Plans to link two Cumbrian heritage railways could be sunk unless objectors convince a local council to reject a planning application to make the infilling of a Victorian bridge permanent.
For 27 years, the Eden Valley and Stainmore railways have been working towards the relaying of five miles of track between Warcop and Kirkby Stephen. But last year National Highways buried a stone arch bridge at Great Musgrave in more than 1,600 tonnes of aggregate and concrete, blocking the route.
Since 2017, inspections had found the structure to be in fair condition, with only a handful of minor defects. Repointing open mortar joints – costing around £20K – would have enabled the structure to carry 40-tonne vehicles, but an engineer employed by the state-owned roads company told Eden District Council that infilling was needed “to prevent the failure of the bridge and avert a collapse”. Inspection reports contradicted this claim.
The work was carried out during May and June last year under powers intended for emergency situations presenting a threat of death or injury, with the material allowed to remain in situ for no longer than 12 months. The Council has insisted that planning permission must be obtained for retention beyond this period. National Highways has now submitted its application, with a decision due by 27 May.
Infilling set taxpayers back £124K and, according to an internal review, National Highways now believes that restoring the bridge for rail use could cost as much as £431K.
Mike Thompson, Project Manager for the Stainmore Railway Company, said: “Our longstanding aspiration to reconnect with our friends at the Eden Valley Railway offers the potential to provide a much-needed boost to the area’s economy. It was always going to be a challenging project with obstacles to overcome, but the unnecessary infilling of Great Musgrave bridge has made it so much more difficult and costly.
“National Highways didn’t consult with us about their plans for the structure. Now though we have the opportunity to make our views known and we hope that democratic process will result in the right outcome. We believe infilling conflicts with the Council’s policies on new development, biodiversity, landscape character, green infrastructure and heritage assets, as well as the protection of dismantled railways under consideration for reopening.
“We ask anyone who recognises the importance of our wonderful railway heritage – and its value for future sustainable transport use – to object to National Highways’ planning application. This was a fine, historic structure in good condition. What they did to it was nothing short of vandalism and they can’t be allowed to get away with that.”
National Highways has made a public commitment to remove the infill if it is the last obstruction to the railways’ reconnection, but campaigners say the company cannot be trusted to honour it, being neither legally binding nor enforceable.
Graeme Bickerdike, a member of The HRE Group which is 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.
“The opportunities presented by Great Musgrave bridge must not be lost, so we trust the Council will reject National Highways’ attempt to make the infill permanent.”
Eight months ago, the Government paused all further infilling schemes due to the controversy caused by the work at Great Musgrave, however the programme is expected to resume later this year. Many civil engineers criticised National Highways for inflicting shame and embarrassment on their profession.
Objections and comments about the Great Musgrave application can be submitted online via Eden District Council’s planning portal, searching for case reference 22/0254.
National Highways head of Historical Railways Estate programme Hélène Rossiter said: “National Highways submitted the planning application in March which included our commitment that the infilling at Great Musgrave will be removed, at no additional cost to the taxpayer, ahead of the proposed reinstatement of a railway between Appleby East and Kirkby Stephen East.
“We wrote to the heritage railway companies that comprise Eden Valley Railway Project to discuss the progress of their plans for the reopening of the line, including timescales and funding, so we could include their timescales in the planning submission and let the planning authority know when the infilling would likely be removed. Unfortunately the Eden Valley Railway Project’s plans were not sufficiently developed to provide the planning authority with that information.”
“Our thorough internal review determined last year’s infilling was vital to public safety, and preserving the structure until a long-term purpose is found. We’ve committed to reversing it if a viable future use for the track bed beneath the bridge is found, that has all necessary approvals and is ready to be delivered.”
• After inspections in 2017, 2020 and 2021, during which time the condition of the bridge deteriorated, we decided to infill the structure to keep people safe.
• Allowing the bridge to deteriorate further without this work being completed would have resulted in the bridge’s use being restricted and the impact that would have caused on the local highway network.
• Our work also allowed for ongoing use of the unrestricted road carried by the bridge both during the works and in the future.
• Any delay to our work would have resulted in it being pushed back to the following year because we had to do it before bat roosting season.
• A reversal of the infill would be at no additional cost to the taxpayer as it would be funded by budgets already in our work programme.