A DISPUTE has broken out between campaigners and National Highways over the future of historic railway structures, including the Galebars No.1 bridge near Kirkby Stephen.

Campaigners from the HRE Group - an alliance of engineers, sustainable transport advocates and greenway developers - recently accused the state highways body (formerly known as Highways England) of using “smoke and mirror” tactics to hide the true extent of its plans to 'infill' or demolish a number of historic railway structures.

According to National Highways, only 68 bridges and tunnels are currently earmarked for infilling or demolition.

But the HRE Group has published an inventory of 228 at-risk structures, including 15 which National Highways has added in the past two months.

“They’re using smoke and mirrors to turn the heat down by pushing the least developed and most costly schemes a few years down the road”, said Graeme Bickerdike, a member of the Group. “The list published by National Highways only covers the next two years, allowing them to remove several dozen structures still threatened with infilling.”

It's all part of what HRE Group claim is National Highways' "policy of opportunistic liability reduction".

It first emerged in January that National Highways was intending to put 134 bridges and tunnels beyond use, about one-third of which HRE Group say could be repurposed as part of future rail or active travel routes.

The resulting controversy prompted the Government to pause the programme pending the establishment of “a formalised framework and engagement process for these structures”, but work is expected to resume in the autumn.

“Nine structures were lost this year before the Government paused the programme”, added Graeme Bickerdike. “Without political intervention, a further 228 historic bridges and tunnels could go the same way. And given the clear lack of appropriate selection criteria, we could ultimately be looking at hundreds more.

“Encasing historic structures in aggregate and concrete - or ‘preservation’ as the company called it after Great Musgrave - guarantees a worse future, scars landscapes and tramples community aspirations.”

When the programme was first revealed, the company said that infilling was “the safest and most appropriate option” for 200 legacy bridges that had failed an assessment to carry 40-tonne vehicles.

HRE Group say that the potential for this treatment represents a blow to the Eden Valley and Stainmore railways in Cumbria, whose plan to connect their operations by relaying five miles of track has already been thrown into doubt by the controversial infilling of the bridge at Great Musgrave.

HRE Group also said that Galebars No.1 near Kirkby Stephen, though it doesn’t appear on the company’s current list, is threatened with future infilling. They said this was confirmed to them by an National Highways engineer.

But, as part of a lengthy rebuttal, National Highways said that it is working with Cumbria County Council to look at strengthening options for Galebars No.1 bridge, and it is not on its list of infills.

It says that infilling or demolition work is done "very rarely" and only after "identifying if there are aspirations to re-purpose the structure, such as for walking or cycling routes."

On Great Musgrave, the body said: "The land along the route required for establishing the Eden Valley and Stainmore heritage railway lines contain several different owners and there is no route across the River Eden as the railway bridge was demolished over 30 years ago.

"Our work has preserved the Great Musgrave bridge structure. We have already committed to working with heritage rail groups and the local authority to remove the infill at no cost to them once the land and river crossing issues are resolved."

The group's Historical Railways Estate Director, Richard Marshall, added: “The Historical Railways Estate (HRE) is an important part of our industrial heritage. We continue to work closely with stakeholders to keep the estate and public safe, safeguard its future, ensure value for money for the taxpayer and re-use the assets wherever possible.

“This is why, where it is safe to, we have paused all infilling and demolition work, to give further time for local authorities and interest groups to fully consider HRE structures as part of their local plans to benefit walking, cycling and heritage railways.

“In addition to this our Stakeholder Review Panel will include representatives from a range of national organisations who have a role to play in active travel and heritage rail in the UK. We will work with these stakeholders to  consider the potential for structures to be repurposed in the future and the engagement that is required. We met with the HRE Group in August and as part of our discussions have invited them to become panel members.”

National Highways' plans for the next five years are published on its website. Interested groups can see what work they’re doing on the estate and when they plan to do it. If a scheme isn’t listed in the programme on the website, National Highways states it has not been earmarked for any major works (including infilling or demolition).