National Highways says that collaboration with heritage, environmental and active travel groups represents a new method of managing the Historical Railways Estate (HRE), for which it is responsible.
The new arrangements should avoid any unexpected surprises like the infilling of Great Musgrave Bridge in Cumbria last year.
Any work will now only take place once proposals have been assessed for safety, ecological and heritage value and potential future repurposing of structures.
A stakeholder advisory forum (SAF) will “now play a key role in supporting decision-making”, National Highways said. “This new system allows HRE to build on existing partnership work by engaging with interested groups and parties in a structured, formal setting that’s committed to meeting regularly,” it explained.
SAF members will inform decisions for structures requiring works on issues ranging from ecological value, heritage interest or opportunities for active travel repurposing.
The estate, managed on behalf of the Department for Transport (DfT), is made up of more than 3,200 structures – overbridges, tunnels, viaducts, culverts and abutments – many of which are more than 100 years old. Responsibility for maintaining it was transferred to the Highways Agency – now National Highways – in 2013.
National Highways head of HRE programme, Hélène Rossiter, said: “We’re pleased to announce a new, collaborative way of managing work on the Historical Railways Estate. During the pause we worked closely with partners and stakeholders from across the heritage, environmental and active travel sector to understand how we can make our work more transparent and use their expertise to support our decision making. We set up a stakeholder advisory forum (SAF) made up of representatives from across the sector, to support the way we make decisions on projects, particularly those identified for infill or demolition.
“This new process ensures that work is only undertaken after it has passed a series of reviews focused on safety, ecological value, heritage value and potential future repurposing of structures. If we recommend infill or demolition, the minister will review the proposal once it’s been discussed by the SAF.”
National Highways’ bridge infilling programme has been on hold since the outcry caused last year when a Victorian brick arch bridge carrying a minor road over a long-closed rail route was infilled with concrete as a final solution to maintenance.
The local authority at Great Musgrave, Eden District Council, said that National Highways would have to apply for retrospective planning permission. Campaigners are fighting to have the concrete dug out since infilling the bridge stymied aspirations for the Eden Valley and Stainmore railways to relay five miles of track between Warcop and Kirkby Stephen.
Despite its new way of working, National Highways has not withdrawn its application to make the infilling of Great Musgrave Bridge permanent.
Graeme Bickerdike, a member of The HRE Group, a campaign group trying to halt a nationwide infilling and demolition programme of legacy rail structures, said: “National Highways contrived an alternative reality at Great Musgrave whereby a bridge that was in good condition became a threat to public safety. But the claim that it might fail and collapse was not supported by any evidence.
“Whilst ever it remains infilled, this structure will stand as a monument to the company’s destructive culture and unwillingness to tell the truth. It needs to show positive intent around its management of the Historical Railways Estate, remove the infill and re-establish this engineering feat as a valued heritage asset within Cumbria’s landscape, ahead of it being brought back into use.”