The Historical Railways Estate is a collection of over 3,200 structures and assets which were once part of Britain's rail network. Since 2013 we've been responsible for looking after it on behalf of the Department for Transport. Many of the structures were built more than 100 years ago.
What are the structures?
The Estate is made up of a wide variety of structures and other assets which fit into six broad categories:
Overbridges were built to take traffic over the railway, while underbridges carry the railway over something, perhaps a path, road, river or another railway.
A distinctive feature of the UK rail network, tunnels were often needed to take the railway line through hillsides.
Viaducts and aqueducts
These impressive feats of engineering are designed to take railways and watercourses across open areas such as valleys.
Some structures have previously been partly dismantled, often for safety reasons. For example, the ‘decks’ of bridges over roads may have been removed to prevent high vehicles striking them, leaving the upright supports or abutments.
These structures were used to adapt the natural landscape to accommodate the railway line. Examples include embankments, retaining walls, weirs, flumes and pipes.
Land and other structures
We also manage a number of pockets of land, former roadways, memorials and other structures which were once part of the railway estate.
Where are the structures?
Sustrans, the charity who are custodians of the National Cycle Network, have completed an independent report into the active travel potential of the historic railway structures. The report was grant funded by the Department of Transport.
The report is an assessment into the active travel potential of the 75 structures that form part of our Major Works Programme, which is currently paused. They did not carry out structural surveys nor any of the other activity required to create an active travel route. This was largely a desk-based exercise but included engagement with local authorities.
The report is available to view on the gov.uk website.
Every year we need to clear vegetation away from many of the historic railway structures we look after across the UK. Our contractors generally do this work during winter and autumn, which helps to avoid disturbing nesting birds – and other wildlife – during the spring and summer.
We have to do this clearance work to prevent damage to the structures, to keep them safe. Clearing away vegetation also helps to keep structures visible so that we can see and monitor any damage or movement. Our teams document any faults they find, taking pictures and reporting back to our engineers, so we can take the right measures to keep the public safe.
While our teams are out and about doing this clearance work, they also take the opportunity to remove any litter or fly-tipped items from around the structure. They’ll often use the offcuts and scrub from their work to create ‘eco-piles’, like log stacks, for wildlife to use.
The Historical Railways Estate is an important part of our industrial heritage. This is why all infill and demolition plans were paused in July nationally and remain paused.
This work has been paused to give local authorities and interest groups more time to fully consider structures as part of their local active travel plans for walking, cycling and heritage railways.
We have, however, continued with vegetation and ecology work on a number of structures. This is good practice and will keep structures safe. This work will be required irrespective of any decisions regarding the future of these structures.
Of the Historical Railway Estate’s more than 3,200 structures, we are working with partners to enable re-use of 22 of them. Just four abutments and five bridges are recommended for removal over the next five years, along with 59 bridges where infilling is the recommended solution. Infill can be removed again if a future use is identified. We are conducting full review of our infill and demolition programme and so these figures may change over time.
We've developed a new process for determining how major works on HRE structures will be decided. This is currently in draft but once finalised will be used to assess all structures requiring major work. We intend to review structures against a range of ‘lenses’ which will help us determine their future use potential and value.
This process will be undertaken on Barcombe bridge, with support from a range of other specialist parties including the local planning authority, and shared with the Stakeholder Advisory Forum for comment before we determine the final plan for the bridge.
Find out more
History of the Historical Railways Estate
The world’s first inter-city passenger railway opens between Liverpool and Manchester.
The biggest decade for railway growth sees the creation of a national rail network.
The railway network reaches its peak, with over 23,000 miles of track and several thousand stations.
Competition from motor vehicles and road transport sees the start of a slow decline in the railways.
The rail network is brought into public ownership under the management of what became known as British Rail.
The Beeching Reports are published, recommending the closure of a third of the rail network.
British Rail begin to sell off land and assets made redundant by the Beeching closures.
British Rail is privatised, with the British Rail Board becoming the organisation responsible for disposing of land and structures.
Responsibility for maintaining the Historical Railways Estate is transferred to the Highways Agency, now National Highways.