EXCLUSIVE: Railway line hopes hit the buffers
By Simon Hacker | 29th August 2023
An exciting vision to bring a lost railway line back to life after 59 years has been stopped in its tracks by an eviction order from tenants of a railway station that was pivotal to the project.
In March, Punchline reported on the far-sighted effort of the Gloucestershire heritage railway group The Vale of Berkeley Railway (VoBR) to resurrect a four-mile stretch of network that would connect to the Gloucester-Bristol line to Sharpness.
As well as meeting existing demand, the plan aimed to meet anticipated leisure and tourism use ahead of a likely 5,000 home development between Sharpness and Berkeley.
The plan, targeted for first-stage activation in 2025, would see a heritage rail link from Sharpness via Berkeley town and on to a final termination at defunct Berkeley Road station, on the Gloucester-Bristol line, which closed in 1965.
Resurrection of the spur would potentially include a stop at Cattle Country family activity centre, as well as in Berkeley (thus meeting tourism demand from the town's famous Castle) before turning towards Sharpness, which is currently focal to major potential housing development. The vision has been welcomed by many as a key infrastucture initiative.
VoBR's plan stated that its ultimate vision is to run trains "along the length of the Sharpness branch line, from Sharpness to Berkeley Road, where the branch joins the Gloucester to Bristol main line... Phase 2 will involve applying for a lease from Network Rail to extend our operations and run trains from Sharpness to Berkeley. Phase 3 will see a replica of Berkeley Station built close to the site of the original."
Phase 4 would see VoBR being granted a lease for the rest of the line, up to the site of the old Berkeley Road station.
"En route there would be a platform for visitors to Cattle Country and finally a park and ride facility close to the A38 for a new Berkeley Road station. This would allow more visitors to explore the Vale of Berkeley by train, reducing the environmental impact of cars on this delightful countryside."
But with VoBR reporting steady progress of the plan, nuclear flask rail transporter Direct Rail Services (DRS), which uses the Berkeley site as a collection and transit point for low-level nuclear waste, has stepped in to tell VoBR it must stop work on the former Berkeley station, which has been central to the plan, and now leave the site.
Howard Parker, chair of VoBR, said in a statement: "Unfortunately the VoBR was forced to withdraw from its work at Berkeley station because DRS, the operators of the nuclear flask trains put a halt to our work there and demanded we leave the site."
He added: "We had no choice but to comply because they have the lease to the whole station area."
In the short-term, Mr Parker added that VoBR "cannot advance any plans to bring back trains to Berkeley station or rebuild the station building, which was our aim."
The ordered halt has therefore led the volunteer group, which has 90 active volunteers and almost 400 members, to stop posting online updates on the project.
Mr Parker said VoBR remained hopeful "the situation might change at some future point but until it does we are focusing all our efforts on developing our site at [the Sharpness part of the operation,] Oldminster.
He told Punchline: "We are a community organisation which sees the heritage railway as a regenerative move for the economy, for local business. The move from DRS is a lost opportunity for the Berkeley area."
He called on Stroud District Council to listen to the local community and make a commitment to helping the project through its Local Plan.
"They have never really committed. Reference to this in their local plan are taken almost verbatim from the [housing] developers."
In the meanwhile, he said, the VoBR would focus on work to progress details of its Oldminster Sharpness site.
"A lot of blood sweat and tears has gone into this so far. We have cleared a lot of the ground in archeaological work at Berkeley, and unearthed the station building. There is an old weighbridge that we had hoped to rescue, but it is just sat there, crumbling."
The sudden decision to tell the group to vacate the Berkeley site came, he said, as a result of the nuclear industry operating a hunkered-down business model: "There is a lack of clarity in the whole nuclear industry. They don't want to make a plan here because it is in the hands of the government, who are not coherent on strategy. So the default position is to do nothing."
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