people will work in Bristol, but it is interesting to note that the percentage of Portishead residents travelling to work by car is higher than those in any of the other three north Somerset towns.
Into this complex environment have come a number of initiatives, studies and strategies. The introduction of local transport plans in 2000 was intended to reduce reliance on the private car, particularly for commuting purposes, and to make alternative forms of transport attractive and safe. Studies for both North Somerset council and the Government office for the south-west have recommended the introduction of passenger rail services to Portishead as a partial solution of the transport problem.
North Somerset council and Wessex Trains were having discussions with the Strategic Rail Authority about a bid for rail passenger partnership funding to reopen the Portishead line when the funding scheme was terminated early in 2003. Continued upheaval in the rail industry and the general funding shortfall seem to have put line reopenings out of the frame in the short term. Despite uncertainty over who will operate franchises after April 2006, however, there has been renewed activity in the promotion of community rail partnerships on several routes, including the local Severn Beach line.
The Portishead railway action group has carried out an extensive analysis of the possibility of extending the current service to Severn Beach and on to Portishead. It has shown that with a running time of 24 minutes to Portishead, trains arriving at Bristol Temple Meads on the Severn Beach line could continue to Portishead and return to Temple Meads without disrupting current schedules. The proposed service could be operated without conflicting with other passenger services at key junctions, and safety margins could be maintained.
The scheme delivers on all four regional transport strategy objectives. It would reduce the impact of transport on the environment, securing better access to work and creating a modern, efficient and integrated transport system. It would also support the regional planning guidance note 10 spatial strategy. What all of us find so difficult to understand is that a scheme which is so clearly needed, and which would meet so many of the Government's declared objectives, never seems to get off the ground. Despite the involvement of so many agencies, bodies and interested parties, there never seems to be the cohesion and momentum that are needed to make the change happen.
My aim in bringing this matter to the attention of the House and the Minister is to help create that momentum. Unless the situation is dealt with comprehensively, the quality of life for many residents of an expanding Portishead will diminish unnecessarily. If that happened, the real tragedy would be that it could have been prevented.
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