10th Jun 2021 – Latest press release from HRE Group on the infilling of Great Musgrave bridge in Cumbria

▲GreatMusgraveDelivery©TheHREGroup: Several wagon-loads of stone arrive at the Great Musgrave site every day.
▲GreatMusgraveInfilling©TheHREGroup: Machines tip stone down the cutting slope to form the base of the infill.

PRESS STATEMENT: Thursday 10th June 2021

This statement is supplementary to our press release of 8 June 2021 (see below) regarding Highways England’s ongoing infilling of Great Musgrave bridge in Cumbria which blocks a planned future connection between the Eden Valley and Stainmore railways.

Highways England’s decision to infill the bridge is underpinned by a structural assessment – commissioned in 1998 – which rates the structure as having a load-bearing capacity of 17 tonnes. HE has refused to make this document available under the Freedom of Information Act, but The HRE Group has obtained a copy.

On a page entitled ‘Strengthening Options’, the assessment report specifically states that repointing of open joints in the arch barrel (which constitute minor works) would be “satisfactory for full 40 tonne assessment loading”. This would quickly, cheaply and easily resolve any concerns over the strength of the structure. It should be noted that a bridge built in 1862 is only required to have a capacity of 24 tonnes and the local road network effectively imposes a weight limit of 18 tonnes due to a restriction at nearby Kirkby Stephen – which is signposted on all approaches to the bridge – and prevents through access via the bridge to any vehicle over 18 tonnes.

Repointing would cost around £15-20K, whilst Highways England’s infilling work has a contract value of £124K.

Graeme Bickerdike, a member of The HRE Group, said: “What’s emerging here is clear evidence that Great Musgrave bridge is being infilled for policy reasons, not because of any engineering or public safety issues.

“The condition of the bridge – as described in Highways England’s own inspection reports – remains Fair, with no signs of overloading. In February 2020, the inspector’s only recommendation relating to load-bearing elements was to repoint the open joints.

“Despite this, Highways England has now told Eden District Council that it is acting ‘to prevent an emergency arising’. This represents a disreputable abuse of Permitted Development rights which only facilitate temporary works in situations where immediate action is needed to prevent death or injury. Infilling is intended to be permanent and the bridge presents no meaningful public safety risk.

“We call on Eden District Council to take immediate action to stop this work before the longstanding ambitions of the Eden Valley and Stainmore railways are further prejudiced by Highways England’s wholly unwarranted infilling.”

8th June Press Release:

Highways England acting “dishonestly” in Cumbria bridge row

Work to infill a 159-year-old railway bridge in Cumbria is continuing despite objectors claiming that Highways England “has contrived an alternative reality” to drive through the scheme.

The state-owned roads company manages the Historical Railways Estate of 3,100 disused structures on the Department for Transport’s behalf. In January, it emerged that 115 bridges and tunnels will be infilled and a further 15 demolished over the next five years, but campaigners say the final number could run to several hundred. Many are earmarked for use within sustainable transport schemes.

The bridge at Great Musgrave near Warcop is needed for a connection between the Eden Valley and Stainmore railways whose longstanding ambition is to unite their operations and establish an 11-mile heritage line between Appleby and Kirkby Stephen. Campaigners say that if the infilling is completed, the blockage will be too difficult and costly to remove, scuppering their plans and denying the Eden Valley a much-needed economic boost.

Highways England says it only carries out infilling work on bridges that are “unsafe”. A spokesperson said: “As part of our stewardship of the Historic Railway Estate, we determined the Musgrave Lane bridge – which carries the B6259 over the old railway line – needed strengthening to safeguard the road’s absolutely vital role in connecting local communities like Warcop and Great Musgrave.”

The structure was assessed as having a capacity of 17 tonnes in 1998. Locals say that vehicles over 18 tonnes are unable to make through journeys via the bridge because of an existing weight limit at nearby Kirkby Stephen which is signposted on all approaches. The narrow road that crosses the structure is lightly used, and several sharp bends and humped crossings of the river restrict access by larger vehicles.

According to Highways England’s own inspection reports, the bridge is in Fair condition, shows no signs of being overloaded and has no significant defects. In February 2020, their inspector’s only recommendation was for £5K of repointing which would have increased the bridge’s capacity. That work has not been undertaken.

In a letter to the House of Commons Transport Committee in April, Transport Minister Baroness Vere insisted that “where there is an interest to retain access [beneath a bridge], HE will work to retain this access. Its engagement with local authorities and other stakeholders is part of uncovering that interest where it exists.”

Highways England claims to have “consulted widely – including with Eden Valley District Council, Sustrans and the Eden Valley Railway Company – on our plans to strengthen the bridge.” But both the Eden Valley and Stainmore railways flatly deny there has been any dialogue with the company over the Great Musgrave bridge.

“The first we knew about it was when a national list appeared in January”, says Mike Thompson, Project Manager with the Stainmore Railway. “I’ve spoken to our friends at the Eden Valley Railway and they’re as appalled as we are over Highways England’s claim – which is contradicted by its own reports – regarding the risks presented by the bridge and alleged discussions with us about its future. If the latter is indeed true, then please tell us with whom, where and when. We have heard nothing from them.

“We would have welcomed the opportunity to make clear our opposition to this destructive project. Years of effort by dozens of volunteers is now in jeopardy. There’s not even been a planning application so our voices have been totally silenced.”

In a statement to Rail Engineer magazine, Highways England’s Head of Scheme Delivery, David Wheatley, said: “We can confirm that any work carried out by the Historical Railways Estate in the future will not thwart any potential active travel schemes, or any rail reopenings, including the extension of preserved railways. We have paused infilling and demolition works where local authorities have raised queries about the works.”

Despite this assurance, infilling at Great Musgrave continues. Eden District Council has asked Highways England to pause whilst a review is undertaken, but it refused citing Permitted Development rights.

The HRE Group – an alliance of engineers, sustainable transport advocates and greenway developers – is campaigning against the infilling programme nationally.

Group member Graeme Bickerdike said: “We’re surprised that a Government-owned company would act so dishonestly. Every statement it makes is contradicted by its actions. This work cannot be justified on engineering, public safety or costs grounds, so Highways England has contrived an alternative reality.

“According to its own figures, it would take about 50 years to spend the £124K infilling cost on routine inspection and maintenance, so the taxpayer won’t begin to see any benefit from this scheme until 2070. But before then – if the opportunity had not been denied them – these two railways would have created a tourist attraction, boosting the local economy and raising tax revenue.

“These distant officials are just managing spreadsheets, oblivious to the damaging impacts of their decisions on good people trying to do positive things for their communities.”