Country Matters: A railway station reborn in Coaley

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NEXT weekend, in a burst of intense activity, a footbridge will go up over the railway line about a third of the way from Gloucester to Bristol. In national terms this may not seem much of an event, but as one of the final moves in the campaign to resuscitate Coaley Junction station, it will represent a triumph of private initiative over national and local inertia.

The main line, running roughly north and south, was opened in 1844, and in 1852 a 2 1/4 -mile spur was added, leading off it at Coaley Junction to serve the town of Dursley. Both main and branch lines flourished until the Thirties, when increasing motor traffic began to reduce rail business: passenger services were withdrawn from the branch line in 1962 and, like hundreds of other rural halts, Coaley Junction fell victim to the Beeching cuts of the later Sixties.

Trains have continued to run on the main line ever since, and over the years several proposals have been made for reopening the station. But it was not until Clive Mowforth, a doctor of philosophy and chemistry, arrived in the area that things really got moving.

A slight and soft-spoken Yorkshireman of 37, Dr Mowforth has never, on principle, owned a car, relying on bicycle, lift or bus to travel to and from work. For four years he and his family lived in Cheshire, and became used to 'reasonable public transport' in and around Wilmslow. Moving down to Dursley, he found things quite different. Railway stations - Gloucester, Stonehouse and Stroud - are all awkwardly placed, and the bus service southwards is so bad that it takes nearly two hours to reach Bristol, only 25 miles away.

Together with a handful of like-minded enthusiasts, Dr Mowforth therefore formed a pressure group, deftly named Cojac (Coaley Junction Action Committee), with the aim of reopening the mainline station. The campaigners soon discovered that the transport authority, Gloucestershire County Council, had commissioned Kennedy Henderson, a firm of consulting engineers, to survey 10 defunct stations and report on the feasibility of bringing them back to life; but they also found that Coaley, though scoring highest in terms of potential use and revenue, had been placed second to Charfield, a village eight miles to the south, on the list of possible subjects for resuscitation.

This seemed odd on various counts. For one, Charfield is in Avon, rather than Gloucestershire, so that many of the people benefiting from a railway revival there would live outside the county which had commissioned the study. Besides, the reopening of Charfield would do little to reduce traffic congestion in Gloucestershire.

Cojac set out to get priorities changed by publicising the findings of the inquiry and going thoroughly into the question of environmental benefit: until then, little attention had been paid to the number of people who might use Coaley Junction, the distances they might travel and the total of car journeys that might be eliminated by the return of rail services. The group also lobbied local councils to make them discuss the subject with each other.

Starting at grassroots level, they asked parish councils to say whether or not they supported the idea of reopening the station - and, if they did, to lay their money on the line by putting up a token amount of pounds 1 per parishioner towards the overall cost of new facilities. The first to react was Cam, the village nearest the railway, which produced pounds 6,000. Next came Dursley, with pounds 4,000, and finally Coaley, with pounds 600.

Cojac pointed out that although the cost - pounds 500,000 - seemed high when considered on its own, it was peanuts compared with the astronomical expense of various road schemes that the Gloucestershire County Council had been considering (albeit with national help) - pounds 30m to bypass the village of Brockworth, on the outskirts of Gloucester, and pounds 60m for a link between Gloucester and the M50 (a plan that has since been dropped after vigorous opposition from environmental bodies).

In November 1992, goaded into action by the pressure group's initiative, Stroud District Council allocated pounds 40,000. Cojac then pointed out that in a rival project at Ashchurch, near Tewkesbury, the local

authority was putting up pounds 100,000 - and under pressure of competition, Stroud increased its ante to pounds 125,000.

Local newspapers and television came out strongly in favour of the scheme, and eventually the snowball effect galvanised the lethargic Gloucestershire County Council into action. Cojac hoped for a decision before the elections of May 1993, but in the event the vote to go ahead was deferred and taken by the new council last June.

The old station, meanwhile, had all but disappeared. Except for the locomotive shed, its buildings had been taken down and business premises had gone up on the site. The platforms remained in place until the early Eighties but, then, with the advent of high- speed trains, British Rail decided that they were dangerously close to the line and ripped them out.

Fortunately, there was a site suitable for the new station only a couple of hundred yards along the line. The land, already owned by the county council, was being used as a grit dump: with the heaps cleared away, there eventually will be space for 200 cars to park. Already the new platforms are in position and, once the footbridge has been finished, only passenger shelters and lights will be needed to complete the project.

Services will start at the end of May. Before that, on 14 May, Cojac and its supporters are planning a celebratory

excursion to Paignton in Devon. They have booked a four-carriage train - the longest the new platforms can accommodate - and are confident that they will be able to fill its 250-odd places.

There will be a good deal to celebrate. Once the new station opens, with eight or nine trains in each direction on weekdays, the time of journeys to Bristol will be halved and it will be possible to reach the centre of Gloucester in 14 minutes, escaping the nightmarish traffic that ensnarls the city centre at rush hours. Predictions suggest that some 450 person-journeys will be made through the station every day, saving perhaps 200 car trips.

One sore point remains, in the form of British Rail's reluctance to accept bicycles on board and its practice of charging pounds 3 per bike irrespective of distance travelled. The facilities at the new station include an excellent covered cycle stand, but many people will be frustrated by the present rule that no more than two bikes may be carried in any luggage van. To ride at both ends and travel by train in the middle is surely the most satisfactory method of commuting - and this will not be possible until more enlightened procedures are adopted.

No date has yet been set for the official opening and, ironically enough, the uncertainty derives from the fact that British Rail's regional director has so many commitments: no fewer than eight stations are now being resurrected in his area. Coaley Junction was once done to death by the motor car. Its rebirth, as Cam & Dursley, is only one more manifestation of the growing revolt against the car and all its evils.