The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has stopped work being carried out on 69 bridges along disused railway lines, having learned of plans to block dozens of them.
Highways England had claimed that the bridges were at risk of collapse. One of its solutions hit the headlines at the beginning of July 2021, as shocking pictures emerged of a 159 year old masonry arched bridge in the heart of the countryside of Cumbria.
Highways England’s treatment of the Great Musgrave bridge caused nationwide scandal as 1,000 tonnes of concrete were poured beneath the arch of the bridge. The cost of the concrete infill was £124,000 but campaigners say it would have cost just £5,000 to repair.
Three groups, the HRE Group, the Eden Valley Railway and Stanmore Railways, claim that the bridge was not in serious risk of structural collapse prior to being infilled. This opinion was endorsed by bridge restoration expert, Goldhawk Bridge Restoration Ltd. Managing director, David Kitching, who said that infilling was not cost-effective or carbon-friendly and added “it’s visually atrocious and as HRE spokesman Graeme Bickerdike stated ‘it’s vandalism'”.
The Great Musgrave bridge forms part of the Historical Railway Estate, which is managed by Highways England on behalf of the Department of Transport. The estate comprises 3,800 bridges, tunnels and viaducts, including 77 structures that have listed status.
The sole provider for the Historical Railways Estate is US-owned engineering group, Jacobs. The company has just been reappointed for a further seven years in a contract valued at around £30 million.
However, heritage campaigners, HRE Group, formed from an alliance of engineers, active travel campaigners and greenway developers, say most of the 135 structures that have been assessed as ‘at risk’ of demolition or infilling by Highways England are, in fact, saveable.
Many of the bridges are situated along disused railway lines that are already used by walkers or had been earmarked for cycling and walking routes. Some disused lines could even be restored as passenger railways, having been recognised as eligible for the Department of Transport’s ‘Restoring your Railways’ fund. The fund aims to reverse some of the 1960s Beeching cuts and reopen local railway lines.
An updated cycling strategy recently published by the Department of Transport says that rules would be introduced by autumn 2021 to reassess each threatened bridge but, until then, none would be demolished except in an emergency.
The proposals are part of a wider plan to spend £338 million on hundreds of miles of new cycle lanes. In addition, the Highway Code is being rewritten to give pedestrians and cyclists greater priority with motorists forced to give way at junctions.
There are already more than 4,000 miles of former railway lines across the country that are open to walkers and cyclists. Many are the legacy of the rail line closures in the wake of Dr Beeching’s report of 1963. They first started being reclaimed for public use in the early 1970s, and more have been added since.