Wednesday 11 August 2021

A Realistic Chance to Secure the Broadway to Honeybourne Trackbed

The future of the trackbed north of Broadway to Honeybourne, beyond the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway’s (GWSR) present northern terminus at Broadway, appears to be secure following a series of recent developments. 

This includes the wish of the present owner of the route, Railway Paths Limited (RPL) to transfer ownership to the GWSR.

At present the GWSR is not in a position to extend the railway northwards and is unlikely to contemplate doing so within the foreseeable future. However, the railway is keen to ensure nothing is done that could compromise any potential re-use of the trackbed as a railway.

Collin Lane bridge propped from beneath, underlining the poor condition of bridges on the line north of Broadway (picture Jo Roesen)

The GWSR was able to complete purchase the 15-mile trackbed between Cheltenham Racecourse and Broadway in 1982 – however, the long-held ambition of the founders of the railway (which celebrates its 40th Anniversary in 2021) was to ‘reopen as much as possible of the former Stratford-upon-Avon to Cheltenham line’ – an aspiration that remains to this day. The line was closed by British Rail in 1976 and the track and infrastructure was removed by 1980.

Some years ago, the 4.5-mile section between Broadway and Honeybourne was transferred by the Department for Transport (DfT) to Railway Paths Limited (RPL), a subsidiary of Sustrans which converts old railway routes into footpaths and cycle ways. Sustrans is funded by the DfT.

Meanwhile, Network Rail improved its Worcester to Oxford ‘North Cotswold’ line between 2008 and 2011, which involved re-doubling the then-single line through Honeybourne between Evesham and Hanborough; and re-building Honeybourne station.

Honeybourne Road bridge, recently propped with a brick pier in the trackbed (picture Jo Roesen)

At that time, Network Rail approached the GWSR offering to make ‘passive provision’ for the heritage railway to eventually reach Honeybourne and use one side of the island platform on the Up side of the main line. The works carried out included re-aligning the junction for the branch line to Long Marston and replacing the bridge which carries the North Cotswold line over the trackbed of what would become the GWSR.

RPL has now decided that the line does not fit their current strategy and wishes to dispose of it. It approached the GWSR as the obvious potential future user – however, such a transfer needs approval of DfT, which was not forthcoming.

Explains Richard Johnson, Chairman of GWSR: “It appears that it is the policy of DfT that heritage railways cannot provide a sufficiently strong covenant to secure the continuing maintenance of road bridges that cross such redundant lines. This is of concern, given the current controversy surrounding the Highways England strategy to infill or demolish a number of such structures on redundant railways across the UK.

“My understanding is that consideration will only be given to transferring ownership to a body such as a local authority which, by definition, has the necessary resources to maintain the bridges. In such a case, an option would be that the line would be leased back to the heritage railway concerned.

“We have written to the DfT to confirm that this policy is indeed correct; whether it could be waived in this case and to seek confirmation that nothing will be done to the bridges or trackbed that could compromise potential re-use as a railway line.

“RPL has spent the minimum necessary to ensure the safety of the bridges over the line, which are mainly steel spans on brick abutments*. They have deteriorated significantly over the years. Some of them are supported by brick piers or steel props in the former trackbed and the bridges will need considerable sums spending to restore them.”

The new bridge that carries the Worcester-Oxford main line over the trackbed at Honeybourne Junction (picture Jo Roesen)

Regional Railway Developments

This comes at a time of two further developments that have significance for this 4.5-mile stretch of line.

Firstly, as part of its ‘Restoring your Railway’ grant scheme, the Government is funding up to £50,000 of an economic impact study into fully reinstating the Stratford-upon-Avon to Honeybourne line (part of which is in use between Honeybourne and an industrial facility at Long Marston). The proposal for the funding was jointly presented by the Stratford Rail Transport Group; the Shakespeare Line Promotion Group; Cotswold Line Promotion Group and the Solihull & Leamington Spa Rail Users Association and has wide support including Stratford-upon-Avon District Council which was previously less enthusiastic about the propsal.

This coincides with a £200m bid to further improve the North Cotswold line to increase capacity.

Secondly, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Heritage Rail, which is chaired by Lord Faulkner of Worcester (who is a patron of the GWSR), has undertaken a study called ‘Great British Railways’ into supporting sustainable tourism and the viability of expanding heritage rail’s role in the public transport network. It points out that several heritage railways already have connections with the main line while others – including the GWSR – have real a real prospect of reconnecting.

Steve Oates, CEO of the Heritage Railway Association (HRA) (which contrtibuted to the 'Supporting Sustainable Tourism Public Transport on Heritage railways' report), commented: “We have some really important proposals from the All-Party Group to help support and develop heritage rail. The report recognises that a wide range of benefits are brought by heritage railways to tourism, employment, the local economy, skills training, wellbeing and mental health as well as transport benefits.”

He adds: “Along with the DfT we want now to identify more of those heritage railways where there is a prospect of an extension link to the main line network.”

Richard Johnson commented: “All of this augurs well for the future of rail transport in our region and I am particularly gratified by the support provided by our own local MPs and parliamentarians who are supportive of greater integration and co-operation between national and heritage rail.

“This also compellingly underlines the potential future benefit of reinstating the relatively short extension north from Broadway to Honeybourne. Whether it is done by us or by Network Rail as part of the ongoing improvements of rail transport in the region remains to be seen.

“Importantly, these developments help to ensure that the trackbed between Broadway and Honeybourne is protected.”

Baroness Vere, the Minister for Roads, Buses and Places, confirmed in a written answer to a question asked in the House of Lords by Lord Nigel Jones on the GWSR’s behalf, that there is no intention to infill or demolish the bridges on the Broadway to Honeybourne route.

For the GWSR, the potential of taking on the abandoned line to Broadway couldn’t have come at a worse time as the railway emerges from the financial strictures of nearly 18 months without income, thanks to Covid.

But, Richard Johnson adds: “Our first responsibility is of course the security and viability of our current business – however, we also have a responsibility to ensure that we don’t compromise the original aspirations of our founders and see that the line north of Broadway is secured for potential future development.”

GWSR website here