Objections pour in as National Highways try to retain controversial bridge infill

Hundreds of objections have been lodged against the National Highways retrospective planning application for the controversial bridge infill at Great Musgrave, Cumbria.

More than 300 letters opposing the infill have been filed with Eden District Council, just three weeks after National Highways filed its planning application, according to The HRE Group (a campaign group made up of engineers, transportation and active travel planners).

National Highways was ordered to submit a retrospective planning application by the council last year, after exercising emergency powers to fill in the 160-year-old masonry arch bridge.

The structure is part of the historic railway estate managed by National Highways on behalf of the DfT. The estate includes 3,200 bridges, tunnels and viaducts, including 77 listed works of art. Jacobs acts as a “sole source” (designer) for the historic railway business and is supported by six contractors, including Dyer & Butler and Balfour Beatty.

A pause on the entire program was put in place last year following the backlash of the filling of the bridge carried out between May and June 2021.

Following the Great Musgrave project, NCE readers expressed the “shame” of their profession and called for better solutions.

In October, engineers and program managers at National Highways said NCE that they stand near the ‘necessary’ deck filler of the Great Musgrave Bridge.

However, National Highways has also drawn up five possible methods of strengthening the bridges which could be implemented if the council rejects the planning application and forces National Highways to remove the infill.

The Great Musgrave bridge infill has now been seeded with grass

As part of the planning application, Jacobs justifies the infill as being necessary to “prevent further deterioration of the bridge from occurring and eliminate the possible risk of structural collapse”.

He adds: “The reasoning and justification for infilling the bridge rather than, for example, reinforcing the masonry and repairing the bridge (including ongoing maintenance/review), is largely linked to the analysis cost-benefit over a 60-year horizon and also to other local considerations. […] In summary, it was estimated that infill offers better value for money by being between 50% and 60% less expensive than reinforcement and repairs, and that the project is not considered to have a significant negative impact on local environmental considerations nor in conflict with land use planning policy.

“Notwithstanding this, it should also be noted that the filling works are reversible. Where a project to re-open the old railway gets the appropriate statutory mechanism (e.g. Transport and Works Act Ordinance ) to manage risks and liabilities associated with the public national highway road bridge is committed to removing infill.”

About 1,540 t of stone and 104 t of concrete backfill material were used for the filling. Work was completed by placing a 150mm depth of topsoil and grass seed on all new and worked surfaces, and securing the area, if necessary, with suitable fencing.

The infill cost taxpayers £124,000 and, according to an internal review, National Highways now estimates that restoring the bridge for rail use could cost up to £431,000.

While National Highways has pledged to remove the infill if a viable use under the bridge is found, Stainmore Railway Company project manager Mike Thompson said aspirations to re-establish a railway are now “very much more difficult” to overcome.

“Our long-held aspiration to reconnect with our friends at the Eden Valley Railway holds the potential to provide a much-needed boost to the region’s economy. This was always going to be a challenging project with hurdles to overcome, but the unnecessary infilling of the Great Musgrave Bridge has made it much more difficult and expensive,” he said.

“The national highways did not consult us about their plans for the structure. Now we have the opportunity to make our views known and we hope that the democratic process will lead to the right result. We expect to bridge conflicts with council policies on new development, biodiversity, landscape character, green infrastructure and heritage assets, and the protection of dismantled railways that are being considered for reopening.

In response, National Highways Historical Railways Estate program manager Hélène Rossiter said: could include their timelines in the planning submission and let the planning authority know when infill is likely to be removed. Unfortunately, the plans for the Eden Valley Railway project were not sufficiently developed to provide this information to the planning authority.

“Our extensive internal review determined that last year’s infill was critical to public safety and the preservation of the structure until a long-term goal is found. We are committed to reversing it if a viable future use for the underbridge track bed is found that has all the necessary approvals and is ready for delivery.

HRE Group member Graeme Bickerdike added: “While it remains filled, this structure will stand as a monument to the company’s destructive culture and unwillingness to tell the truth. It must show positive intent around its management of the historic railway estate, remove the infill and re-establish this feat of engineering as a valuable heritage asset in the Cumbria landscape, before it is returned to service.

‘The opportunities presented by the Great Musgrave Bridge must not be wasted, so we hope the Council rejects National Highways’ attempt to make the infill permanent.’

Council must make its decision on the development application by May 27, with all relevant representations to be submitted by May 4.

Earlier this week, National Highways unveiled a new way to assess structures on its historic rail estate. This includes consulting with heritage railway and engineering groups as well as assessing the active travel potential for structures.

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