Across the UK, many organisations are involved with ‘re-purposing’ abandoned railways, from local community groups to local authorities and important national charities such as Sustrans – the organisation behind the National Cycle Network, which includes many former railway lines in its overall route mileage.
When exploring this page, don’t forget the UK-based groups which we have listed on our ‘Campaigning and Promoting’ page.
We have also included links to some international sites, which demonstrate that railway re-use is not an exclusively British phenomenon. Internationally, the biggest undertaking is the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in the United States. If you are planning a long holiday (and we mean a very long holiday), you might consider cycling the RTC’s Great American Discovery Trail, which combines multiple ‘lost lines’ into a trail of over 6,000 miles.
Sustrans (the name stands for ‘sustainable transport’) is a national path-building charity which, since 1995, has been developing the National Cycle Network. Much of the NCN is based on former railways. Recently, the charity has teamed up with the Ordnance Survey to show NCN routes on both printed and online OS maps.
Railway Paths owns about 15% of the UK’s unused and unsold railway infrastructure, and exists to re-use it in schemes which benefit the public, such as new railway paths.
Subterranea Britannica is concerned mainly with ‘underground Britain’, but its website includes, as an offshoot, a fascinating guide to disused railway stations in the UK. Not every disused station is documented yet, but the standard of the research is exemplary.
Although our News area includes links to Forgotten Relics, here is the site again – an outstanding resource on disused railway infrastructure throughout the country.
This site can take a long time to load due to its graphical content, but is a valuable research tool for anyone with an interest in old railways. Developer Matthew Bromley explains: ‘I’ve been working on [historical railway maps] for many years, and have now decided to try and create a Google Maps based site to display them.’
Lyle Barwick has travelled much of England, Wales and Scotland in pursuit of lost railways, and in the process has built up an interesting and substantial photographic collection on flickr. There are some nicely composed shots here, featuring many major engineering works such as viaducts, bridges and tunnels, plus a number of favourite routes such as the Somerset & Dorset Railway and the Waverley line.
The Dorset Trailway Network is a project supported by Dorset Council and local communities to convert the former Somerset & Dorset Railway into a multi-use trail between Stalbridge (near the Dorset/Somerset border) and Poole on the south coast. The route currently is about two-thirds complete.
The West Somerset Mineral Line Association exists to ‘inform people about the history of the West Somerset Mineral Railway and its associated mines and communities’. This standard gauge freight line once linked the Brendon Hills with Roadwater, Washford and Watchet on the Bristol Channel. The association offers a series of high quality guided walks every season.
The Northern Viaduct Trust works to preserve and, where possible, re-use the many disused railway viaducts which are such striking features of northern landscapes. Thanks to the Trust, a number of these structures have now been restored and opened to walkers, rather than being razed to the ground.
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) is the USA’s answer to Sustrans, but very much larger, and supported by government. When we first discovered the RTC, its website covered 1,359 separate rail trails. As an organisation, it has over 160,000 members – which proves that re-using old railways is not a minority interest.
Railtrails Australia is the Australian equivalent of the RTC, with its website providing a one-stop guide to the country’s rail trails. Like Australia itself, some of these routes are big, like the Munda-Biddi Trail (from Mundaring to Collie in Western Australia), which is ca. 220 miles long.
Vias Verdes (literally ‘Green Ways’) is Spain’s organisation for railway paths. The country has over 1,800 kilometres (ca. 1,120 miles) of disused railways that can be walked and cycled, and the scenery on many of them is stunning. Autumn is a good time to explore these routes, when the extreme heat of high summer has abated.
Since the 1990s, the government in the Republic of Ireland has taken a growing interest in railway re-use, but this volunteer-led group was one of the earliest schemes – and the Irish State Railway supported it by making the cross-country Limerick to Tralee line available for use as a trail after it closed as a railway.
We must emphasise that the above are just a sample of the organisations and websites that now exist to make good use of abandoned railways across the world. As we remarked above, this is definitely not a minority interest!