‘A Bridge Too Far’ or ‘Vandalism Vanquished’ – National Highways Forced to Abandon Historic Tunnel, Rail & Canal Bridges Infill Plans

Sometime in 2020 someone in Highways England (as it then was), the government roads authority which manages more than 3,200 disused railway and canal structures on behalf of the Department for Transport, had the bright idea of saving money on maintenance – by filling them all in where they pass under roads!

A plan to put 134 bridges and tunnels beyond future use was revealed in January 2021, using the simple expedient of ramming under them or into them, soil, gravel, hardcore, aggregate or any suitable rubbish lying around to hand and covering the sides or entrances with concrete.

Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of aggregate and concrete would have been required.

These thoughtless plans would have cut many disused railway or canal routes, some of which could possibly be reopened or used as wayleaves for fibre, electricity, water or other forms of distribution infrastructure. A great many are still in current use as footpaths, cycle routes, farm tracks or as wildlife corridors.

The structures themselves are important elements of a Victorian engineering heritage or of eighteenth Industrial Revolution projects of which we should feel proud. Most too, retain a much appreciated aesthetic appeal.

One of the most attractive bridges targeted for infill is located near Saltash on Brunel’s original route for the mainline to Penzance. When a new route between Saltash and St Germans was constructed in 1906 on a more secure line away from marshy ground and safer from the sea, the 162-year old bridge was left isolated once a short remaining stretch of track to a naval base finally fell into disuse in 1930.

The bridge is of an elegant design in an attractive setting and in good condition, still being used by local farmers for tractor and stock access.

Highways England invoked temporary development powers – known as Class Q – applicable only in the event of a serious threat of death or injury. This contravenes the best-practice hierarchy of principles for the conservation of structures carrying roads – as many of National Highways’ legacy rail bridges do – as defined in the company’s standard CG 304.

The landmark case was, however, not the Brunel bridge near Saltash – that was hastily reprieved in a welter of bad press and adverse parliamentary questions – but another one up in the Lake District.

At Great Musgrave in Cumbria the road bridge carrying the B629 over the old Eden Valley Line was summarily filled in during the summer of 2021 without planning permission by Highways England invoking its Class Q powers – even though there was no urgency or emergency. Enforcement action by the Planning Authority resulted in a retrospective planning application to Eden District Council whose Planning Committee unanimously refused permission – and Highways England shamefacedly decided to respect that decision and not appeal. The infill of 1,540 tonnes of stone and over 100 tonnes of concrete must now be removed from underneath the bridge.

Now a key stakeholders forum has been set up by National Highways, the rebranded version of Highways England, and this includes a Historic Railway Estate Group involving 10 relevant organisations.

The value for money of their original plans was very questionable. There are many ways in which repairs or strengthening can be put in place for historic bridges which can, for a lower of similar cost, result in effective and longlasting remediation, while preserving the appearance of the structures and the environment without compromising current of future uses of the lines.

The pictures show the Cumbrian bridge with infill in place (thanks to Guardian) and the Cornish Brunel bridge (thanks to HRE Group).