Historic Northumberland Railway Bridges Saved From Infilling

A series of unstable disused 19th century masonry arch railway bridges have been saved from infilling after they were leased to a community interest company.

A series of disused 19th century masonry arch railway bridges in Northumberland have been saved from the controversial practice of infilling after they were leased to a community interest company (CIC). New Civil Engineer reports that the Borderline Greenway CIC has signed a 25-year lease for a 2.9km section of the historic Alnwick to Cornhill railway line.

The rail line during the 1950s, but has since become a popular walking route, although it is not officially designated or maintained for this purpose and is a part of the Historical Railways Estate that is managed by National Highways (NH). Previously, NH have infilled disused railway bridges in Cumbria and Norfolk as a method of stabilising them.

However, this process has drawn a lot of attention and criticism from conservationists and members of the public. In July 2021, NH infilled Great Musgrave Bridge in Cumbria, a Victorian masonry arch bridge built from sandstone and limestone blocks after a risk assessment that indicated it might collapse under stress from heavy traffic. 

However, the move was successfully challenged by protestors when it was revealed that NH did not have planning permission to pour hundreds of tonnes of concrete underneath the bridge. Eden District Council subsequently refused to grant retrospective planning permission, and NH contractors have since removed the infill and carried out repairs.

When plans to infill the Alnwick road bridge were made public in 2020, the Borderline Greenway CIC was formed to fight the proposal and conserve the bridge and the line underneath for recreational use. It is understood that the main threat to the stability of railway bridges along the route is damage from tree roots. 

Borderline Greenway CIC chair Colin Davidson said: “For me, it would be criminal beyond measure to fill these bridges with concrete. Each of them is an individual and all of the stones were fashioned on site. They dug them out, formed them and built them into the bridge on site.”

“Some of the trees are doing damage to some of the bridges – nothing irreparable yet, but in another 20 or 30 years some of the roots will have done damage that would be a massive expense to reverse.”

The route has been granted permissive pathway status, and work will now commence to make it suitable for use by walkers, horse riders, and cyclists. A new bridge will be built at Greensfield for agricultural and recreational use, which will be of wood and steel construction and have high safety balustrades.

Additionally, the drainage system along the route will be improved to reduce flooding and boggy areas, and a new surface will be laid. An ecological survey will be carried out to ensure that the new materials are in harmony with the environment. Most of the funding will come from the company directors and public donations.