Historic Scots bridges at risk of infilling after council ‘planning blunder’
Campaigners have called on Dumfries & Galloway Council to take urgent action after a “perverse decision” by planners has threatened to make the proposed reopening of a Scottish railway more difficult and costly.
In April last year, Highways England told the local authority of its intention to infill a disused bridge at Lochanhead, which spans the former Dumfries-Stranraer line.
Acting for Highways England, Jacobs told planners that “the arch barrel has open joints throughout” and infilling is needed to “remove the associated risk of structural collapse and harm to the public”.
Engineering works normally need planning consent, but a council officer told Jacobs that the works “would be classed as a repair and do not require planning permission”.
However Chris Rosindale, a representative for the Reopening the Dumfries-Stranraer Railway group, said that Jacobs sent the “same template letter about bridge infilling schemes to a number of local authorities last April” and received “more than a dozen responses in which they are told to apply for planning permission”.
Rosindale added: “What they’re proposing at Lochanhead is not repair; little or no work will be carried out to the existing bridge. They will be creating a new and substantial structure which buries most of it. The council is guilty of a planning blunder with potentially serious long-term consequences.”
According to the HRE Group, the structure – which carries a minor road over the former railway – remains in “fair condition” and shows no signs of being overloaded. Campaigners state that repointing the open joints would greatly increase its load-bearing capacity.
The Dumfries-Stranraer route’s reopening is identified as an option for improving regional links in the initial appraisal of the South West Scotland Transport Study. The final report is due in the autumn. It would also be needed if a rail tunnel was driven under the Irish Sea, as advocated by the High Speed Rail Group.
The Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 states that local authorities must have “regard to the desirability of preserving disused railway infrastructure for the purpose of ensuring its availability for possible future public transport requirements”.
Dumfries & Galloway Council also has a specific policy “against any development on or adjacent to former railway routes with a reasonable prospect of being reused”.
“Despite this, the Council granted consent for a damaging infill scheme without seeking sufficient detail to make an informed judgement,” Rosindale said. “It needs to rectify this perverse decision before it’s too late.”
Highways England Historical Railways Estate director Richard Marshall said: “This bridge is on the Dumfries/Stranraer line which may be brought back into use as an operational railway to improve freight connectivity.
“We are waiting for an update from Strategic Transport Review to determine what future work may be required here.”
Also at risk of being infilled is a second structure near Kirtlebridge, carrying the B722 over the former Solway Junction Railway which closed in 1931. The old trackbed was acquired by a local farmer and has been used for agricultural purposes for the past 60 years. Without being able to pass under the bridge, two acres of his property will be inaccessible.
Iain Gow, the landowner described the work as “cultural vandalism” that “cannot be justified on engineering grounds”.
“Even Highways England’s own contractor admitted to me that the bridge is still in fair condition,” he said. “It’s 152 years old and needs a few minor repairs, but they would cost a fraction of the £145,000 that infilling is likely to set back the taxpayer.”
Gow said the old line offers the potential to extend the currently proposed rail trail connecting Annan via Chapelcross and on to Kirtlebridge “at a time when we’re trying to encourage more people to adopt sustainable forms of transport and exercise more outdoors”
He added: “We need to see this fabulous infrastructure as an opportunity to build a better future, not put it beyond use for short-term asset management purposes.
“At very least, the council has a duty to ensure that backward-looking schemes like this are properly scrutinised to ensure the public interest is best served and owners adjacent to the structures are not disadvantaged. It’s time for the council to do the right thing.”
Highways England said its assessments show water is passing through the bridge arch at Kirtlebridge, softening the mortar and opening the bridge joints.
Marshall added: “Kirtlebridge was re-pointed 37 years ago to allow the passage of abnormal loads. Since then, the condition of the bridge has deteriorated, so it is part of our current maintenance programme. Repointing the bridge again would have ongoing maintenance costs. Infilling is maintenance-free and reversible, lowering costs to the public purse.
“We are continuing to discuss the issue with the landowner to try to find a solution. We understand that the track bed is still in the same family it was sold to in 1972, and the rights to infill were clearly set out at the time of purchase.”
Highways England manages the Historic Railways Estate of 3,100 disused structures on the Department for Transport’s behalf, including about 600 bridges, tunnels and viaducts in Scotland. It has already faced a backlash for infilling the historic Great Musgrave bridge in Cumbria.
Highways England said infilling of the Great Musgrave bridge was needed to “prevent further deterioration of the bridge from occurring and remove the associated risk of structural collapse and harm to the public”.
However, the HRE Group and two local railway groups (the Eden Valley railway and Stainmore railways) claim that there were no real concerns about the bridge’s condition.
They add that while infilling the bridge cost £124,000, a £5,000 repair job would have made it safe for all vehicles to pass over.
Department of Civil Engineering https://www.ibu.edu.ba/department-of-civil-engineering/