Bristol underground: ‘Tunnels may well be needed’ below Temple Meads and Gloucester Road

The region’s political leaders have agreed to firm up costs for the planned mass transit after concerns interest was fading

Multi-billion pound hopes for a Bristol underground transport system took a tentative step forward – with the region’s political leaders formally accepting “tunnels may well be needed” below Temple Meads and Gloucester Road.

City mayor Marvin Rees told a meeting of West of England Combined Authority (Weca) that mass transit would be key to getting people out of cars and to decarbonising public transport, but that Weca’s financial commitment appeared to be reducing.

Mr Rees has long championed a tube network, pledging in his election manifesto last year that a mass transit system would be “in the form of an underground and overground” and telling BBC Politics West it would open in “eight to 10 years”.

But opposition councillors have repeatedly dismissed it as a pipedream, not least because of similar remarks Mr Rees made back in 2017 that it would become a reality “within 10 years”.

Map showing the proposed underground routes in orange released by Bristol City Council last year

More recently, shortly after being elected West of England metro mayor last May, fellow Labour politician Dan Norris, whose remit includes transport, struck a note of caution over the estimated £4billion costs, saying his “instinct is that undergrounds cost a lot of money”, although he did not rule it in or out.

But now Weca – comprising the two mayors and the leaders of South Gloucestershire and Bath & North East Somerset councils – has agreed to firm up costs, dates and key milestones for the region’s mass transit by their next meeting in April.

And a last-minute amendment to the committee on Friday, January 28, specifically mentioning tunnels was approved unanimously.

It said: “The committee recognises the need for new public transport across the region and will build on the previous work carried out on mass transit recognising that tunnels may well be needed in places where there are pinch-points due to the historic nature of development including for example around Temple Meads and Gloucester Road.”

Mr Rees told the meeting at Bath Guildhall that mass transit would be key to getting people out of cars and to decarbonising public transport, but that Weca’s financial commitment appeared to be reducing.

He said: “We have had some concerns which is why we were really keen to get the commitment today.

“We feel there is a level of detail that should have been worked up by now – dates, costs, milestones.

“Progress must be quicker. There is no time to fail, no time to delay.”

He said decarbonising transport as well as buildings was critical to meeting the city’s and the region’s carbon zero targets.

Mr Rees said he hoped that with the committee’s commitment and the agreed amendment that a “planned programme of work with clear indications of those dates, costs and milestones, with a clear commitment to the financing set against it” would be presented in April.

“A scheme like this is a £4billion-plus scheme and it cannot be delivered by making funding decisions on an annual basis about funding the next 12 months,” he said.

“If we’re going to commit to delivering a mass transit system for the city region, we must be working over multiple-year timeframes, and the finances have to match that framework.

“It’s the way we’re going to be taken seriously by investors, by government and ultimately by our population, so we do need to see that commitment.”

Mr Norris told the city mayor: “I’m very happy to give you those assurances about us coming back in April.

“I look forward to working with you so we give those timed, dated and costed proposals on what resources we actually need because we need resources to move this forward to get to the next stage where we deliver a new public transport system for our region.”