Friends Making a Rail Difference
BEP: 25 september 2010
Let's be honest, groups of people who get together to talk about trains have developed a general reputation for a certain type of geekiness. All those trainspotters scribbling down engine numbers in notepads, or "age of steam" history bores who know the difference between Class A six-wheel switchers and a Class C eight-wheel switchers, without counting the wheels.
But the Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways (FOSBR) has never been that kind of group. Far from concerning themselves with the self-imposed autism of pointless rail-based facts and figures collecting, since its inception in 1995 FOSBR has been a vibrantly radical movement that has battled for the rights of commuters across the city.
When it seemed to many rail chiefs that suburban lines had become a sort of quaint anachronism – an unnecessary relic of a pre-car-oriented past – the good folk of FOSBR could see the future potential in the lines.
"We were ahead of the Green movement in recognising the need to get people out of their cars and back on to trains," explains spokesman Rob Dixon.
Born out of a couple of dozen passionate voices calling for a halt in the demise of the Severn Beach commuter line, FOSBR has now swelled into a powerful lobby group, with more than 200 members and a broad agenda to improve rail usage and protect and develop commuter lines.
Last night this small army of radical commuters gathered together for a party at the La Ruca Cafe in Gloucester Road, to celebrate 15 years of passionate campaigning.
"We've achieved a lot over the years. Passenger numbers on the suburban Bristol lines have more than doubled since 1995, but there's still a lot to do," Rob says.
"We're so far behind other comparable cities across the country.
"We need to catch up with cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, where commuters in the outlaying suburbs know they can walk to their local train station and enjoy good, reliable half-hourly services into the centre of their city."
FOSBR was born at 7.30am on Monday, September 25, 1995, with a rush-hour protest at the reduction of the commuter services from Bristol Temple Meads to Severn Beach.
"We encouraged people to meet on Avonmouth station with bikes and buggies to show that a bus was no substitute for a train," Rob says. It was the start of months of similar protests, that eventually led to a subsidy being found for the line.
"Bristol City Council subsidised the line until 2007 when an hourly minimum service was included in the rail franchise," he says.
"Following that we campaigned energetically for half-hourly services, targeting the city council's budget in 2006/7. Councillors of all parties voted to invest money in extra trains in order to provide an improved service – a train approximately every 45 minutes during the day – for three years.
"This started in May 2008 and has resulted in a 60 per cent ticket sale increase, which proves that if the service is reliable and regular, commuters will be prepared to leave their cars at home."
But the members' resolve remains determined to keep pushing for improvements to the city's commuter service – driving change forward like a legion of little shunting engines.
"Every time a suburban train runs in the Bristol area it is a victory for FOSBR," says member Teresa McGill. "Recently FOSBR has been campaigning to ensure this service continues. We have successfully lobbied MPs and council officials across the South West region to include rail schemes in their bid for government funding for transport projects.
"This year our campaign to include local rail schemes was mentioned in Network Rail's regional strategy and resulted in a review of the service on the Severn Beach line and proposals for an additional service from Avonmouth to Bath. We have put pressure on the West of England Partnership to take steps to reopen the freight line from Avonmouth to Bristol Parkway to passengers, and to ensure the half-hourly service at stations that they have promised in the local transport plan.
"We regularly meet with the Severnside Community Rail Partnership, the council and train operator First Great Western to discuss the future of the line and our ideas."
So what drives these determined campaigners?
"I think everyone has their own individual reason for continuing the fight," Rob says. "I was simply a regular rail commuter who wanted to see an improvement in services."
As well as campaigning for investment and against cuts, FOSBR has promoted the local rail network in various ways.
"These days, we're not just about campaigning against the demise of the services, now we also actively try to promote rail usage among the public," Rob says.
"We give out thousands of timetables every year, have stalls at local events, and publicise the suburban railway lines through special events such as trips to the seaside.
"Our golden goals are to achieve half-hourly services to all Bristol stations, see the reopening of the line to Portishead and from Avonmouth to Parkway, and lobby for the introduction of four tracks – rather than the current two – from Temple Meads to Filton."
Who knows? Perhaps in the next 15 years, the good folk of FOSBR will be on track to achieve their remaining golden goals.
● For more information about FOSBR, visit the website at fosbr.org.uk.