Campaigners want more to be done to use the redundant structures for footpaths and cycleways are revived rail services.
Highways England manages the Historical Railways Estate of 3,200 structures on behalf of the Department for Transport. According to its Strategic Plan for the Estate, Highways England intends to demolish up to 480 structures between now and 2030, with 115 bridges and tunnels earmarked for infilling as part of an ongoing first phase, undermining plans for sustainable transport.
An appraisal by The HRE Group – a campaign group comprising engineers, cycling campaigners and greenway developers – has found that about a third of these structures are already proposed for reuse as part of new cycle paths, reopened railways and extensions to heritage lines, or have been identified as having potential for similar projects in the future. [See our previous report here.]
Highways England claims that the at-risk bridges have failed structural assessments to carry 44-tonne lorries and no weight restrictions have been imposed, but evidence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act suggests that 55 of the bridges (48%) have not failed their assessments, 24 (21%) are regarded as ‘fit for purpose’ and eight (7%) do have weight restrictions. Most of the structures are crossed by country lanes or farm tracks which heavy vehicles could not use.
Backing the heritage campaigners is the Institution of Civil Engineers’ Panel for Historical Engineering Works (PHEW).
PHEW chair Gordon Masterton, a former ICE president, said: “The value of existing infrastructure must be recognised as we evolve to greener modes of transport. Walking and cycling greatly benefit our health, wellbeing and the environment, and we need to build on the uptake seen during the first lockdown by creating more safe space.
“Disused railways offer unique opportunities; many have already been repurposed through iconic active travel routes, enjoyed by millions of people every year. Blocking or severing old trackbeds puts further opportunities at risk.
“Asset management has to be proportionate and holistic. Putting a structure beyond use based only on perceived risk - without fully understanding its wider value - can burden the taxpayer with unnecessary cost and compromise efforts to build a better future for our communities. Such outcomes must be avoided.”
According to Highways England’s Strategic Report, around £25,000 is spent on repairs and assessments to each legacy rail bridge every 10 years. The firm’s last five infilling schemes each cost an average of £145,000, meaning that no cost saving is typically made for 58 years, the HRE Group said.
Chris Todd from Transport Action Network said that responsibility for the redundant structures should be passed to someone else. “There’s a lack of joined-up thinking here,” he said. “Across the country, new cycle routes are needed to support the government’s active travel policies. Yet a handful of officials within the Department for Transport and Highways England are taking a wrecking ball to structures that could be vital in providing better access to our countryside, something we’ve seen to be incredibly important since the pandemic.
“Our great railway heritage should not be viewed as a liability and it has to be asked whether Highways England is really the right body to be managing these important assets. It has little interest in sustainable transport and seems only concerned with building roads. Its snubbing of local communities who are seeking rail reopenings and new active travel routes when proposing these demolitions and infills exposes its true colours.
“We don’t dispute that structures have to be kept in a safe condition, but modest repair interventions will do the job in most cases and make more sense economically. It’s time the government passed control of these important assets to a responsible body that is better able to maintain them for future use.”
Most of the planned infilling schemes are being pursued under permitted development rights, circumventing the need for planning permission.
Highways England confirmed last month that it was planning to infill 115 bridges and remove 15 structures over the next five years. It said that it had contacted all local authorities affected to advise them of the plans and to see if they had any use for the structures. It has also arranged for seven structures to be transferred to local authorities which aspire to use them for cycle routes.
The HRE Group has produce a map showing the locations of structures at risk. It is available at https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/edit?mid=1_9GtFIDW-QuYPvp8vBcSUD4gH9cOMdZt&usp=sharing
Campaigners are continuing to lobby MPs in an effort to halt Highways England’s plans and a petition launched in December has now gathered 10,000 supporters. It can be signed online at www.change.org/theHREgroup.