As regular readers will be aware, the Great Western railway is slowly but surely shedding its rather tired mid-twentieth-century image. It is beginning to show that it has the potential to match any main line railway route in Europe, although there is still plenty of work to be done.

The Edwardian barrel roof over the northern platforms at Paddington station has been restored by Network Rail, with Morgan Sindall as its main contractor. A joint venture with Colas Rail and Morgan Sindall, valued at £20 million, is currently underway to refurbish the three earlier, Victorian roof spans which should be complete by the end of 2016.

In July 2014, as part of an £895 million project, a brand new station opened a year ahead of schedule in Reading. Then, in 2015, the £45 million viaduct was completed to the west of the station offering significant improvements to passenger and freight traffic flows by helping to unlock a major bottleneck on the route.

A master signal box at Didcot, designed to manage and control the signalling system from London to the West, links into a new operations centre in Cardiff which is currently the focus of a new signalling system between Cardiff and the Rhymney Valley due to be completed in 2017.

There is, of course, also the highly publicised scheme to electrify the route from London to Oxford, Newbury and Bristol then on to Cardiff with new electric trains arriving by the end of 2017. It is impossible to avoid the parliamentary discussions that are taking place relating to the cost of this project. Suffice it to say that this project offers a significant challenge to engineers and the recent work carried out in the Bath area, at Box Tunnel, Dundas Aqueduct and Sydney Gardens (issue 132, October 2015), demonstrates that good progress is being made and the many significant engineering challenges are being addressed.

So, great things are happening on this route but there is one significant location that has had little mention given its size, and that is Bristol. However, that is now beginning to change and as Andy Haynes, Network Rail’s project director for the GW Route Modernisation, pointed out, these changes will be quite significant.

MetroWest plans

For many years, Bristol has had plans to develop local railway routes, and now MetroWest has the £100 million funding necessary to reopen closed lines and provide new stations and new services for the area.


Phase 1 of MetroWest will reopen the Portishead branch line via Pill and improve commuter services on the Severn Beach line and on to Bath. Phase 2 of MetroWest will see the reopening of the Henbury line, with new stations at Henbury and North Filton, and services to Yate and a new station at Ashley Down. In addition, two additional tracks will be reinstated over 10km between Bristol Temple Meads, Dr Days Jn and Filton South Jn near Bristol Parkway.

Work which is tied into the electrification work on the GWML is already underway for commuters on the Bath route and a contract has been awarded to Taylor Woodrow, valued at £33 million, to re instate the two additional tracks from Dr Days Jn to Filton South Jn. It is a three- year contract which includes the reconstruction of four bridges and the refurbishment of a further 13 structures plus a significant amount of trackwork.

Work started in September 2015, clearing the significant amount of vegetation that has grown over the years and raising bridge parapet walls to the required 1.85m to maintain the safety of pedestrians when the line is electrified.

New underbridge this Christmas

In addition, preparations for the construction of a new underbridge at Parsons Street are progressing. The new bridge is designed to carry the four tracks over a new four-lane highway. Temporary bridge spans are being constructed to enable pile foundations and abutments to be constructed ready to receive a new bridge deck which will be constructed alongside the formation and slid into place over the newly constructed abutments. This final phase will be completed over the Christmas period.

The junctions at Dr Days, Narroways Hill – leading onto the Severn Beach line, and Filton South will all have to be remodelled and there is a significant amount of re-profiling of embankments and cuttings, the most significant being Horfield cutting. In preparation for the new fleet of electric trains and the increased capacity they will deliver, Network Rail will also be adding a new platform at Bristol Parkway and at Filton Abbeywood.

Arup Engineering Consultants are responsible for all the design work involved and Network Rail will use the expertise of its S&C Alliance with Colas Rail for work associated with the remodelling of the junctions. Once the new track layout is in place, Network Rail’s National Framework Agreement with ABC (Alstom, Babcock, Costain) will move in to install the overhead structures and catenary for the electrification scheme.

Work on the Portishead branch, to the west of Bristol Temple Meads station, is planned for completion in 2019 and, with all the building and development that has taken on this route, it will inevitably offer huge benefits to the city of Bristol.

Temple Meads

The geographical hub for all this work is Bristol Temple Meads. Built as the western terminus of the Great Western Railway’s main line from London to Bristol, the station has undergone many changes as it has outgrown Brunel’s original building and become the railway gateway to the West Country.

The original Bristol station, designed by I K Brunel in a ‘mock Tudor’ style was, like the original Paddington station, a terminus which consisted of simply an arrival and a departure platform. It opened on 31 August 1840 with trains running from Bristol as far as Bath, nearly a year before the start of through traffic to London. The station buildings had a boardroom and offices for the ‘Bristol Committee’ of the Great Western Railway.

Today, Bristol Temple Meads is located right at the heart of another Bristol initiative, the Bristol Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone (BTQEZ), designed to maximise the use of the significant amount of waste land around the station area to develop commerce and make the station area part of the rapidly expanding city centre.

The station is now one of the busiest and fastest growing rail interchanges on the Western route with more than nine million passengers on average every year. The aspiration of BTQEZ and Network Rail is to redevelop the station into a location that provides excellent rail links, which in turn will attract new businesses and investment.

Andy outlined the proposals for the station which include general improvements within the station, to ease current and predicted passenger congestion, and a new station entrance. At present, the station acts as a barrier to the land on the east side of the station so it is proposed that a new eastern station entrance is introduced to ease congestion and provide a convenient link across and around the Temple Quarter.

Temple Meads - Proposed platforms at Digby Whyatt Shed [online]

“If you want a pasty whilst in the station,” said Andy, “that’s okay, but there is very little else.” So there are plans to introduce a light and airy subway extension under the existing forecourt to provide a welcoming environment and improve retail opportunities for local businesses. The challenge is to achieve this objective whilst preserving the fabric and views of this historic grade 1 listed structure.

To accommodate the increase in train movements resulting from the MetroWest initiative, the proposals include the demolition of the existing signal box, allowing access for trains into a redeveloped Midland shed, bringing it back to its former usage. The demolition will also create space to construct two platforms to accommodate the increased train services.

So far, after two months of preparatory work, the engineering team at Bristol Temple Meads removed the bridge structure that supported the old Post Office conveyor belts at the east end of the station on Christmas Day last year. The platforms have subsequently been repaired after the removal of the conveyor belt piers and lift shafts.

New station roof

Network Rail is about to let a contract to Balfour Beatty to renew the roof to the main train shed starting early in 2016. This work will include grit blasting the archways and painting, new lighting and new glazing. The work is expected to take two years so the new bright and clean roof will be ready to receive the much cleaner electric trains. Arup is also responsible for the design work associated with the station roof work and the two new platforms in the Wyatt shed.

As stated earlier, whilst all the civil engineering work is progressing, the less noticeable but no less significant signalling enhancement works are taking place, effectively renewing the whole signalling system. Network Rail is installing fibre-optic cabling and new driver communication systems designed to improve train performance.

This work also dovetails into the construction of the new £80 million train maintenance depot at Stoke Gifford in the Filton triangle. This work, by VolkerFitzpatrick, is now well advanced and will be ready to receive the new Hitachi train sets due to arrive in 2017.

So, the momentum is building. The fruits of all the preparatory work carried out by Andy Haynes and his team of skilled engineers to turn the plans into reality are now slowly but surely materialising. The focus is moving to the city of Bristol which is becoming the centre of attention with regard to the modernisation of the Great Western route and hopefully, providing lots of good material for future articles!

Main image courtesy of