Victorian Britain witnessed the creation of a 20,000 route mile national railway network, of which about 10,000 route miles remain today as an operational railway. Closed lines were sold off to the highest bidder with a considerable variety of new uses to which the land was put, including an extensive network of multi-use trails which are a great way for everyone to take to the outdoors and enjoy the countryside.
Building the railways
Railway in Britain started with the building of local wagonways with wooden tracks on which small horse-drawn trucks ran (14th – 18th centuries). Longer distance travel was by horse and cart or stagecoach over rough roads, with a canal network mainly for freight traffic.
The first steam locomotive to run on rails, built by Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick in 1803, was a major breakthrough. Following the success of the Stockton & Darlington Railway (1825) and Liverpool & Manchester Railway (1830) deploying steam locomotive haulage, enterprising businessmen seized the opportunity to create a network of railway lines serving almost every town and city in Britain.
From the early days of the S&D and L&MR, the construction process was to occupy the rest of the 19th century to substantially complete the network of about 20,000 route miles. The last classic main line was completed in 1903 linking Sheffield and Nottingham Victoria with London Marylebone, and a few more local lines were constructed in the early part of the 20th century.
Competition in the halcyon years
Incidentally, plans developed by the various entrepreneurs were not generally co-ordinated by government, although an Act of Parliament was necessary to authorise construction. Thus railway companies were self-contained, including ownership of all the infrastructure and trains, each company having their own train building factories, and producing their own style of buildings, structures, track and signalling systems.
There was much competition between companies to cash-in on lucrative freight and passenger traffic on offer, and this led to duplication or triplication of routes. In the Leen Valley in Nottinghamshire, for example, the Midland, Great Northern and Great Central companies developed three independent separate routes from Nottingham towards Sheffield. True competition on the railways that free marketeers dream of today!
Some railway promoters were hopelessly optimistic in their traffic forecasts, and companies went bust with some lines having a short life. However, after the First World War, the go-anywhere flexibility of cars and lorries powered by the internal combustion engine were starting to make inroads into rail traffic and from the late 1950s the downturn in traffic was seriously affecting the finances of British Rail (BR).
More than 2,000 route miles had already been closed by the time the ‘Reshaping of British Railways’, otherwise known as the Beeching Report, came out in 1963. This envisaged the closure of a further 5,000 miles in order to make the railways pay, an objective that has never been realised.
During the 1960s, the perception was that ‘car is king’. The Conservative transport minister of the day was Ernest Marples who had road construction interests. The closures were actually implemented by the incoming Labour administration. Under a subsequent transport minister, Barbara Castle, at last there was recognition of the social need for some railways that did not pay, and grants were paid to keep these lines running.
In total, 4,500 miles on the Beeching list were closed and others reprieved but more, not on the list, subsequently closed. Plans for further mass closures have surfaced including the Serpell Report of 1983, with an option to reduce the network to 1,630 route miles. It met with a hostile reaction and was hastily put in the ‘too difficult’ basket. In more enlightened times today, the value of the railway to social and economic wellbeing is recognised.
Roads, houses, supermarkets
In hindsight, the Beeching closures were over-done and, sadly, no strategy was put in place to safeguard potential routes for future transportation or leisure purposes. Land was offered initially to local authorities or sold off to developers. Former railway land at prime sites was usually purchased for the construction of roads, new houses, supermarkets, or industrial premises. This was good for British Rail as it helped to support the bottom line in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Unfortunately, it has meant that the sites of former conveniently located town centre stations were lost, making future re-instatement of the railway difficult or impossible.
Another weakness of the Beeching era was failure to recognise that railways do well when stations are conveniently situated in relation to the town centre. No consideration was given to ensuring that the most conveniently located station was retained in towns with more than one even though some modest expenditure may have been necessary to re-align or divert the retained line.
Blackpool is an example where the direct fast route to the town from Preston to the ideally located Blackpool Central station was destroyed in favour of a new M55 motorway, leaving the circuitous route to Blackpool North, and the route via Lytham St Annes, inconveniently cut short nearly two miles from the town centre.
Cheltenham Spa and Yeovil are further examples of centrally located stations being lost to redevelopment in favour of stations more than a mile from the town centre, making rail a less attractive mode of transport for commuting, shopping and leisure.
Guided busways, tramways and heritage railways
Cambridgeshire trailblazed a new guided busway in 2011, utilising the formation of the closed branch line from St Ives to Cambridge. A busway is perceived as a cheaper alternative compared with a light rail option, although the cost savings may be illusory in view of the significant installation and maintenance challenges of keeping the rigid concrete ‘permanent way’ in perfect alignment.
Other busways utilising closed railways are Luton Bute Street to Dunstable, Gosport to Fareham in Hampshire, and Leigh – Tyldesley – Manchester.
New tramways utilising old trackbeds have proved popular in Manchester. Metrolink opened in 1992, revitalising rundown BR suburban routes between Altrincham and Bury, penetrating the city centre with on-street running. Extensions include the re-use of old BR lines in the Oldham, Rochdale and East Didsbury areas, the latter route having been closed several decades previously.
The pioneering well known Bluebell Railway in Sussex re-opened the first section of the closed Lewes and East Grinstead Railway in 1960 from Sheffield Park to Bluebell Halt just 100 yards south of Horsted Keynes. Relying heavily on volunteer labour by enthusiasts, plus grant and share offers for capital projects, meant slow progress on extending the line back to East Grinstead which was triumphantly completed in 2013.
There are some 83 preserved standard gauge railways in Great Britain. In most cases, the lines don’t offer a traditional public transport service, rather they are tourist attractions, providing a nostalgic train trip through the countryside, offering the unique opportunity to see historic stream locomotives in action at stations restored to their former glory, deploying traditional semaphore signalling systems. Today, most heritage lines flourish, and some are multi-million pound businesses.
The tide turns
Since 1960, more than 370 route miles have been added to the railway network and 400 stations opened. This has not come about by any government or industry initiative but is a result of local/regional initiatives and rail campaigners.
The lobby organisation Railfuture has been instrumental for many years in campaigning for re-openings. The many lines, chords and stations that have been re-instated are too numerous to list but completed this century thus far are Barry – Bridgend (2005), Newport – Ebbw Vale (2008), and Edinburgh – Tweedbank (Borders Railway 2015).
Several more lines in the pipeline, including Bristol to Portishead, Bicester to Bletchley, and Bedford onwards towards Cambridge, are taking time to come to fruition. Unfortunately, parts of the original formation of the latter are occupied by housing, a guided busway, and travelling radio telescopes on rails. A new railway route is thus required for the Oxford-Cambridge ‘Varsity line’ East-West Rail project to reach Cambridge.
Transport secretary Chris Grayling recently announced that he wanted his department to identify disused railways which could be re-opened to passenger traffic, and there are already several feasibility studies under way around the country. The reality is that re-instatements to modern standards, of lines that have been unused for many years, is challenging and very costly.
The local authority planning, and the industry GRIP processes, must be followed, and the discovery of bats in disused tunnels and great crested newts may lead to setbacks.
Then there are protestors. A rich local resident may commission a consultancy, with no previous industry experience, to produce a report attempting to discredit the scheme, though in a couple of recent cases it is good to see planners wise up to nebulous claims of some vociferous objectors. A good business case will need many houses, shops, and places of employment near stations to ensure ‘bums on seats’ though future traffic levels are difficult to predict.
Building the railways involved huge financial resources and the manpower of ‘railway navvies’, the forerunners of today’s orange army. Sadly, despite the aforementioned developments, a considerable mileage of closed railway is depicted on Ordnance Survey maps as ‘Dismantled Railway’ and left to nature, with many tunnels, viaducts and bridges uncared for. However, many old stations still stand and have been converted into private houses, pubs, and restaurants or are in industrial use.
Lines not sold off, including all the associated infrastructure, continued to be owned by the British Rail Property Board. Upon privatisation, this division continued as the British Railways Board (BRB) (Residuary) Ltd, known as the ‘Burdensome Estate’. This body was abolished by the government in 2013, the Highways Agency’s Historical Railways Estate then taking responsibility for the burdensome estate including legacy bridges, abutments, tunnels, cuttings viaducts etc, and sales. Network Rail manages land in railway use, and sells land declared surplus to operational requirements.
Railway Paths Limited was established in 1998 in the wake of the privatisation of BR. Sustrans, the charity developing the NCN (National Cycle Network), had previously acquired old railway routes from BR on a project by project basis. The idea of transferring a large portfolio of disused railway routes came about as a way of making expansion of the NCN through using land previously owned by BR quicker and simpler. Thus Railway Paths Ltd was set up as a focussed organisation, independent of Sustrans, with specialist staff to manage a large amount of land and structures.
Railway Paths works closely with Sustrans. The two organisations share similar objectives and refer to each other as “sister charities”. Nevertheless, Railway Paths is an entirely independent charity, with its own board of trustees. It receives no financial support from Sustrans, or government, and the two organisations are financially independent.
Old lines for new trails
The trackbed of an early closure, the narrow gauge Leek and Manifold Railway in Staffordshire, was handed over by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway to Staffordshire County Council which created a linear footpath and cycleway in 1937. Today the tarmacked path with a slight gradient is also ideal for wheelchair users, prams, for example.
The Peak Park Planning Board and Derbyshire County Council bought respective sections within their boundaries of the 17-mile, freight-only line from Dowlow near Buxton to Cromford Wharf, creating the High Peak Trail for walkers, cyclists and horse riders, affording splendid views in an exposed area. At lonely Parsley Hay, the High Peak Trail joins up with the 13-mile Tissington Trail on the branch line from Ashbourne. The two authorities opened these trails to the public in stages during the early 1970s.
The success of these early schemes has encouraged local authorities elsewhere, and the process of converting old trackbeds into multi-use trails is ongoing. Many have been incorporated into the National Cycle Network (denoted on Ordnance Survey maps as NCN) or long-distance trails such as the Pennine Way.
Projects currently under consideration include the Wye Valley line from Chepstow to Tintern, and the repair and re-opening of the long closed tunnel at Queensbury in Yorkshire, the Rhondda Tunnel in South Wales, and the wrought iron Bennerley viaduct in the East Midlands Erewash Valley.
If you enjoy walking, there are plenty of official railway paths throughout Great Britain and the definitive guide is Vinter’s Railway Gazetteer. The walking is easy going as railway gradients are limited to what was achievable by the steel wheel on steel rail adhesion of steam locomotives. There are some spectacular scenic routes to enjoy and the potential excitement of walking through tunnels such as at Ashbourne on the Tissington Trail, and Devonshire and Combe Down tunnels between Bath and Radstock on the former Somerset and Dorset Railway.
Please be mindful that apart from old railways that are marked on a map as having public access such as official trails, museums and visitor centres, old railway trackbeds and infrastructure is generally in private ownership and you must not trespass.
However, for those wanting more exploration, Railway Ramblers have a comprehensive programme of walks that combine the best of the official routes with specially pre-arranged visits, with landowners’ permission, to lines, stations and infrastructure not normally accessible to the public, though this sometimes involves scrambling up embankments, or crossing fences where the old trackbed has become disjointed. Prior to a walk taking place, the walk leader researches local land ownership, and engages diplomatically with the landowner/s, in order to obtain access. The group has members from all walks of life, including active and retired railway staff.
The walks are inevitably linear, but the walk organiser arranges ‘car shares’ and plans the walk around connecting bus and train services. If there is a conveniently situated hostelry, a pub lunch may be arranged, otherwise participants take a packed lunch. The organisation offers an excellent way of getting plenty of fresh air and exercise in the company of likeminded people, as well as the opportunity to discover some of Britain’s lost railways.
With thanks to Jeff Vinter of Railway Paths Ltd, and Mark Jones of Railway Ramblers for helping with this article.
This article was written by David Bickell, a retired rail engineer.
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