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10:40 - 07 June 2006

It's more than 40 years since the Government closed a third of the country's railway network, transport experts believe reopening the disused lines could solve the current gridlock.

Some say it sounds potty, but the idea is to lay thick rubber mats on former railway tracks so they can be shared by light rail and cars. It is no small irony that Bristol's railway infrastructure - drastically pruned by the "Beeching Axe" - is now being hailed as an answer to our traffic problems.

Dr Richard Beeching was part of an advisory group set up to help the 1950s Government modernise the country's public transport.

Later appointed chairman of British Railway, in 1963 he decided it was not being used enough, and embarked on a massive closure programme. It was argued at the time that buses to replace trains would be just as effective - and cheaper.

Forty years on, anyone who commutes into Bristol every morning knows just how effective the city's public transport system has become.

But the problem with deciding to reopen the railways now is that many have been built on or returned to farmland.

Some are still used to carry freight, but doubts have been raised as to whether they would be wide enough to accommodate both light rail and cars. And many of the former tracks are now used as cycle paths - which would hardly be safe for cyclists if trains and cars shared the same route.

Alan Matthews, a former director of Avon Valley Railway and the current chairman of the Portishead Railway Group, which campaigns for the former line to Portishead to be re-introduced, said the city was still suffering from the closures in the 1960s.

He said: "It's a real shame they were closed. They could have at least kept the strategic routes, because they go straight into the centre of the city.

"Public transport has to get people from A to B quickly. We have to have routes in Bristol for fast public transport. People living outside need to get in quickly, but people coming into Bristol are finding themselves stuck in a queues of traffic.

"Portishead is being built up but on the roads there is only one way in and out. There's a huge jam in the mornings. It can take an hour to get out.

"Rubber roads would not work on the Portishead line because it is single track a lot of the way, including the tunnels, so how would you keep the cars and the trains separate?

"It may work on the double track at Mangotsfield to Yate, but I find it difficult to imagine the concept in use, with the dangers of running cars and trains on the same track.

"Once cars start to use track, we end up with the same situation as in Bristol, where the buses are held up because they are using the same space as cars."

The 'rubber roads' system would use mats made from recycled car tyres, which would be laid over sleepers on disused or rarely-used railway lines. The designers of the rubber roads say they could significantly ease congestion and make light rail routes feasible and affordable. It is thought many of the road routes would become toll roads, financing themselves as well as cutting car numbers on busier, major routes.

Each mile would cost 1.4 million to build, instead of the 20 million needed to construct the same length of a modern motorway.

Brian Lomas, local representative of the Light Rail Transit Association, said: "In many cases, the railways have regrettably closed. Sometimes there aren't the passengers to support it, but a few of them were closed for the wrong reasons.

"Much of it is cycle track, and getting it back from the cyclists would be very difficult.

"The rubber roads could be used on some existing routes, but in this country making these sorts of changes seems very difficult because of bureaucracy. There are safety concerns, the need for advanced signalling. It's a good idea in the right circumstances but we have got to be careful.

"People talk about the line to Portishead because they are huge difficulties trying to get in and out of the town.

"There's freight, so it could share with passenger trains. That would make it possible for a passenger service about twice a day, but really it needs it needs to run every 10 minutes, which means freight would have to be reduced."

The main cycle route out of Bristol, going all the way to Bath, is on a former railway track, but that is now the flagship of Sustrans, the charity which promotes cycling. It is understandably reluctant to see cycle paths returned to railway use, or shared with cars.

Gill Harrison, of Sustrans, said: "The national cycle network began in Bristol. It's a flagship for us.

"It shows what you can do with disused railways. We use them because they're flat and good for cyclists. We would not want to see cars on them. We're not sure how it would work."

In fact, nobody seems exactly sure how rubber roads would work. But that does not mean new ideas on how to solve Bristol's transport crisis should not be discussed.

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  Your Views
This isn't going to happen: there aren't many disused (but intact) lines left, and even fewer that actually go anywhere people want to go: this is why they are disused. As a solution for tram systems, it's fine - but if you live outside London, you're not allowed those either. Rather than spending the money on converting the odd bit of disused railway to this awkward hybrid system, it will be a far better use of public money to invest in improving parking and security at rail stations, and improving bus services. Sounds simple really, doesn't it? Andrew Roden Associate Editor International Railway Journal
Andrew Roden, Falmouth

Some points that spring to my mind about the rubber roads idea. 1. the intention is for trams to share the space with road traffic not trains, and therefore signalling won't be necessary. 2. This is all well and good but the tv footage showed cars running along the rails, and thus simply recreats the traditional street tramways that all closed because the traffic jams disrupted the running of the trams (rather like they disrupt the running of the buses today!). 3. An abandoned double track railway is not wide enough for a two lane road, large vehicles like buses and lorries would not be able to pass safely in opposite directions. Also think of all the arched bridges over the track and the associated clearance issues. 4. The only use I can see for this rubber road is to use it to imbed tram rails in existing roads (at lower cost) as segregated rights of way (Tram lanes). Where streets are not wide enough, general traffic would be diverted to parallel streets, thus giving trams priority. The French can build modern tramways with 100% tram priority across historic cities with narrow streets (e.g. Strasbourg), so there's no reason why we can't here.
Pete, Chippenham

By the time Bristol City Council of Bristol or the government realises that the railways need to be re-opened, re-built and new routes built to solve our transport problems, we will all of been dead for a long time.
Alan, Bristol

Rubber roads - all he needs is a rubber room! When will they learn that it doesn't matter if the public transport is a train, bus or sedan chair people will still use their cars if it is hugely expensive, run for profit and unreliable?
John, Bristol

more pie in the sky talk , i blame the weather , i m o the powers of be have had to much sun the last 3 days
steve, bristol

When the talk turns to proposals for converting motorways into railways, then I'll know this country has finally come round to taking transport seriously.
Steve Woods, Easton

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