Stephen Williams

Transport: A Transport Revolution – getting the West of England moving, sustainably

The West of England is woefully served by its public transport network.  The absence of a strategic transport authority has led to a piecemeal development of local services and a lack of investment in transformational schemes.  The bus services are dominated by one private sector provider.  There is no common method of payment and no guarantee of services operating to the locations and to the times that suit passengers.  The local rail services to Bath and Bristol must be the worst in the country, with most people being nowhere near a suburban rail service.  The road network is frequently clogged with vehicles, leading to long delays in people’s journeys and rising levels of air pollution. Poor road links and inadequate public transport holds back our economic development. It makes it hard for people to access the new jobs that have been created in north Bristol and South Gloucestershire. 

Putting in place solutions to our transport problems will be a major priority for me. I will use the new powers of the Mayoral Combined Authority to put in place an integrated transport authority and to regulate the buses.  I will prioritise public transport, cycling and walking in my investment decisions when considering the use of the devolved transport budget. As mayor, I would work with Network Rail to align their investment schedule with my rail plans.  I would also work with the neighbouring counties of Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire, plus North Somerset, to present a common package of improvements to central government that will benefit the whole of the wider region of the West Country.  

Air Quality – a public health problem

Bristol and Bath both routinely breach the acceptable levels of air pollution.  Poor air quality is a major contributor to bad public health outcomes.  It can cause or exacerbate existing respiratory illnesses. The source of the problem is no longer primarily associated with industry.  The major contributor of harmful gases and toxins in the air that we breathe is now emissions from transport. Gas emissions from both petrol and diesel vehicles is harmful but diesel also includes fine particles (PM) that can penetrate lungs to a deep level. Reducing diesel propelled road traffic is thus a key public health objective.

My policies to increase travel by public transport and to make cycling a more attractive option will all help reduce emissions. But I want to go further.  The regional Mayor will soon have new bus franchising powers. I will require all operators to put in place a timetable for a swift change from diesel to cleaner fuels.  In the short term this could be a shift to bio-methane propelled engines. The cost is now broadly equal to diesel, as long as there is ready access to a source of bio-methane.  I will work with local commercial food waste producers to convert the waste to gas and fertiliser.  We could then have a virtual local economy of diverting food waste from landfill and using the by product for cleaner transport. In the medium term I want to see a shift to electric powered buses. I will work with the other regional mayors on this objective as a coordinated approach is likely to lead to a swifter reduction in costs.

My preferred way of facilitating change is to incentivise people in a positive way to shift to more sustainable transport.  But it is likely that through traffic entering the region from further afield will still contribute pollution of harmful toxins.  I will therefore consider options for a financial penalty for commercial vehicles entering our cities that emit diesel fumes.  I will work with central government to secure the necessary powers for a clean air zone that will collect a charge from commercial vehicles via number plate recognition technology.

My plan for West of England Buses

Bus services have been upsetting people for decades in the West of England.  In my 25 years in politics in Bristol they have been a constant feature on the doorstep and in my mail.  They are costly compared to many other cities.  They don’t run late enough to the towns and villages in Gloucestershire and Somerset.  In most cases they only take cash, slowing up the journey and causing hold ups along the route for other people.  As they are all diesel propelled they contribute to poor air quality in both Bath and Bristol. 

There has been very little that local politicians can do about these problems.  Until now.  The election of the West of England region’s first Regional “Metro” Mayor will be followed by the awarding of new transport powers by central government.  The Mayor will be able to set franchises for bus services and insist on integrated and smart ticketing.  This means that any bus company that wants to operate in the region will have to agree to the Mayor’s terms and conditions. 

This is a big opportunity to transform local bus services. I have several ideas:

  • A rapid move to a cashless payment system.  This would include people being able to pay on entry to the bus with their debit card, a smart phone as well as a dedicated pre-paid card, a “Brunel Card”. Existing concession passes will remain.
  • A review of late night buses to the towns and villages around Bristol and Bath.  This would take account of the needs of employees working late at various locations (eg Cribbs Causeway) and of people enjoying an evening out in both our cities. 
  • A review of Park and Ride sites and services.  In some areas park and ride is an appropriate intervention to take cars off the roads into both cities.  They work well at Newbridge and Brislington on the A4. The case for new sites should be rigorously tested to make sure that extra car journeys are not being created in the countryside and that air pollution is being reduced in the cities. Secure cycle parking facilities should also be available at all sites. Later services should be introduced for people leaving the theatres and other attractions of Bath and Bristol. I do not believe that the proposed site at Bathampton should proceed and will do all in my power to block it.
  • Greater integration between bus routes and railway stations.  Making sure that the three mainline rail stations are well served by buses.  Some local stations could be better linked to the bus network. I plan to open a new rail station at Charfield, in the north of the region.  To avoid an increase in rural car journeys this would be supported by a dedicated bus link to Wotton under Edge, the nearest town.
  • A move to cleaner fuel and electric powered buses.  Diesel fumes are a major public health issue.  I will work with the Mayor of London and the other English regional Metro Mayors to develop a market for cleaner buses.
  • Increased confidence in the timetable and information at the bus stop and on board.  Buses should run to the published timetable but it is useful to know the real time arrival of the next bus when there are delays. Signage and voice information on board buses should be clear and take account of everyone’s needs.
  • Making a success of “Metro Bus” in 2017.  We’ve been enduring the disruptive roadworks and now we need to see the benefit of this huge investment in a dedicated route. I will consider carefully the case for further bus based rapid transit, for instance to Yate and Thornbury.
  • Using franchising powers to create opportunities for new services and new service providers. I believe there could be a major role for social enterprises, for instance providing services linking towns and villages to the main through routes to the cities.

My plan for West of England trains and trams

Bristol and Bath must be the two cities with the worst local rail services.  Cardiff, Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow and so many others have amazing suburban train services.  Cities like Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield have tram networks as well.  All that Bristol has is the Severn Beach Line, serving the west and north west of the city plus a couple of stations in Bedminster on the line to Weston.  Bath has local stations on the main line at Oldfield Park and Freshford.  That’s it.  Pathetic.  No wonder only 2% of people commute to work by train, lower than anywhere else.

Plans have come and gone for the last 30 years.  I remember the idea of the Avon Metro.  While I was an Avon county councillor we had worked up plans for new trams, with the routes called the West Way.  I still have the promotional brochures.   The fragmentation of local government in 1996 killed the plan.  We’ve never had the big regional transport authority, like Transport for London or Mersey Transport, which makes possible the planning for local passenger services.  That will change on 4th May with the election of the new Metro Mayor to head up a new regional West of England combined authority.  The Metro Mayor will be able to thrash out a transport plan for Bristol, Bath and the towns and villages of North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire.

Delivering rail improvements is much harder than enhancing bus services.  There are lots of agencies with fingers in the railway pie.  As Metro Mayor I would have to convince the Department of Transport, their agency Network Rail and the various private rail service providers. I would also have to bring on board our neighbours in Wiltshire and other counties.  But there are some obvious quick wins. There are also some trickier projects.  Here are some of my ideas:

  • Open new local stations.  The early priorities will be new stations on existing passenger lines that currently operate diesel trains.  In Bristol these would be the old Ashley Hill station, between Stapleton Road and Filton Abbey Wood plus a park and ride on the Severn Beach Line as it abuts the Portway, taking traffic from the M5.  In South Gloucestershire the front runner is Charfield, on the line between Yate and Gloucester.  A dedicated bus would have to link with the nearby town of Wotton under Edge.  Between Bath and Bristol I want to re-open Saltford station.
  • Opening even more local stations on existing lines depends on one very big factor – getting rail electrification back on schedule.  Early on in my Mayoralty I would put together a deputation of MPs and business leaders to meet with the Secretary of State for Transport, who threw a spanner in the electrification works in 2016.  This is not just about the London services from Bristol Temple Meads and Bath.  Electrification of the main lines and some local lines would enable faster local electric trains.  This would allow the timetable to be flexed to permit opening extra stations, for instance at St Anne’s and Winterbourne.
  • New services on current lines.  A direct link between Clifton and Bath (the “Georgian Line”!) would be very popular, with both commuters and tourists.  Yate is a very popular station but the trains are overcrowded at peak times and there is only one train an hour.  Extra carriages and twice hourly services would benefit Yate and Chipping Sodbury.
  • New services on old lines.  The line to Portishead must be re-opened.  The town has seen a huge increase in residents, with many new homes. The road into Bristol is seriously congested.  The rail line exists to the Port of Bristol and could easily take passenger services.  I would work with North Somerset to secure the investment by Network Rail. 
  • The freight line across north Bristol, through Henbury, could also be opened up to passenger services. Stations along this route would serve the huge number of new homes being built adjacent to the old Filton Airfield.  If the Port’s needs can be addressed then it could be possible to have a Bristol Circle Line, running services via the Severn Beach Line and Filton Bank.
  • Commission a feasibility study on a rail link for Thornbury.  The town is scheduled to have many new houses.  The A38 and M5 are already under pressure.  There is a rail line running from Yate to Tytherington Quarry.  There is obvious potential for a passenger service into Bristol, where many residents will work.
  • Commission a feasibility study into a tram link to Bristol Airport.  The airport is badly served by roads and buses are often delayed in the Bristol built up area.  The rail line between Bristol and Weston is not far away. The contours of the land make it difficult for a traditional rail spur, from Long Ashton. However, trams can cope with more severe gradients than trains and this could be a solution.
  • Work with Wiltshire to make the case for new stations at Corsham, Box and Royal Wotton Bassett.  Enhanced rail services in Wiltshire would greatly relieve car traffic pressure on east Bath.

Getting the West moving – my principles for road use

The Mayoral Combined Authority will become the highways and transport authority.  Our highways network is not fit for purpose.  Both our cities are heavily congested.  Cars, buses, commercial vehicles and cyclists compete for finite space.  Congestion wastes time and causes air pollution, a threat to public health. There is a pressing need to relieve this pressure.  The traditional answer from decades of Department of Transport practice is to build our way out of the problem.  I have always been sceptical about this approach.  Widening motorways and building by passes has too often led to greater volumes of traffic as driving is perceived to be faster. 

My preference is to seek ways to reduce the pressure by enhanced chances for the alternatives of public transport, cycling and walking.  But some road schemes will be necessary, to alleviate pressure on villages or to divert vehicles away from city centres.  Any proposals presented to me for new road schemes will scrutinised against tough criteria to make sure that they will have a net positive gain for the local environment, in particular by improving air quality. They must also improve local quality of life, by speeding up journeys and relieving congestion. Road schemes will not be allowed to swallow up a disproportionate amount of the devolved transport budget, which would crowd out investment in public transport schemes.

Highways schemes for consideration

  • A new junction on the M4 between the A46 and M32 junctions.  This new Junction 18A would link to the A4174 Ring Road and improve access to the Bristol-Bath Science Park.  I am prepared to support this proposal, as long as full funding is provided by Highways England and that and the outcome of the investigation into its impact on local communities is taken into account. A new route north of the M4 to Yate should be part of the package.  Without this new link there would be too much traffic pressure on the villages south of Yate. Careful thought also needs to be given to the impact on Yate itself, making sure that there is not additional congestion on the town’s road network.
  • Improving A4 journey times between Bath and Bristol. It can take a ridiculously long time to travel the 12 miles between our two cities.  My proposals for extra rail services and stations will take some cars off the road.  But some pinch points will remain. The worst is through the Brislington business park, where the narrow road is heavily congested at most times.  This causes delays for the people of Keynsham and also adds considerable journey time for people travelling from Bath to the Airport. I will consider options for road widening.  I do not believe that a by-pass around Saltford will offer sufficient gain to compensate for damaging the green belt.
  • East Bath suffers from through traffic from the A46 and A36 travelling through the city along the London Road.  Air quality is at unacceptably poor levels.  Some of the north-south traffic could be re-directed to the A350.  Proposals have existed for 30 years for an A46 – A36 link road. Any scheme would have to minimise visual intrusion and be designed in a way that does not detract from the setting of Bath or have a detrimental impact on the peaceful setting of nearby villages such as Freshford.
  • A review of Park and Ride.  There is a place for bus and rail based park and ride.  The A4 sites at Brislington and Newbridge prevent hundreds of cars from entering Bristol and Bath city centres.  They could be more successful with extended evening opening hours.  Any new park and ride would be rigorously tested on two grounds.  First, will the site alleviate unavoidable car journeys into the city centre, without increasing car traffic at source that could be using existing public transport?  Second, does the site detract from the local environment?  The proposed Bathampton site clearly breaches the second criteria and I will block it. There is strong community support for a Yate Park and Ride at Nibley.  This would take more cars off the roads into Bristol.  The A37 into Bristol is also heavily congested.  I will consider options for improved bus services from Somerset, which may include a park and ride.
  • Abolishing the Severn Bridge tolls.  The two bridges revert to state ownership in 2018.  I have previously campaigned alongside the Welsh Liberal Democrats for the tolls to be scrapped at that point.  The Conservative government in Westminster has since proposed halving the tolls.  I will work with the Welsh Government for a full abolition of the tolls.  They cause major congestion for vehicles travelling west from our region.  They are a cost to commuters and businesses and are perceived as a barrier to local day tripper tourism.

Making cycling safe and enjoyable

Cycling is a sustainable and healthy way to travel. By encouraging more people to cycle and integrating cycling with public transport we can reduce congestion and air pollution.

As Metro Mayor I will encourage our councils to continue enhancing cycle routes. I will press the government to ensure that the devolved transport budget includes sufficient resource to introduce cycling improvements.  I will work with Sustrans and others to double the number of trips made by bicycle in the West of England by 2025 and uphold the target of 20% commuting trips to Bristol by 2020. I will also set a realistic target for Bath. I will work with our councils, business groups, universities, transport businesses and advocates to steer our walking and cycling priorities.

My plans for cleaner fuel buses will reduce air pollution along the main roads, so that cyclists are exposed to fewer toxins. I will also ensure that Park and Ride sites and railway stations have secure bike parking facilities.  This will cater for people who want to cycle from home to their nearest park and ride or station, continuing the rest of the journey by bus or train.


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