Sustrans, the sustainable transport group, has been around for the better part of 40 years now, and its handiwork is everywhere.
The little blue signs you see denoting cycle routes… those ones with small red number boxes on them? Those are the work of Sustrans. They represent the National Cycle Network, the series of cycle routes, greenways and other cycle-friendly routes that criss-cross the UK. Not all are connected, but many have interesting railway links.
And that link between Sustrans and the railways is more significant than it first seems. Take the Spen Valley Greenway, once a part of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway’s line to Dewsbury and Low Moor. It used to have a heavy and frequent freight service, hauled latterly by British Rail ‘WD’ 2-8-0 and 2-10-0 heavy freight locomotives, famed for their strength, power, and austere wartime looks. The famous A4s streaked along it as well, although nowadays the quickest thing you’ll see on it is a cyclist at full tilt.
Part of Sustrans’ plan is to make greenways more of a viable transport option. This aim has been echoed in recent political debate, where funding for walking and green travel is being considered as a priority ahead of more funding for the roads.
Sustrans is also developing its Greener Greenways project, which aims to increase the biodiversity of the routes by using volunteers and community efforts (along with staff) to clear up, trim, plant and irrigate where necessary. Some signs are already appearing, such as wicker fences making artificial hedgerows, and the Bat Lighting in Earlsheaton Tunnel (more on that later).
Meanwhile, the Connect 2 Project aims to take the disparate parts of the Sustrans network (those not connected to longer stretches or major centres) and join them up, making them more attractive as well as more popular and populated.
This is the plan at the Spen Valley Greenway - it is hoped that the Greenway will eventually connect to the cycle routes of Huddersfield and eventually up to Bradford and the route north towards Cullingworth, near Keighley.
RAIL photographer Paul Bigland and myself find out more about Sustrans’ work while on a guided cycle trip along the Spen Valley Greenway. We are met at Leeds railway station by Huw Davies, director of the Sustrans National Cycle Network, and Mike Babbitt, infrastructure manager for the Yorkshire and Humber region. Then we drive to Low Moor, where the line still runs between Halifax and Bradford, although all the once extensive freight facilities have vanished.
The Spen Valley Greenway is a route between the railway line at Low Moor (now part of an industrial estate) and Dewsbury to the south. It is a metalled path that winds its way along the former railway line and across the M62 motorway and A58.
Some of the relics of its railway past loom large along the route. Several bridges are still in situ, as are a milepost or two. Some parts of the line have been altered - the path winds artificially to make it more interesting. Here and there it visibly veers away from the original railway formation, leaving potential alternative routes to explore.
It costs £30,000 a year to maintain the Spen Valley Greenway, with half of that figure provided by Kirklees Council. A warden looks after the route, clearing litter and reporting any major damage to Sustrans and the local authority.
And he’s clearly doing a good job. As we cycle along, I notice just how many of the bridges and former railway structures are kept in very good order. No weeds, little damp or water damage, and they all seem to have been repointed or kept very clean.
Is there any animosity between Sustrans and the Railway Heritage Trust? (The RHT is a non-governmental heritage management organisation, with responsibility for promoting and trying to preserve railway heritage. It especially concerns itself with railway-owned buildings.)
“No, why should there be?” Davies looks perplexed. The reason he looks confused is that he has previously worked with the RHT, and works with the Trust now on Sustrans routes that involve pieces of either railway property or RHT property.
Davies is the chief executive of Railway Paths Ltd, which has stewardship over the hundreds of miles of UK railway paths, and then allows their transfer to Sustrans. It calls itself a “sister charity”, and is independent of Sustrans. Examples of RHT structures on Railway Paths routes includes Torksey viaduct (over the River Irwell) and Lumb viaduct (in Lancashire), which is actually a Sustrans route.
Generally, Sustrans preserves any historically significant buildings or features along its routes. The intention is to make them all unique and attractive - an anonymous path through some trees won’t cut the mustard for Davies.
For example, at one point, communications upgrades were being carried out on the Spen Valley Greenway, and an old colour light signal was removed. When he realised this, Babbitt demanded to know where it had gone. The telecommunications company responsible sourced a new colour light signal, which has now been erected at the site of the original (albeit virtually hidden in undergrowth and tree cover).
This attention to detail and integrity may surprise some, but Sustrans isn’t there to rip out railway heritage and infrastructural remains - it’s there to get people using what are (and have always been) transport routes with huge potential.
There is a shorter spur off the Greenway that leads through Heckmondwike to Rawfolds (near Cleckheaton). At one time, this was the London and North Western Railway’s line from Leeds, but it is now a cycle and walking route.
The Sustrans-maintained section has tarmac, information boards and well-maintained bridges, and looks like what you would expect a well-tended walking route to look like. But the parts that have yet to be adapted look very sad. What used to be Heckmondwike station is now a small housing estate, packed into a cutting, with the shade of the road overbridge throwing dampening shadows across back yards. The overbridge itself is strewn with litter, and leads out to an unfenced and ill-kept trackbed, covered with waste.