Chapter 13 Extent of conversion
It was necessary for BR to dispose of unused land quickly, to raise capital, and terminate maintenance costs for bridges, fencing, drainage, etc. Other industry would do likewise. Where there was no legal obligation to return it to the original owners, land had first to be offered to central government, and if they had no need, to local authorities, who may need it for road building or other development. If they rejected it, it could be offered for sale to others, usually to adjoining landowners - farmers, estates or domestic householders.
Despite the publicity surrounding a claim in 1992, by Bart’s Hospital for the return of land no longer required for railway purpose, the conversionists continue to ignore this restrictive aspect and to claim that the land on which the railways were built belonged to the nation. They never understood the legal restraints, nor political directives and control, on disposal of land no longer required for operating a railway. Land was frequently acquired by the original railway companies under compulsory purchase after they had secured a private Act of Parliament against stiff opposition. Many deprived owners were able to insert into the Act, a clause requiring land to be returned to them if it should cease to be used for the purpose for which it had been acquired. In some cases, it specified that the land - and it later transpired that this could include buildings erected by the railway company thereon - had to be returned to the erstwhile owner at the same price as the railway company had paid for the land, and in some cases, were to revert without payment*. Land acquired for railway building, almost invariably, cut through farms and other estates. Companies were required to provide bridge or private level crossing access between the separated areas. Thousands of these level crossings remain to this day.
The MoT was asked about the possibility of redundant railways
being converted into roads. He replied that, except in a few instances, it is
16.2.55, vol. 537, col. 57). In answer to
another question, MPs were told that the Merthyr-Abergavenny
branch had closed and part was brought into use as a road, others were spread
Claims by the Conversion League
The League’s 1970 booklet (see chapter 7), catalogued sections of railway line already ‘converted’ into roads. Tragically - for their cause - there were only 29 sections1 from 109 yards up to maximum of six miles and with an average of 1½ miles. Widening outside the railway boundary was clearly mandatory, especially when it included examples of a single line widened up to 190 feet to create dual carriageways.2 The list was in a minute font, requiring good eyesight and dogged determination to elicit the facts. They did not explain, why, despite this evidence of a handful of clearly minor cases, and ‘conversions’ requiring significantly wider areas, they still believed in conversion.
1. Which was really only 25 schemes, totalling 43.7 miles (see following pages and Chapter7).
2. Most of the ‘conversions’ in their list were widened beyond the width of the rail route - see Chapter 7.
In their book, following the chairman’s introduction, they
squeezed in a NOTE referring to the term ‘motor road being frequently used in
the Report’. It claimed that a
So desperate was the League, after preaching their dreary and uninspiring sermon to the clouds for fifteen years, that they tried to expand their pitiful catalogue of claims of conversion, with nine pages of ‘maybe’ conversions. These pages list 112 different sections of mostly single line, in 45 different local authority areas and totalling 211.5 miles. This equates to a monumental average of 1.88 miles per scheme, which is hardly breathtaking. These rejoice under the heading ‘Railway conversion schemes under construction and proposals for future schemes’. Once again, they scrape the barrel with proposals for ‘converting’ 500 yards here and 500 yards there, and even down to 207 yards (190m). Of these 112 items, 35 had no length shown. It is safe to conclude that they were ultra-short lengths, as no opportunity would have been missed to list any item which was of any significant length, whereas including them would have exposed the League to further ridicule. Eighteen were so unspecific as to location that it was impossible to even identify the precise location of the railway line expected to be converted.
Regrettably for their cause, the total mileage from this list, actually converted fell well short of their hopes. Inquiries of the local authorities concerned, revealed that many routes were not used at all. A large number were converted to cycle tracks and footpaths, some were crossed at right angles,* one in a very deep cutting was filled - at unspecified cost - to gain the required width of road required and most of the rest required substantial widening, involving land acquisition and property demolition. Some closed railway lines have re-opened as tourist attractions - rather than as part of the transport infrastructure, and some were sold off to other parties to use for non-transport purposes.
*By no stretch of
imagination can a closed railway line, which has been crossed at a virtual
right angle be regarded as a conversion. That word
implicitly means that a road has been built along the length of a closed
railway. There were two such examples in
Specific comments by local authorities on the relevance and value of conversion of closed railway lines set out in the 1970 ‘maybe’ list are as follows:
Argyll: Referred the inquiry to the Scottish Executive, who were unable to assist. No distance had been specified in the 1970 booklet.
Ayrshire: No section of the 2.25 mile railway has been converted to road due to the cost implications. It is now a footpath/bridleway.
Brecon: Five separate schemes were listed, but no mileage was shown for any of them. The locations were inadequately identified for them to be traced by the local authority. Without more detail as to the precise locations, the local authority demanded an up front payment of £450 for further research, but that did not guarantee any productive outcome.
Buckinghamshire: Neither of the two schemes which were forecast to cover 2.5 miles were progressed as roads, one is a walkway, the other is merely a disused railway.
Caernarvonshire: Part used as a road, part as a footpath, some route was resold, some became footpaths or cycle ways, and there were various other non-road applications. The League claimed that 23.95 miles was to be converted to roads, the length converted was about 2.2 miles. The council said that little data is available on the extent of widening, but a single carriageway would be wider than the trackbed of a single track railway. A glossy report on the A487 improvement states for much of its length, the new road runs alongside the Caernarfon-Afon Wen railway, now the Lon Eifion cycleway.
Cambridgeshire: A bypass was built on the closed single line listed, but additional land had to be acquired on both sides for verges and drains. Only four miles of the forecast 7.5 miles of railway was used. The new A141 has a carriageway 8.3m wide plus verges 2.3m each side = 42 feet. A new bridge had to be built with deep piling because the depth and stability of the foundations of the existing railway bridge were unknown. Drawings supplied show that the new width required for roads including drainage was about 3.3 times as wide as the former rail formation.
Carmarthenshire: The 0.85 mile road is twice the width of the old line.
Denbighshire: No mileage was shown. One scheme was not pursued and the railway became part of an industrial estate; a second forecast road was not constructed; the third forecast road was not constructed, and part was used by the Llangollen preserved railway and part became a carpark.
*In contrast, the County had converted 40 miles to cycleways, footpaths, bridlepaths - 40 times as much as to roads. It drew attention to the high costs of repairing and maintaining fences, culverts, bridges & viaducts, (Times, 31.5.83)
Glamorgan: Due to re-organisation, the locations fall into other areas.
Now in Caerphilly CBC: One scheme, claimed to be 0.85 miles. The location was insufficiently clear for them to relate it to a road scheme. I quoted Transwatch data.
Now in the City & County of
Now in Neath & Port Talbot CBC: Two of the three schemes were progressed, but the lengths were less than forecast by the League - a total of 2.6 miles instead of 3 miles. One has been abandoned.
Now in Bridgend CBC: One of the two schemes was progressed, one is footpath, with part subsumed into an industrial estate.
Unidentified locations in a number of unknown local authority areas: The 1970 list included a claim, that in Glamorgan, ‘further sections of railway are to be used for trunk road construction’. Obviously, it is impossible to ascertain whether there was any such development in this attempt to clutch at straws.
Hampshire: Four schemes were listed, with no mileage shown. Each one related to part of a line. The council stated that some disused lines were known to have been converted to public rights of way, but further research would not be carried out without payment of an unspecified sum. There was no guarantee the information sought was still available. Evidently, Freedom of Information comes at a price, which the ordinary man in the street may not be able to afford.
Hertfordshire: The League listed three schemes with a total mileage of 2.2 miles One route was converted to a cycle track, footpath and horse trekking route, the others were abandoned.
Huntingdon & Peterborough: No mileages were shown for the two schemes listed. No reply was received to repeated letter and phone calls asking if conversion occurred.
Leicestershire: Three schemes were listed totalling 5.9 miles - all to be motor roads. Not one of these schemes was progressed. One of these lines is still in use as a railway. Part of one closed line became a footpath. The County converted 24 miles of railway to paths
Merioneth: The forecast 1.2 mile length of railway was converted, but mostly to single carriageway, not to dual carriageway as claimed.
Monmouthshire: One 0.37 mile length of line was replaced by a 7.3m carriageway road with 3m verges, about 3-4 times the width of the single track railway. The other line (now in Caerphilly CBC) was only 0.25 miles and the road was also wider than the land occupied by the railway and required lowering by one metre to match the road level.
Northamptonshire: The League gave no information regarding the proposed length of railway to be used in the one scheme mentioned. A short section of line was used for a bypass. It required a new bridge over a river and a new roundabout - costs ignored by the League. Inclusion of its length would invalidate comparison with the League’s aspirations, because it would compare their zero miles with a specified distance.
Nottinghamshire: The League had claimed a 2 mile length was to be converted. The council was unable to provide any useful information.
Oxfordshire: A 1.1 mile line was bought in 1972. The bypass was not constructed. The ‘railway width was 15-28m, a road required 30-60m’.
Renfrew: None of the 6.3 miles lines listed have been converted to roads.
Selkirk: One 1.75 mile scheme was listed. The council said that ‘majority of the line was used’. No drawings could be traced. A further inquiry produced the response that it was assumed that land alongside the railway would have been acquired, but records are no longer available.
Staffordshire: Six schemes were tabulated by the League totalling 26.5 miles. Two were to become ‘all-weather roads’,* (which seems to imply under surface heating to keep roads clear of snow and ice, and some means of clearing fog). A 6.5 mile line was converted to a cycleway; another to a 2.5 mile footpath; a third to a 5.5 mile footpath; a fourth 8.5 mile line is now a preserved railway; and a fifth became a footpath. The whole of the 26.5 miles of railway forecast to be converted to roads in the county was, thus, not used for roads. Altogether 42 miles have become footpaths or cycleways.
*The concept was greeted with derision at Alston, which was at the end of a branch line from Haltwistle & closed in 1976. (See The Railway Closure Controversy). Such roads are still conspicuous by their absence. (See also Chapter 6 for misplaced belief in all-weather roads).
Suffolk [East]: Two locations
shown by the League, viz. ‘Belton, near Great Yarmouth’, with a total length of
0.4 miles, have apparently always been within the county boundaries of Norfolk.
This careless error caused difficulty in trying to track down what had happened
to the proposed conversion. Maps provided by
Warwickshire: Of the three schemes listed representing 5.5 miles, only one scheme was progressed and that was 0.9 miles in length.
Westmoreland: A 4 mile section of closed railway was used to lay an
improved road. Some widening was required. This was designated by the League to
Wiltshire: Neither of the two forecast conversions totalling nine miles took place. Part was sold to adjoining landowners; the other became part of a long distance cycle track and footpath, some 7-8 miles long!
Workington Borough (renamed Allerdale): There were three schemes totalling 3.25 miles; 2.5 miles was used partly as a service road to shops, and partly for carparking. A 0.3 mile road to a swimming pool and sports centre was built on a closed railway line. Another section of road was built over 0.18 mile of closed railway. The rest became a cycle way, or was landscaped.
conversions involved property demolition to provide adequate widths and to
create large roundabouts to connect into existing roads (one example in
The response from the local authorities covering the “maybe” lists was mostly very helpful, varying from answering the questions posed, to providing detailed scale maps. Only three local authorities did not reply. Two others replied, but only to seek payment for providing the answers. Four councils were unable to provide information, due to the length of time that has elapsed, or due to local authority re-organisation. The vagueness of the League’s data as to the location of a disused line was not helpful in some cases. In total, the data from local authorities reveals that only 48.1 miles of closed railway have been replaced by roads, instead of the 211.5 miles which the League forecast in its ‘maybe’ list. Add this to the 43.7 miles listed in the 1970 Report as already converted (see Chapter 7), and it produces an underwhelming total of 91.8 miles compared to the 9,000 miles of railway route closed by 1980. Moreover, most of the closed lines converted had to be widened to create the width necessary for a road.
Conversionists failed to notice that the main competitor for BR passenger services was the car - not the bus. BR managers kept telling ministers and MPs that this was the reality, but they still seemed to think it was the declining bus industry. They also held the illusion that one railway company could compete with other train companies serving - not the same towns - but towns many miles apart on opposite sides of the country!
The fact that 15 years after their 1970 publication, only a further 0.8% of closed railway routes - which had ranged from about 20 to 180 miles in length - had been ‘converted’ to very short sections of new roads, serves to show that railway lines are not suitable for conversion. Their 1970 publication includes four photographs to ‘prove’ the adequacy of rail widths for road conversion. Two were of closed lines in the most isolated rural areas imaginable, the combined length of which appears to be about 1½ miles, representing about 0.02% of lines closed at that date. One was taken at a considerable distance, making it impossible to judge the original width of the closed line, and hence how much of the adjoining land had been included in the new road. The other showed - at a considerable distance a car - of indeterminate size - parked unrealistically close to the pier of an overbridge, so as to exaggerate the space available for other vehicles. It would have been foolhardy to drive at 60 mph so close to a concrete pier. The car was so far away, it could well have been a child’s pedal car. The two other photographs - of lines still in use, which they claim could be converted into wide roads - have a total length of one mile - about 0.009% of operational railway. One photograph shows a train conveying cars in an endeavour to demonstrate the adequacy of railway width. The cars were minis!
Against these few locations, many more will be found, often in deep cuttings, on high embankments or viaducts or through tunnels, which alone demonstrate beyond dispute, that railway widths are inadequate for multi-purpose roads. Confirmation of this can be found from perusing the many books written about railways which contain photographs of daunting infrastructure. These include books devoted solely to tunnels, of which there at least, two, and others covering viaducts, bridges, etc.
In contrast some 404 miles [290 of standard gauge], of closed railway has now been re-opened as preserved railways. These are not serving a standard transport purpose, but are tourist attractions. That the formations of those closed railways should have been devoted to this purpose rather than become roads, proves the unsuitability of railway lines - by virtue of route or width - for conversion to roads. Inquiries of local authorities reveals that even more are to be re-opened as leisure railways.
Lloyd claimed that the full length of British Railways could be converted - not
a few yards here and there. Therefore, it is incredible that his successors can
crow about ‘conversion’ not realising that the use of a very short length here
or there - of lines previously closed due to lack of traffic - proves
conclusively that railway routes do not go in the direction in which roads are
needed. A few yards or quarter of a mile of a
The unambiguous evidence that the pipe-dream of conversion had been demolished by experts, and by the reality of a mere handful of minor length schemes was, doubtless, the cause for the Conversion League’s successor, the Railway Conversion Campaign, to disappear with the death of its last chairman in 1994.
Countryside Commission Report on Disused Railways
In its 1970 booklet, the League quoted one paragraph occupying 3.5 col. cms from an 82 page Report prepared by Dr. J.H. Appleton, comprising 3,100 col. cms. Most of the Report, whilst looking at alternative uses for disused railway lines, is not devoted to its use as roads. The inference which readers are invited to draw from the League’s highly selective quote is that railway land can be put to best use as roads.
Report mentioned the statutory and contractual obligations for disposal of
surplus land, well known to BR management, but which the League and its
successors studiously ignored. The report reveals that ‘even
the passage of a century, has resulted in little adjustment of farm or even
field boundaries to fit the new circumstances. Restoration of unity is
sufficient incentive to farmers to purchase disused railway land’. (
A few examples were quoted in which short sections of disused railway were converted linearly into roads - albeit, invariably widened - the Report states that ‘there is a much larger number of cases in which very short sections of railway have been acquired in connection with road development transverse to the route’.* The saving was merely that a bridge or level crossing was not needed. No document published by the League ever admitted this fact. The Appleton Report included eight pages devoted to the use of disused railways for agricultural related purposes - the volume of which eclipsed all other uses put together.
*A closed railway crossed at a transverse tangent is not a conversion.
The Report lists all alternative uses, which included agricultural use, recreational use [parks, footpaths, cycleways, bridle paths, caravan parks], building and development, preserved railways, nature reserves, industrial archaeology sites, pipeline and electric cable routes, motor rally and scrambling routes, refuse disposal. The Report said the latter use was widespread.
A list of disused railways converted to recreational use was included in the Report. Eighteen cases were listed. The length was shown in eight cases, and these totalled 74.25 miles, or 69% more than the total claimed by the League to have been converted to roads by the same date. The mileage of the remaining ten conversions to recreational use was not shown. The Report points out that many railway lines are not ideally located to be converted to bypasses - as the League loves to claim. The Report saw a high potential of disused railways as recreation routes. The scope for using disused railways as bridleways or cycleways is also mentioned. Although it was not mentioned, these would reduce the incidence of horses and cycles - even joggers - on roads, and thereby help to reduce traffic delays and accidents.
The Report did not include a summary of the uses to which all disused railways had been put. The reason was, doubtless, the tight time limit imposed by the Countryside Commission for the production of the Report. A Chapter 7 and that ‘hundreds of sections of railway had been converted to roads’, when in reality their own 1970 Paper only itemised 25 (see Chapter 7). It also included statements by the League as to the cost paid for closed railways for road building and conversion costs. It would have been more appropriate to have asked local authorities. However, Dr. Appleton was faced with a time limit. The Report notes that the cost of ‘most of the conversions [to roads] worked out considerably higher’ than figures quoted by the League, indicating that some data was gathered from other sources. The Ramblers Association also saw closed railways as having a national use - other than roads.
The Report states that ‘much of the criticism levelled at BR has been grossly unfair. Many tributes have been paid to BR for acting within difficult limitations with sympathetic understanding’. It reveals that by 1968, of 2,126 miles of railway closed, 1,037 miles had been sold. This means that, of the closed lines put to other use, only 4% was used in the construction of a public road. The Report does not analyse how the remaining 96% was distributed among the other uses.
Had the League read beyond the first page of the Report, and not closed its mind to alternative uses of closed lines, they would have noted - among other considerations of the redeployment of closed lines - a call for a recognition of the benefit to the economy of converting disused railways to agricultural use, which is ‘in the public interest’.
In December 1970, the Commission produced a further Report, as recommended in the Appleton Report, to update the uses of disused railways. This listed 74 sections of railway comprising over 460 miles1 of railway converted to footpaths, cycleways and bridle paths, seven locations converted to caravan parks and picnic areas, and 22 closed lines that had been re-opened as [preserved] steam railways, with a total length of 103 miles2. The average footpath scheme was six miles, and the average railway re-opening was nearly five miles - both much longer than routes converted to roads, and none were as short as the ultra-short sections garnered together in the railway conversion report.
1. The Report quotes the mileage for some schemes totalling 276 miles. The mileage was not quoted for a third of the schemes, but could be ascertained from details of the locations.
2. The total length has further increased over subsequent years, (see below).
The length of main line railways is 10,400 miles. Hence, since Brigadier Lloyd initiated his campaign, 9,600 miles of railway route - almost half - has been closed. Had there been any merit or advantage in his theory, the whole of these closed routes would have been converted to roads. Instead, the reality is that ‘conversion’ to roads is the exception rather than the rule. To claim - as Transwatch does (see Chapter 11) - that 250 miles1 has been converted by 2005, demonstrates that there is no case. In contrast, by 1989, over 1360 miles of closed lines had been catalogued2 as being converted to non-vehicular use: footpaths, cycleways and bridlepaths. No widening was required and their average length was 2.47 miles compared to road ‘conversions’ average of 1.2 miles, (see Chapter 11).
1.Not all of which qualifies as conversion within the meaning of the word.
2.Railway Rights-of-Way (Branch Line Society) by Rhys ab
If BR’s 20,000 route miles, in 1955, had been closed and converted at the rate claimed1 to date, the country would have gained only 500 miles of new road. In contrast, at the same rate 800 miles would have become Preserved Railways - used for leisure purposes, whilst some railway would have re-opened for real transport purposes. However, the bulk would have become footpaths and cycle ways or reverted to agricultural use. Congestion would have strangled the country’s transport, and, hence, its industry and business activity. Brigadier Lloyd’s envisaged basis of vehicles travelling at 60 mph, 100 yards apart, over the 24 hours and over the four seasons would have been seriously undermined. Based on his calculations2, the available headway for former rail traffic in new road vehicles, on this length of new roadway would - night and day - be 2.5 yards [2.3 metres], the safe headway for 2 mph - with no space for traffic to transfer from existing roads!
1.As that list includes discrepancies (see Chapter 11), and the identification of rail locations is less than helpful, the author has been unable to investigate the validity of all claims. Lines crossed at tangents, or widened ought not to count, nor should any below, say, five miles in length.
2. He said rail traffic could be carried in road transport with headways of 100 yards, (see Chapter 4)
The fact that local authorities - having been invited to buy disused railways, after central government had first refusal - used them to create footpaths, cycleways, etc., is clear evidence that either they are unusable as roads due to width restrictions or are on the wrong alignment. Why else would they miss the opportunity to relieve road congestion? Sustrans has created 10,000 miles of route for pedestrians and cyclists, the greater part of which are on ex-railway routes.