Old lines never die…they just get recycled

Over the road to the south, part of the trackbed known as 48ft Cutting is being earmarked for filling in and building over. Although this is potentially a disastrous obstacle to a line potentially needed for future re-opening, Sustrans is fine with the idea. 

“As long as it’s done properly, development can be a good thing,” says Davies. “It creates jobs, investment in the community. It can bring the community together.” 

That’s certainly true. A development of this type has the potential to bridge (literally) the gap between two communities. The two sides of the cutting would be brought together over a new piece of land, and new homes created on what is currently green space - potentially an environmental concern, but not one that will destroy a particularly mature green area. Sustrans would then potentially be able to provide cycling and walking routes through the development to join up to the National Cycle Network (NCN).

One of the lesser-known lines shut as a result of Dr Beeching’s report is the line from Bradford Exchange to Wakefield via Batley. This line is now connected via cycle and footpath network to the Spen Valley Greenway, and is the next stop on our guided tour. On it is the 179-yard Earlsheaton Tunnel, which scythes through the hills between Dewsbury and Ossett to the east. 

An indication that funding is secure is the informative sign at the tunnel’s eastern end telling visitors about Earlsheaton station, now a heavily landscaped and green bowl south of the town. And lighting in the tunnel itself prevents anti-social behaviour (it is even special lighting so as not to disturb the resident bat colony).

The £1.3 million engineering project to rebuild the structure involved Kirklees Council (which has a dedicated Cycling Officer), Sustrans’ Connect 2, and the Department for Transport’s Local Sustainable Transport Fund. Wakefield to the east is still tantalisingly close, but as yet has no direct, easy NCN route to Dewsbury - something the enterprising and indefatigable Sustrans plans to rectify.

At Dewsbury, it’s back into the car for a short journey to Cullingworth, where we pick up the next section of the Spen Valley Greenway. 

Here is the former Great Northern Railway (GNR) route south from Keighley to Queensbury (and thence west to Halifax and east to Bradford). This line is only partly joined up to the NCN, and there is a long way to go before the whole section is part of the network. Well Head Tunnel needs clearing, paths need re-cutting through private land, and much political wrangling will be likely.

We start at Cullingworth, once a village served by the GNR, and head south to the spectacular Hewenden Viaduct, built in 1883 and standing 123 feet tall. 

As we stop for a photo opportunity, a man approaches and asks if we have something to do with the path. Davies steps forward and asks how he can help. The man says there is a narrow gap in the fence a way back, and his puppy and other dogs are in danger of falling about 20 feet to the road below. 

Davies turns to Babbitt: “We’ll get your people onto it.” He turns back to the man, and promises: We’ll look into it for you.” The man smiles cheerfully and strolls off with his dog. 

Is that something you get a lot of? 

“Yeah.” Babbitt seems almost resigned, then offers a deeper insight. “If it’s done politely, it’s fine. Most are. You do get some who say ‘Oh, you people at Sustrans, you’ve made my life hell with this path’. But they’re very much in the minority. The majority of people we’ve seen do all seem happy using the path. ”

Many users are elderly people or families with young children. It seems to have been well received by nearly everyone. 

“This is where the path ends,” Babbitt points to a hillock at the far end of the viaduct. “The landowner won’t let us through his land, so we’re putting in a temporary route down there. We can walk it if you like.” 

The cutting beside the hillock has been blocked with waste and greenery. Why is the farmer blocking such a positive plan?

“Basically, he wants a lot of money,” says Babbitt.

Settlements for such routes have been known to run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Is there a solution? 

“Hopefully he’ll settle,” says Davies. If not, a Bridleway Creation Order is a potential method for ensuring the path is completed, although Babbitt points out that this is a more drastic step to be taken only if negotiations break down between Sustrans, the local authority and the landowner.

Many of the routes we have travelled on are near or connect to active railway lines, with the potential that some (or all) might one day be needed to serve as railway lines again. Sometimes a line will have potential space adjacent to it that could accommodate a greenway or cycle route. Babbitt sees such potential on a daily basis: “I see it on my way into work on the train and think: ‘oh, can we build a cycle path there’?” 

On a different scale, this has already happened in North Wales. The 2ft gauge Welsh Highland Railway has been partly built on the former standard gauge formation from Caernarfon to Llanberis. As a result, the narrow gauge line has space set aside for part of the NCN. The railway is now cheek by jowl with the route as far as Llanwnda, where the NCN route continues on the former LNWR line to Afon Wen. 

It can take years of convincing, planning, spending and resolving local objections to build a fully fledged greenway. Who knew that so much political wrangling went into something as genteel as a cycle route?

“A colleague once described a project to me,” Davies explains, as we stroll to the path once again. “He said: ‘It’s taken me ten years to plan this project, and ten weeks to build it.” 

The level of organisation, planning and expertise is amazing. The men we’ve been with today have planned and built dozens of structures, paths, greenways and buildings in their respective careers, and their job is not nearly over yet.

Sustainable transport is a huge and increasing concern, now of such significance that RAIL’s National Rail Awards recognise sustainability (RAIL 783). Sustrans is all about getting different methods of green transport to work together as a cohesive whole. Rail, cycling and walking go together hand in glove, and that’s exactly how it should be. 

  • This feature was published in RAIL 786 on October 28 2015

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