A group of six to 10 people living in Cromwell Road sparked outrage from their neighbours when they hired a tree surgeon to cut down dozens of sycamore trees on the railway embankment by Montpelier train station on the Severn Beach Line – citing the need to improve their view, allow more light into their gardens and salvage the soil.
Now, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed the panic of Network Rail staff in the aftermath of the incident in late January this year.
An FOI by St Andrews resident Simon Davis submitted in March asked to see internal correspondence between Network Rail staff and between staff and Montpelier residents regarding the embankment and the potential felling.
Data protection means some emails were not provided but several censored internal communications were revealed, giving an insight into the shock at the incident.
One email from January 29 sent in response to questions from Bristol Live’s Tristan Cork, reads: “We need to be careful as this is being investigated by BTP. we may need to speak to our legal team before any statement is given to the local press.
“Neighbour instructed unauthorised tree surgeons to fell on NWR land without permission.”
A later reply reads: “After visiting the site there is an awful lot of work that needs to be undertaken to remove large trunks to just make the embankment safe.
“It does give a clear view from the station platform of the large amount of illegal encroachment by the said residents.”
Someone then shared a link to a BBC article about the incident in the email thread, writing: “Here you go it’s gone national BBC [sic].”
To which someone replies: “Ahhhhh [sic], this is just getting worse. I feel like it’s all my fault!!”
Another internal email the following day reads: “They are going to make sure the area is made safe and we will then send out a letter advising all parties.
“I’m hanging my head in shame.”
Residents on Cromwell Road – which falls just inside St Andrews neighbourhood – are understood to have been asking Network Rail to cut down the trees for years, but after years of being refused, decided to take matters into their own hands.
One email from a resident to Network Rail’s Asset Protection Team in July 2017, revealed by the FOI, reads: “I am writing to ask if I could have a reply to my letter and the suggestions that I made in that letter to resolve the worsening problem of out of control sycamore trees on the railway line behind my house.
“I have seen these trees appear from nowhere and grow and seed themselves all along the railway line. They are out of control!
“They cause a loss of light and pollution to my garden and depletion of the soil.
“Despite letters from Network Rail in the past saying you were about to pollard or remove them nothing has been done.”
“I don’t want to say too much about this,” he said, when contacted. “But we did have permission from Network Rail.” It is understood Network Rail checked a long thread of emails between Mr Cutting and their office in Swindon about the trees on the embankment, and they are confident none of them could be interpreted as permission.
A spokesman said at the time: “We did not give permission for the recent de-vegetation work in Montpelier to be carried out.”
Bristol Live understands train drivers first began reporting seeing unauthorised contractors felling trees on the north bank of the cutting between Montpelier station and the entrance to the short tunnel under St Andrew’s Road.
It is thought the trees prevented landslips on the steep embankment down to the railway line, and acted as a noise buffer against the noise of the trains.
If authorised, such work normally requires health and safety plans, supervision from Network Rail to ensure the safe passage of trains is not compromised and, potentially, the stopping or slowing of trains on the line.
It was revealed in March that the rail network manager would not be taking further action against the residents responsible following the BTP investigation.