Jan 2022 – Campaigners condemn “crass” bridge request

PRESS RELEASE: Monday 24th January 2022

When National Highways buried an elegant stone arch bridge in a thousand tonnes of aggregate and concrete, it tore up longstanding plans to establish a link between two heritage railways in Cumbria’s Eden Valley.

The work, carried out last May and June at Great Musgrave, was widely condemned as cultural vandalism and the subsequent outcry prompted Government to put on hold dozens of similar projects. It was pushed through under powers that only last 12 months by default and apply in emergency situations presenting a threat of death or injury.

If the state-owned roads company wishes to retain the infill permanently, the local authority has insisted that planning permission must be obtained. Now, in a move described by campaigners as demonstrating “a bizarre lack of judgement”, the engineer responsible for the scheme has asked the two railways to assist with the planning application by providing detailed information on the status of their plans to relay the line between them.

“We put our heart and soul into the railway”, says Mike Thompson, Project Manager for the Stainmore Railway Company, “and, as we expand, it will increasingly deliver economic benefits to the area. We’ve been planning a link from Warcop to Kirkby Stephen for 25 years. Great Musgrave bridge is a critical piece of infrastructure for us and infilling was a kick in the teeth. It came out of the blue and has made the task of reconnection much more difficult, increasing the costs involved unsustainably.

“We’ve been gearing up to oppose the planning application; then a letter arrived from National Highways, asking for details about our future plans – replacement structures, construction phases, land acquisition, fundraising, liability transfers and Parliamentary powers. I couldn’t believe what I was reading: they’ve taken a wrecking ball to our aspirations and they’re now seeking our help to justify their destructive actions.

“We’ve written a polite letter back, but we’re not appointing National Highways to represent our views to the local authority or providing them with ammunition to use against us. If the planning team needs to understand how we intend to reopen the line, we’re perfectly capable of telling them ourselves. But this application is specifically about the bridge and its infill, not the railway. They’re trying to muddy the waters by conflating two separate issues.”

Great Musgrave bridge was in good condition, with an estimated £20K of repairs needed to a handful of minor defects. The HRE Group – an alliance of engineers, sustainable transport advocates and greenway developers – accuse National Highways of “contriving an alternative reality” to make the case for infilling, misrepresenting the safety implications.

According to the company, bringing the structure back into use for rail could now cost as much as £431K, on top of the £124K spent on infilling. In the face of overwhelming criticism, the company made a public commitment to remove the material when it is the last obstruction to the railways’ reconnection, but this is neither legally binding nor enforceable.

Graeme Bickerdike, a member of The HRE Group, said: “In these circumstances, seeking information from the two railways was crass and inexplicable. It shows a bizarre lack of judgement. Has National Highways learned nothing from a year of reputational damage through its questionable management of the Historical Railways Estate?

“Quite clearly, the time for dialogue with the Eden Valley and Stainmore railways was in the months before infilling, to understand the damage it would inflict on their long-term plans. The company should be removing the infill voluntarily as a sign of positive intent, otherwise it will hang around their neck like a millstone – a monument to their failings.”

The planning application has to be submitted by 23 May and consultants began work on it in August. “We will object in the strongest terms”, says Mike Thompson, “and we hope all those who value our great railway heritage will join us. They cannot be allowed to get away with such an appalling act.”