The Branch Line Society

Railway Rights of Way

Pathway Survey of Unused Lines - or Passengers Once More

Being a compilation of information relating to disused railways which, having been abandoned and had their tracks lifted, have undergone a metamorphosis into a new form of use in which the general public have more-or-less unrestricted access to them in the form of footpaths, bridleways, cycleways and roads.

The first edition of this work was published in 1985 by the Branch Line Society. With the publication of this second edition, consideration has been given to modern methods of making the information available and to the fact that the information which this work seeks to provide is changing constantly. As such this work will be available on the internet, by electronic distribution and in printed form as a loose-leaf volume. Thus even in the printed format, the owner of a copy of this publication will be able to keep it fully up to date, rather than by a series of supplements which by their very nature mean that the reader has to look in several places for information on a particular item.

General Introduction

More than five decades have now passed since the announcement of Dr Beeching’s plans, and the ensuing closure of about half of the home railway network. In the early 1960s there were then few railways which had been converted into other forms of public use and access. Perhaps the most famous of these was the Leek and Manifold Railway. This line had been converted into a footpath in 1937, very soon after closure. At the dawn of the Beeching Era, the great majority of our railways were then still open, mostly for passenger traffic but a significant number for freight traffic only. Only several years after Dr Beeching had swung his axe did interested parties start to address what was to be done with the extensive wasting asset, criss-crossing the landscape, often in scenic or dramatic settings, that were the trackbeds of these abandoned lines.

Since about 1970 a growing and concerted effort has been, and is being, made to rescue some of these disused ways and to find new uses for them, now successive governments have decreed that many may no longer have a train service. Many hundreds of miles of old lines have become official paths for pedestrians, equestrians and cyclists. More are at the proposal stage, for this has become a ‘growth industry’. But for the fact that much land had already been sold off, to the first, or highest, bidder soon after abandonment in the 1960’s, usually back to agriculture, even more might have been done. The fault lay with the legislation at that time, which gave scant thought to preserving the linear formation for future re-use, in ways then unforeseen.

From 1978 legislation mitigated some of this, rather belatedly. The way ahead looks more positively at retaining linear formations of disused railways; some, after all, may be needed again in the future as railways. (Indeed, some lines, mainly in urban areas, are seeing tracks re-laid, for e.g. light rapid transit use).

One of the best of the early conversion schemes has been the Wirral Country Park, implemented in 1972-73 under the auspices of Cheshire County Council before local government reorganization, and subsequently run in part by that authority and Wirral Borough Council. It covers virtually the whole of the former Birkenhead Joint Lines (GWR/L&NWR) branch line from Hooton to West Kirby, a length of 12 miles. Starting from Platform 5 of Hooton station the path covers the whole former branch line except for two short breaks in Neston and Heswall, where housing development of the trackbed had occurred before the Country Park plans had been formulated. It has not entirely lost its railway atmosphere, either. Though most stations have been razed to provide accesses, car parks and related amenities, one, Hadlow Road, has been carefully restored to its circa 1952 condition, and other features, such as the vertical-walled rock cutting at Neston volubly speak of its history. Since then, many other local authorities have taken initiatives and created such long-distance paths as the Tissington Trail and the High Peak Trail in Derbyshire’s Peak District. Before its abolition, Tyne and Wear County Council had a policy of converting all such disused lines into pathways, both former British Rail and National Coal Board lines, and this policy has largely been continued by Tyne and Wear’s local successors. Many other instances have appeared in recent years of substantial re-use initiatives for abandoned railways.

On conversion into roads, a rather different picture appears. Despite the vociferous road transport lobby advocating the wholesale conversion of railways into roads, the number of road schemes using former railway trackbeds is relatively small and this form of re-use has been piecemeal. After all, the majority of railway abandonment has been in rural areas, where rail usage was least. It therefore follows that local road transport in these areas is also least dense and demand for re-use has been low. Also, the majority of railway abandonments in rural areas have been of single track lines, whose land-take was too narrow to be suitable for conversion into roads to which modern construction standards apply.

Time marches on and history evolves even as you are reading this. Though many lament the passing of so many secondary railways, not to mention some chunks of trunk main lines, memories of them are rapidly receding into the past and a generation is now with us who will never have known these lines when they were working railways. A good day’s walk along many miles of one of these disused lines will, nevertheless, give you, at a leisurely pace, a feel for the countryside the train would have passed through. Sometimes, major engineering works like bridges and viaducts, and less commonly, tunnels, have become an integral part of the path. Some old stations have survived virtually intact, often inhabited now and quite often sympathetically restored by their new owners.

I would never claim that this list is 100% comprehensive. Reliance is necessarily placed on the multitude of sources of information which have contributed to this list and to whom I am very grateful. Members of the Branch Line Society, Railway Ramblers and many other individual people have proven of invaluable help with information and on clarifying points with local knowledge, of both geography and railways. Without this help, my task would have been much more difficult. Every County Council in Wales, England and Éire, every District Council in Scotland and equivalent public bodies in Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have been contacted for information in their areas, most of whom have replied helpfully. The Forestry Commission’s 69 local offices likewise have spent much time providing information for this publication. All are acknowledged in the list of sources.

Rhys Ab Elis, Casnewydd. April 2013.
Edition 2.10 - 11 December 2017