Aug 2021 – Highways England suspension of bridge infilling

Welcome as this news is, Highways England still has the right to act at speed should an ‘emergency’ arise, and recent experience of its infilling projects (especially that at Great Musgrave in Cumbria) has made it clear what an emergency means to this organisation: basically, it is whatever HE decides.  A bridge doesn’t have to be at the point of collapse at all, and indeed it would be exceptionally rare for any bridge still in use to have reached such a state.  At Great Musgrave, HE’s own surveyor had reported that £5,000’s worth of repointing would bring the bridge back to full strength, but HE proceeded with infilling which, on average, costs £124,000 per structure. 

The fundamental problem is that HE has acted as judge, jury and executioner with some of the historic railway structures entrusted to its ‘care’.  It has made a very poor job of identifying stakeholders, who often found out about infilling only after it had begun.  HE states that it has asked cash-strapped local authorities if they are interested in a particular structure, but this is not good enough: finding stakeholders means going beyond that, e.g. looking at LAs’ development plans, canvassing local communities to see what other groups have an interest in a structure, checking with local preserved railways for planned extensions, and checking with Network Rail whether a structure is on the route of a line which might be re-opened, as applies in the case of the Dumfries-Stranraer line, which contains threatened structures but is on the course of a putative new line to connect the mainland with Northern Ireland via a tunnel.

Additionally, the HRE Group has pointed out, quite rightly, that assessing these structures in terms of transport use only is not enough.  There are architectural, cultural and environmental issues, too, which is why hackles were raised in Cornwall when HE proposed to infill a disused overline bridge, designed by Brunel, which survives on the course of the original Cornish main line between Saltash and St Germans.  The bridge at Great Musgrave could be described as in a neo-Georgian style, and was far more attractive in the landscape than the 1,000 tons of concrete which now ‘preserve’ it – even if HE has turfed over the concrete recently.  This is still a brutish way to ‘engineer’ anything.  Finally, there is the issue of the of the lies, misrepresentations, half-truths and omissions which have characterised HE’s press releases, public announcements and replies to politicians since the start of the year.  Two Cumbrian preserved railways, which had long-term aspirations to re-use Great Musgrave bridge to connect their two operations, have described the manner in which HE misrepresented them as ‘shocking’.  That this has been said of a government-owned company, effectively an executive arm of the UK’s government, is a national disgrace.

Anyone expecting a genuine sea changed in HE’s behaviour should take note that, less than a fortnight after the announcement that the infilling programme would be ‘paused’ (i.e. not stopped), The HRE Group highlighted a batch of infillings which are to be proceeded with this autumn.  This batch includes a bridge at Itchen Stoke, west of Alresford (Hants), which is to be infilled in November, but is required for the Watercress Way, a community-supported trail of ca. 25 miles which will link communities in mid Hampshire between Alresford and Sutton Scotney.  The Chief Executive of the South Downs National Park Authority has said that it does not support the infilling, has not given consent and will ‘resist this vandalism’.  A more accurate term would be ‘state-sponsored vandalism’, in which one department (Transport) implements policies, at great expense, which make more difficult the policies of another department (Health) to improve the nation’s fitness with more active travel routes.  Highways England is a government-owned company, so is part of the government’s executive machinery.  Its infilling – and demolition – policies appeared in no manifesto; the nation has not voted for them, nor has any local community; and meanwhile the taxpayer is funding all this.

The leopard has not changed his spots.