Wrecking ball threatens future travel plans

Guest blog by Graeme Bickerdike, The Historical Railways Estate Group

One of the positive realities to emerge from lockdown was the enthusiasm shown by the great British public to set out on foot or cycle when it’s safe to do so. Opportunities presented by empty roads were embraced wholeheartedly.

For a host of reasons, we need to build a better normal after the pandemic. Active travel is not just about connecting communities – it offers health benefits, reduces the burden on the NHS, helps to improve our environment, boosts the local economy and brings folk together.

Back in the Fifties and Sixties, branch lines were severed from our sprawling network of railways, leaving behind tranquil green corridors which have become wildlife havens. Many have since been reborn as cycle routes, with the Two Tunnels Greenway in Bath and the Peak District’s Monsal Trail attracting hundreds on summer weekends. Neither would have been possible if the structures built to carry or span the tracks had been lost after closure.

Perhaps surprisingly, around 3,200 disused railway structures are now looked after by Highways England, the Government-owned company responsible for managing our motorways. It seems like a misfit and unfortunately it is. The prevailing culture within Highways England is stiflingly risk averse and when it comes to these 19th Century engineering feats – many of which have the potential to be brought back into beneficial use – fear and ignorance are threatening their very existence.

Photo: One of two structures over the former Alnwick-Cornhill railway threatened with infilling. Local councillors and campaigners have drawn up plans to lay a cycle path below the bridges and are engaging with landowners.

Around 200 bridges have supposedly failed an engineering assessment intended to confirm their ability to carry 44-tonne lorries. That might sound quite alarming. Except they are not required to carry 44-tonne lorries; thanks to their age, they’re assessed against a different standard and should have a load-bearing capacity of just 24 tonnes.

But that’s not good enough for Highways England. They’re now insisting that these grand old structures should all have had weight restrictions imposed by the Local Highway Authority, but none has. That claim is wrong – of the seven bridges we’ve visited, two had 3-tonne limits. But either way, a weight restriction is only imposed if the anticipated traffic loading exceeds a bridge’s assessed capacity. If it doesn’t, what’s the problem?

The problem is Highways England. The company is now insisting that “urgent safety action” is needed at these bridges to “prevent an emergency arising”, so it’s issued 124 permitted development notification letters to local authorities. This approach circumvents the need for planning permission and normal democratic process. There will be no scrutiny; they can do what they like. The intention is to infill beneath the bridges, blocking the old railway and making its reuse for trains or bikes much harder and more expensive; prohibitively so, quite possibly.

An appraisal of the bridges’ strategic value for transport provision has found that four are on railways proposed for reopening – including one that has been the subject of a feasibility study by the Welsh Government, five could be needed for extensions to heritage lines, whilst 11 span routes on which new cycle paths are proposed. One of the bridges in Scotland is legally protected under a Grade C listing.

Highways England is guilty of a scandalous abuse of power here, the consequences of which threaten the valuable role these infrastructure assets could play for future generations.

Campaigners are lobbying Ministers and stakeholders, and seeking support from anyone concerned about the nation’s railway heritage, the environmental challenges confronting us and sustainable transport provision. View the map to see which structures are under threat near you and help by joining the 7,500 people who have already signed our online petition opposing Highways England’s plans. 

Thanks.

Graeme writes for a railway engineering magazine and has spent much of the past 15 years recording and celebrating the hundreds of disused railway tunnels and viaducts that still grace our landscape. He is actively involved in the campaign to repurpose Queensbury Tunnel – a 1.4-mile long Victorian structure between Bradford and Halifax – for walking and cycling, and is now a member of The HRE Group which is seeking to prevent Highways England from putting beyond use hundreds of potentially valuable old railway bridges.

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