Contracts are being let despite ministers pausing the infilling programme in July.
National Highways says that it has indeed paused work as instructed – on site, that is, but not it seems in the planning. It is still pressing ahead with contract awards on the basis that it will be able to resume works in due course.
The government roads authority manages more than 3,100 disused railway structures on behalf of the Department for Transport. A plan to put 134 bridges and tunnels beyond future use was revealed in January 2021. The government stepped in after a structure in Cumbria was infilled, scotching the potential reconnection of two heritage railways.
According to The HRE Group – an alliance of engineers, sustainable transport advocates and greenway developers – tree felling, drainage, access and ecology works have been authorised at 14 sites from Dorset to East Lothian. The contracts were awarded by National Highways between 21st September and 25th October, with a total value of £192,000.
One of the affected structures is needed for an extension of the Watercress Way, a 27-mile walking route to the north and east of Winchester. The preparatory works for infilling – valued at £5,246 – involve clearing vegetation within the footprint of the proposed scheme.
£55,371 has been committed to drainage works at two bridges between Fairford and Lechlade-on-Thames in Gloucestershire, ahead of proposed infill projects. The old railway spanned by the structures is the focus of a longstanding aspiration to reopen it as a cycle route, the HRE Group said.
Cracks were filled to prevent bats roosting in a structure located within a conservation area at Barcombe, East Sussex, at a cost of £14,096. Local campaigners hope to stop an infill scheme that would block an established wildlife corridor. Contracts worth £246,000 have also been awarded for the main works.
Local campaign organiser Hazel Fell Rayner said: “Passers-by who saw contractors on site were told they were conducting a bat survey – only to find bat exclusion measures had been installed on the bridge immediately after. It seems underhand, dishonourable and to take communities for fools, giving false reassurance that the scheme is paused whilst charging ahead with the removal of wildlife and habitat from sites.”
In Yorkshire, trees have been felled as part of a £9,463 works package to make way for the infilling of a large bridge over the former Hull & Barnsley Railway at Little Smeaton. A 10-metre wide corridor adjacent to the structure has been stripped of vegetation. It is estimated that around 3,000 tonnes of aggregate and concrete would be needed to complete the scheme.
Drainage work costing £17,123 has taken place at an ornate cast iron bridge near Wakefield – also earmarked for infilling – which has “turned the old line into a canal”, according to one local.
Utility investigations and tree felling have been completed on the site of a bridge demolition project in Dorset. Loss of the structure would effectively scupper plans to construct a narrow gauge railway along the former Maiden Newton-Bridport branch line. The works were priced at £36,758.
An email from a civil engineer in National Highways’ Historical Railways Estate team to a Dorset County Council confirmed the organisation’s attitude to the controversy. Dated 11th August 2021, it says: “Government has halted all demolition and infill works for an indefinite period (thanks to some very misleading info, plus some outright lies circulating) so just trying to deal with the fallout of that.”
The National Highways engineer concludes: “We are proceeding with all of the background works as if it were continuing though, so getting the site investigation works planned, etc.”
Graeme Bickerdike, a member of the HRE Group, said: “The engineer’s comment reflects a determination within National Highways to push ahead with its damaging schemes. The awarding of these contracts demonstrates a clear direction of travel and undermines the ministers’ intervention.
“The company is not sensitive to its broader social obligations around heritage, ecology and the environment. Instead it spends taxpayers’ money cutting a swathe through nature’s reclamation of disused railways, destroying habitats for schemes that have supposedly not been confirmed. So why not wait until they are? The so-called pause is just a smoke and mirrors.”
On 29th November, in response to a Parliamentary question from Baroness Randerson, roads minister Baroness Vere said: “No decision has yet been taken as to when the pause to infilling work on the Historical Railways Estate might end.”
Hélène Rossiter, National Highways’ head of historical railways estate programme, said: “The historical railways estate is an important part of our industrial heritage. This is why all infill and demolition plans were paused nationally and remain paused. This work has been paused to give local authorities and interest groups more time to fully consider structures as part of their local active travel plans for heritage railways.
“We have, however, continued with vegetation and ecology work on a number of structures. This is good practice and will keep structures safe. This work will be required irrespective of any decisions regarding the future of these structures."