Historical Railways Estate

Our job is to keep safe more than 3,200 former railway structures across the length of Great Britain.

Historical Railways

From tunnels to bridges and viaducts, these structures date back to the 19th century and we recognise their potential wider social value. That’s why we've paused all infilling or demolition work for the time being in order to work with local authorities and others to help find ways to re-use them where it’s possible.

What we do

In 2013 we became responsible for the inspection and maintenance of historical railway structures across England, Scotland and Wales. This is called the Historical Railways Estate and we look after it on behalf of the Department for Transport. Many of the structures were built more than a hundred years ago. So, it’s no surprise that they need a lot of attention.

Our team of engineers manage this work, making sure that the structures that need the most urgent attention are prioritised. It can involve repair and strengthening of structures. Very rarely it may include demolition, or partial or full infilling. Infilling is where we put material, such as crushed rock, underneath an old railway bridge to make sure it’s fully supported.

We will only move forward with demolition or infilling work after we’ve first checked with the local authority to see if they’d like to take on the structure, perhaps for a new walking, cycling or horse riding route. Where others propose a viable new use, and it is safe to do so, we will delay any work so that they can develop plans to take over responsibility for the structure.

Latest updates

Yearly vegetation clearance - January 2022

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.

Our engineers met with Lewes District Council and East Sussex County Council on Thursday 18 November 2021 to discuss the management of Barcombe bridge. We're working with local authorities to understand more about the highway that crosses the bridge in terms of use and any weight restrictions that may need to apply, and to understand how the bridge/route may feed into the area's Local Plan.

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.

View Barcombe Bridge meeting minutes 18 November 2021

Working with partners

To ensure the safety of historical railway structures we work closely with other organisations. For example, we help local authorities to understand where they may need to apply vehicle weight restrictions, to reduce the stress placed on aging bridges.

We also provide technical and practical support to organisations that are interested in taking on ownership of structures. We aren’t funded to make structures part of new walking, cycling or horse riding routes, but we support others who may want to do this - helping to transfer ownership of the structures over to them.

We’ve already got agreements in place to transfer several structures to local authorities, helping to restore active travel routes. We’re also discussing many other opportunities with possible partners across England, Scotland and Wales.

Where local authorities or other organisations are unable to immediately take on ownership of structures we may occasionally have to temporarily infill them. This is to make sure we keep the public safe. This infilling can be taken out by other organisations if they decide to use the structure in future.

Contact us at hreenquiries@highwaysengland.co.uk