A trip down the Westerleigh Branch

UK Railtours excursion train on Westerleigh Branch 11/09/21 (c) Paul Clark

On Saturday 11th September, UK Railtours ran a charter train to some freight lines of interest to FoSBR. Tina, Brendan, Carol & David of FoSBR went along for the ride, joining at Reading.

Excursion route

The tour “Only Freight Track and Horses” traversed Wiltshire, Bath, Bristol, Gloucestershire then back to London. It was planned to take in a mixture of regular passenger routes, works sidings, goods loops and freight only lines, including:

  • Berks and Hants Line
  • Westbury SW Track Recycling Centre
  • Westbury Cement Works sidings
  • Heart of Wessex line
  • Bristol Temple Meads
  • Bristol Freightliner Railport / Liberty Sidings (west of Parson Street)
  • Bristol East Depot sidings (east of Temple Meads, close to site of St Anne’s Park station)
  • Westerleigh Branch (as far as the oil depot)
  • Tytherington Branch (section sadly unavailable due to track fault)
  • Cheltenham
  • Golden Valley line
  • Highworth Branch (as far as we could due to overhanging vegetation!)

The trip was most enjoyable. The Westerleigh Branch section is particularly interesting for FoSBR as it is often discussed as having potential as part of a passenger link between the Midlands and Bristol.

Westerleigh Branch – history and today’s use

This 2 miles 63 chains freight branch was part of the former Midland Railway’s main route from Birmingham to Mangotsfield, Bristol and Bath Green Park. It was closed to passengers on 27th December 1969 but is now used by freight trains to Westerleigh.

The branch leaves the main line at Yate South Junction, which was once grade separated, the former Great West Railway Down line (from Westerleigh East and West Junctions) used to cross over this line by an overbridge of which there is little trace. The once double track line runs along a straight alignment passing beneath the GW main line (traversed earlier in the trip), followed by Broad Lane crossing. Just beyond is the village of Westerleigh, left. The line continues downhill past where the Civil Engineer’s Training School, left, was once located to Westerleigh Sidings. The extremity of the branch is often used as a track machine compound which is situated directly beneath the M4 motorway. 

There used to be two terminals here, the first terminal being the Avon County Council Refuse Transfer Station (first train 15th November 1985) though this has been disused since 1st April 2001. The remaining terminal on the right is the Oil Terminal, opened in 1989, which sees daily oil trains (Sundays excepted) from Robeston Refinery, West Wales, and less frequently from Lindsey Refinery in Lincolnshire supplying fuel to the Bristol Area. This is now the sole freight traffic on this branch line. However, each train carries 2,000 tonnes of mixed fuels and there are often two trains daily. The Robeston services are routed via Gloucester to avoid the Severn Tunnel and for direct access to/from the branch.

Taken from UK Railtours trip notes, with permission

Thanks to UK Railtours, Ian Loveday (route designer), DB Cargo, Freightliner and Network Rail for facilitating the trip.

Westerleigh Branch – could it be useful as a passenger route?

In a recent study into the Bristol to Birmingham rail corridor, Network Rail suggested it will be necessary to increase track capacity between Bristol Parkway and Westerleigh Junction, to allow for more trains between London and South Wales, and the South West and the Midlands. More frequent local services to Gloucester and potentially a re-opened Thornbury branch are also dependent on extra capacity. However adding extra tracks would be expensive, as much of the route is on viaducts, embankments or cuttings.

Heavy rail, light rail or tram train

At various times, re-opening the Westerleigh Branch to passengers has been proposed, bypassing the London-South Wales line bottleneck by passing under that line on the old Midland line. The tracks currently only run as far as the M4.  Much of track bed south of the M4 is a well-used greenway between central Bristol and central Bath. Some sections of the track bed are built over by the A4174 Bristol ring road. 

If space could be found for rail to share the greenway, as at Bitton, this route could serve east Bristol and central Bristol. It would not serve Bristol Parkway, though. FoSBR would not support any scheme that was not backed by the Bristol Cycling Campaign. 

Our fellow campaign group Transport for Greater Bristol have suggested re-opening the Westerleigh Branch to light rail/tram train, potentially with services from Thornbury, by running parallel to the Yate station line from Yate Middle Junction (where the Thornbury line diverges) to Yate South Junction (where the Westerleigh line diverges).  To the south of the M4, the “tram” line would continue to the A4174, retaining the Shortwood cycleway alongside.  From there, the line could connect with the MetroBus M3 Emerson’s Green route to the city centre. Alternatively the “tram” could follow the ring road past Emerson’s Green and Lyde Green to the M32, and thence to the city centre.

Forthcoming consultation

FoSBR look forward to engaging with WECA’s forthcoming mass transit consultation. This process will clarify what routes and technologies are in the frame, and whether tram trains that can share freight lines will be part of the mix.

Westerleigh area - blue passenger lines, red freight lines, grey disused lines (c) Adlestrop Railway Atlas
Westerleigh area – blue passenger lines, red freight lines, grey disused lines (c) New Adlestrop Railway Atlas