Reprieve for old railway bridges but dozens more face ugly end

Forty-six disused railway bridges under threat of being filled in have been given a reprieve amid mounting anger over “vandalism” caused by the policy.

Graeme Paton, Transport Correspondent 

Before: The bridge in Great Musgrove, Cumbria, declared unsafe

The Times has learnt that the number of bridges and tunnels on a target list drawn up by Highways England has been quietly cut from 115 at the end of last year to 69 now. The work will be carried out over the next five years.

It is understood that the 40 per cent cut has been driven by new assessments of the bridges combined with possible deals with local councils to carry out repairs as an alternative to infilling.

After: Campaigners said pouring aggregate under the bridge was “vandalism”

After: Campaigners said pouring aggregate under the bridge was “vandalism”

This includes one 162-year-old bridge designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel near Saltash, Cornwall, which had been earmarked for infilling just ten months ago because it was in a “deteriorating condition”.

Highways England now says that it has no current plans to plug the bridge.

The disclosure prompted claims from campaigners that the entire infilling policy was unjustified. There has been anger over the approach particularly after tonnes of aggregate were poured beneath a bridge at Great Musgrave near Warcop, Cumbria, amid warnings from Highways England that it was unsafe. Heritage groups branded the work as “vandalism” and claimed it would have cost just £5,000 to repair it.

Highways England manages 3,200 structures on disused railway lines across Britain on behalf of the Department for Transport. It has identified a series of bridges and tunnels to be infilled or demolished after judging they are at risk of collapse, with maintenance and upgrade costs too high.

However, heritage campaigners said that most bridges are in good working order and many are on disused lines that are earmarked as future cycling and walking routes. Some could be reopened for railways, it has been claimed. The campaigners fear that the policy is being pushed purely because Highways England no longer wants to be liable for the structures.

Yesterday, the government-owned company said that the original list included structures that were “in the process of being assessed for maintenance”. It said that “suitable schemes for 46 bridges from that list remain in development”.

Richard Marshall, Highways England’s historical railways estate director, said: “Most of the 3,200 tunnels, bridges and viaducts that make up the estate were built well over 100 years ago. We will spend £13 million this year on keeping the public safe when using these structures . . . We also recognise their wider social value, and we work with local authorities and other organisations to help them find viable ways to re-use these structures wherever possible. Our remit is to keep old railway structures safe but we aren’t funded to re-purpose them.”

Graeme Bickerdike of the Historical Railways Estate Group, an alliance of engineers, cyclists and heritage campaigners, said: “This apparent 40 per cent reduction in the number of at-risk structures exposes the deceit Highways England has been peddling for the past five months in persistently claiming that these bridges are a threat to public safety and have to be infilled . . . How can we trust their judgment about the remaining 69?”