July 25 2022

It's full circle at Ashley Down Station - but don't expect steam trains!

Ashley Down Station 1890  Photo from Bristol's Suburbs Long Ago by Reece Winstone

Ashley Down Station 1890 Photo from Bristol's Suburbs Long Ago by Reece Winstone

by Harry Mottram

It was the year that the Conservative Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home lost the General Election to Labour’s Harold Wilson, Bristol Rovers were in the old Third Division finishing 12th and Ashley Down Station was closed. The year was 1964.

This act of industrial vandalism was part of a far wider destruction of Britain’s branch lines and railway stations deemed to be loss making in what were known as the Beeching Cuts. The titular character in all of this was Richard Beeching who was employed by the Government in 1963 to produce a report on the future of the state-owned railways which were losing money.

The unimaginative plans which were carried out by both Labour and Conservative Governments was to simply axe countless stations, branch lines, station yards and associated buildings and subsidiary businesses. A third of the network was closed. By 1968 the plans had failed as they were still losing money and some subsidies were introduced but the closures continued until a rethink began in the 1990s as passenger numbers picked up to the point today that travelling by train is often a crowded and expensive business.

For the first time since those days there has been a policy of reopening lines and re-establishing stations. One such project is for Ashley Down Station to reopen albeit not in the same Victorian buildings but close by. It had operated for more than 100 years serving Bishopston, Ashley Down, St Werburghs, St Agnes and St Andrews when it was shut but unlike many lines the railway lines continued to run since from Temple Meads the tracks head to Wales, the Midlands and London.

The new station is all part of a plan to reopen the Henbury Line under the West of England Combined Authority’s (WECA) Metro West project which will eventually see the long-awaited reopening of the Portishead line with a new station for Pill and of course Portishead. And there is support for more stations to open or be built including ones for Horfield and Lockleaze not far from Ashley Down – although these two are considered to be ‘aspirational’ by WECA which in modern parlance is ‘one day in the future perhaps.’

Photographs from the early 20th century of the station show a two-track line as opposed to the four today along with an open to the sky iron passenger footbridge now replaced with a modern footbridge. The line around the time of the Great War was still surrounded by fields with the suburbs of Lockleaze and Horfield yet to grow while the trains were pulled by steam engines until the early 1960s. Steam trains have sadly gone from the national network and the new station is unlikely to see a station master and porters let alone the requirement to buy a platform ticket for a penny.

The station was opened in 1864 by the Bristol and South Wales Union Railway, which was absorbed by the Great Western Railway in 1868. The station passed to the Western Region of British Railways on nationalisation in 1948.

The man at the helm of WECA is the metro mayor - as he is popularly known  – Dan Norris. He said the MetroWest developments ‘could generate over a million new rail journeys and give 80,000 more people access to train service.’ The project is well under way with hourly services to Severn Beach, a new station at Portway, and new stations at Henbury and North Filton to cater for the rise in trains that run.

Of course, that is assuming that the trains are running with shortages of staff and industrial action reliability has been an issue for some years. The romantics will tell you the golden age of steam railways was a time when Britain was truly connected by rail the was another side. Steam trains required huge amounts of coal which in turn created pollution – especially in tunnels and in shunting yards.  And there is little evidence to suggest they were any more reliable than today’s diesel and electrified locomotives, in fact they were almost certainly just as prone to breakdowns and indeed industrial action. 

And so, the history of Ashley Down Station has turned full circle with a national consensus at odds with the Beeching cuts. Some things don’t change though as Bristol Rovers are in the same league as they were in 1964, except it’s not called The Third Division but League One instead and there is a Conservative Government that could be facing an unwanted general election this autumn just as Sir Alex Douglas-Home did in 1964.