Letter: Bristol also needs a Crossrail

The inconveniently located Bristol Temple Meads. Image: Rept0n1x/Wikipedia Commons.

Editor’s note: A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece setting out my – entirely speculative, and in some ways fairly silly – proposal for Birmingham Crossrail. This ‘news’ got picked up by the Birmingham Mail, as you do.

It also generated a fair bit of correspondence. Since, in one email, someone had gone to the trouble of coming up with an entire proposal for Bristol Crossrail, I thought it only fair to let you see that, too.

Dear Jonn,

I hope you don’t mind me writing to you, but following your Birmingham Crossrail article I wanted to share my Bristol version.

Since the creation of the West of England Combined Authority there have been many promising signs that the area’s transport network is due to change for the better (plans for a light rail system, road improvements and reopened railway lines and stations). But I feel there is one component missing which in my opinion is the ‘missing link’ to benefit the city of Bristol and the wider region around it.

Bristol Temple Meads station is used by 11m passengers a year: however, it is located on the outskirts of the city centre. The planned enterprise zone will encourage further investment into the area around it, but important parts of the city – like the main hospital, courts, shopping and entertainment areas – are quite far from the railway station compared to other cities like Cardiff, Birmingham etc. 

This is why based on examples of other non-UK cities I have come up with an idea for our own underground commuter rail tunnel – a sort of Crossrail, if you will, like the S-Bahn tunnels in Germany.

In the picture below, you will see that my proposal comprises of a 2 mile long tunnel from Clifton Down station on the Severn Beach Line (currently served by a train every 40 minutes) to Bristol Temple Meads. There would be new underground stations by the university & museum (called Museum), cenotaph (Central Station) and the new development known as Redcliff Quarter, as well as an underground Temple Meads station. Trains would exit the tunnel onto the railway tracks at Bristol east Junction. 

Jack’s Bristol Crossrail proposal. Trains on the Severn Beach line would run via the new tunnel in orange. A second service would run in a loop via the tunnel and Montpelier. New stations are shown in maroon.

Services from Avonmouth/Severn Beach to Bath Spa (part of our future MetroWest Phase 1) could be diverted through this tunnel at a frequency of 4 trains per hour. This would bypass Redland and Montpelier stations, so to keep services at those stations, a 4 train per hour circular service could be introduced using the tunnel calling at Temple Meads, Lawrence Hill, Stapleton Road, Montpelier, Redland, Clifton Down, Museum, Central, Redcliff Quarter then back to Temple Meads.


This would provide a service of a train every 7.5 minutes in the central core. Passengers on other lines could make a quick change at Temple Meads to get into the city proper.

These new stations would make the entire inner city a 5-10 mins walk from a train station, decrease traffic, increase investment in the city centre and patronage on our railway network, and free capacity at Temple Meads for more long distance services. 

The inclusion of this tunnel would see rail passengers soar: this has been the case in cities such as Auckland, which had a similar problem before digging a rail tunnel. Value for money in Crossrail type tunnels has been found in cities similar size to Bristol including Malmö, Leipzig, and Palermo, to name a few. I see no reason why the same wouldn’t apply to a UK city.

Large rail projects always seem to be for London’s benefit, which – as the capital – does make an awful lot of sense. However previously, someone had the vision to create the underground Merseyrail tunnels in Liverpool in the 1970s, and the Tyne and Wear Metro in the 1980s. Since then, not one underground rail project outside London has been financed. I hope this will soon change.

Kind regards

    Jack Gill, Bristol

If you have an over-ambitious rail proposal for your city, why not get in touch?

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.