When Transport Ministers Ernie Marples and Barbara Castle swung Beeching’s axe across swathes of Britain’s railway in the 1960s, they left behind them isolated communities and gently decaying stations.

Track gangs and scrapmen lifted rails and sleepers while wrecking balls swung against structures. High in the Pennines, Thomas Bouch’s great iron trestle across Belah fells to the wreckers shortly after the line closed in 1962. But the wrecking was not universal. Other structures led more charmed lives to survive today, such as Bennerley Viaduct in the Erewash Valley (now in private hands). It and the other survivors became part of British Rail’s burdensome estate. They needed upkeep but without their tracks could no longer contribute to their maintenance.

When the government split Railtrack from BR in the 1990s it divided the railway estate into an operational side – transferred to Railtrack – and the non-operational which stayed with BR. This endured until 2013 when government finally abolished the last part of BR and transferred all the remaining bridges and structures of BR’s burdensome estate to Highways England.

It’s Highways England that is now responsible for inspecting and maintaining in safe condition an array of structures across England, Scotland and Wales. Throughout their life after railways, the BR Board and then Highways England has occasionally filled or demolished bridges and tunnels as their costs outweigh their uses.

In recent months, Highways England has accelerated this process but in a particularly underhand way. Its contractor, Jacobs, has been sending letters to local planning authorities telling them that Highways Englands plans to infill or demolish old railway structures in their areas. This action prompted a small group of engineers, cycling campaigners and heritage campaigners to form a group, the HRE Group, to fight Highways England’s actions.

Campaigners mobilise

The group’s spokesman is Graeme Bickerdyke. I spoke to him on New Year’s Day to find out more about their campaign. He explained: “The two issues here are that firstly Highways England is proposing to infill or demolish 143 structures during the first phase of this programme without first assessing what the impact of that programme would be on rail or active travel proposals. 

“Its remit is simply to manage risk so it’s not obliged to make that assessment but in a climate that is changing towards rail and active travel we need to recognise that this infrastructure has value in this context. Therefore putting structures beyond use which may have value for rail or active travel and imposing additional cost and complexity is not a good thing as a principle.

“Almost a bigger issue is that they are seeking to progress these infillings and demolitions under permitted development powers. This is not absolutely new, they’ve been infilling and demolishing bridges occasionally since they took over in 2013 but previously they’ve always applied for planning permission.”

Graeme explains that HE can use permitted development powers to prevent or deal with emergencies. This could be a sudden failure that leaves people at risk of injury from falling masonry for example. 

He adds: “The permitted development powers that they are using are simply not applicable for routine asset management activities. They are for use in emergency situations or impending emergency situations. There is nothing of any pending emergency situation about these structures. They are all perfectly serviceable structures that currently have roads going over them or traffic going over them. If there was a pending emergency, they’d close the bridge and stop traffic going over it.”

No emergency

HRE Group showed me one of the letters it’s seen from Jacobs to a local authority. It clearly says the work (in this letter’s case to infill Horse Batch Bridge that carries an unclassified road over the trackbed of the former Cheddar Valley Branch) is “being undertaken in order to prevent an emergency arising”.

But the law that allows permitted development powers to prevent an emergency also requires the structure in question to be returned to its previous state within six months of work starting. It’s hard to see that a bridge with its arch filled with concrete, let alone one that’s been demolished, can satisfy this requirement.

As Graeme says of the power: “It’s to enable short-term work to deal with an emergency. It’s not designed for long-term works because you have tor revert to how the structure was within six months of you starting the work. It’s a stop-gap emergency opportunity to get in and do something that needed doing in emergency.”

Using emergency powers rather than applying for planning permission prevents public scrutiny of infill or demolition powers. Councils may have policies of protecting trackbeds for future use, perhaps as railways, perhaps as cycle routes. But Highways England appears to be giving councillors no say. 

Two of the 143 structures sit on the old Penrith-Keswick line, one near Guardhouse and one near Gillsrow (between Troutbeck and Threlkeld). Part of the old line (which closed in 1972) is today a cycleway from Keswick to Threlkeld. Last December saw Bobbin Mill Tunnel reopen to fully open the route. Highways England contributed almost half of the funds for this (and to repair storm damage inflicted five years ago). Its press release quotes North West Head of Planning and Development Bruce Parker saying: “The route provides a much safer and far more pleasant alternative to cyclists and pedestrians using the busy A66 and we hope it is used and enjoyed for many years to come.”

Meanwhile another part of the same organisation is planning to infill to bridges that could form part of any eastern extension of this cycle route towards Penrith. To my mind, it’s not what Highways England is doing as the way that it’s doing it that is the problem.

Graeme explains: “Demolition and infilling are perfectly legitimate asset management options. Very straight-forward statement. Perfectly legitimate. But we need to recognise where we are with the prevailing climate about reopening rail, about active travel which means that the value of this estate is increasing and we recognise the importance of rail and active travel. So blindly demolishing things or putting them beyond use by infilling is a very short-sighted and counter-productive thing to be doing.”

He’s written to Rail Minister Chris Heaton Harris to ask that he ensures that Highways England applies for planning permission for any infills or demolitions and that he ensures there’s a proper assessment of each structure to see what impact there might be on plans for rail or cycle path use.

The result might be that some bridges and tunnels or filled-in or demolished. But if they are it will be after local councils have been able to consider what future use there might be.

Ultimately, I don’t think Highways England should be responsible for old railway bridges. I can see it grating with devolved authorities such as Transport Scotland that Highways England is responsible for structures in Scotland. Better I think that the Department for Transport transfer them from Highways England to Network Rail. 

NR has the knowledge and experience from many similar structures. NR has extensive links into local authorities. It’s better placed to know what future rail use such structures may have. And transfer to NR should make it no harder to sell any bridges to those local authorities or other bodies that want to create cycle ways or other forms of active travel.

Secret planning

What can’t be continued is the secretive way Highways England is going about its plan to fill in or demolish this initial phase of 134 structures. Graeme reckons more will follow. He told me: “The strategic plan that Highways England put together in 2016 talked about getting rid of 10-15% of the estate. That would be 320 to 480 structures. So I think throughout the 2020s I think we’ll be looking at anything up to about 500 structures.”

Finally, I asked Highways England why it was using permitted development powers and what emergency it was trying to prevent.

In a statement, it said: “To maintain the safety of communities living near to Historic Railway Estate structures, and the drivers who use the roads that cross them, we are planning to infill 115 bridges and remove 15 structures over the next five years.

“Most of the bridges earmarked for infilling are over 100 years old and were never designed to carry the weight of modern traffic.

“Local highway authorities have responsibility for applying weight restrictions, closing the roads, or restricting traffic. Around 200 of the public road bridges managed by HE/HRE have failed their most recent structural assessment but haven’t had any restrictions implemented. Therefore, our planned infilling is the safest and most appropriate option and will maintain access across the structure.

“We’ve contacted all local authorities affected to advise them of our plans and to see if they have any use for the structures.”

A version of this article first appeared in RAIL 922 in January 2021.

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.