Claims by the Conversion League

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The League’s 1970 booklet catalogued sections of railway already ‘converted’ to roads. Tragically - for their cause - there were only 29 sections from 109 yards up to maximum of six miles with an average 11/2 miles. Most involved widening outside the railway boundary, including a single line widened to 190 feet to create dual carriageways. 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.    

 

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 Motor Road - a term unknown to the DfT or any of the Counties which were supposed to have them - has the following characteristics: ‘No frontage, no standing vehicles, negligible cross traffic’. Of the 29 listed conversions, there were none; of the 112 maybe schemes (see below), there were eleven, of which five became roads totalling 5.9 miles. Nowhere, do they set out any data to demonstrate that they have surveyed cross traffic at level crossings or new road crossings to prove that there is ‘negligible cross traffic’.

 

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,[1] 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.   

 

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:

Aberdeen: The one mile section was used for road works, no data was available on the extent of widening.

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.

Berkshire: The 1.5 mile disused line was not used for a road. It was sold to adjacent landowners and developed for residential or industrial units.

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.

Cornwall: Only one scheme was listed, with no mileage: conversion of a mineral line between Devoran and Penpol to a County Road. Why they specified County Road as if this was something special - like their much loved Motor Road - is unclear. No other scheme mentioned a County Road. Roads are either the responsibility of the DoT or a County. This railway originally ran from Perranwell station to Penpol via Devoran to serve local tin mines. The section from Perranwell to Devoran has become a Trailway for pedestrians, cyclists, horses, and is about 3m wide - much less than half the width required for the most basic road. The section on to Penpol has been subsumed under residential development. At no point can it be said that the railway became a road, nor that it was any wider than the width recorded above.

Cumberland: No mileage was shown for the one scheme listed. It is believed by the Highways Agency that some sections of the old railway may have been used, but they were unable to identify them, nor to indicate their length or width.

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.

Dorset: A total 8.8 miles of closed railway was forecast to be used. The actual total used was 0.7 miles. Two sections of closed railway were used for short lengths of road; two road schemes were not progressed; in another case a road was built, but the railway line was not used; one section became a cycle way; one is now an operational railway

Durham: Three schemes were progressed totalling approximately 0.9 miles, instead of the 3.5 miles forecast. A fourth scheme was not progressed.[2] The local authority stated that ‘any costs for sections of converted railway will have been subjective’. All involved property demolition, roundabouts requiring substantial widening - plans show that one was eight times the railway width - and earthworks to match road to railway levels. All four were designated to be Motor Roads in the Report.

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.

   Now in Rhondda Cynon CBC: Only two of the three schemes were progressed, but additional land had to be acquired beyond the railway boundary in both cases. A total of 5.1 miles became part of roads, instead of the 10.2 miles forecast by the League.

   Now in the City & County of Swansea: A five mile conversion was forecast. Only 0.3 miles was progressed.

   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[3].

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.

Kent: No mileages were shown for the three schemes listed. A new road [the M25] does not - as claimed by the League - ‘make use of the old Westerham Railway’, but crosses it at a tangent. It is not along the length of the line, as the wording was clearly intended to imply. The one benefit arising from closure was that the M25 did not require to bridge over the line. The Canterbury-Whitstable line is now a footpath - the Council said: ‘it was never planned to be a road’ although the League claimed that ‘a road had been planned for some time’. The former Tenterden-Headcorn branch line is being developed as a cycleway.  

Lancashire: Three sections of line were listed totalling 4.25 miles. The County Council could not trace the first location listed: Toruer. It is untraceable in maps of the UK. Two of the three schemes, including the untraceable location were designated to be Motor Roads. Although the Council was helpful, they were also unable to trace any record of the other two schemes.

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

Lincolnshire:  No mileage was shown for the one scheme. No reply was received to a repeat letter and phone calls asking what happened to the railway.

London (Merton Borough): A section of railway line a mile in length became part a road. It was designated to be a motor road. It involved acquisition of extra land to create the width for a dual carriageway.

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.

Norfolk: Of eight items listed, only two had roads built on top of a closed railway. These totalled 13.5 miles instead of the 20 miles forecast. One bypass built does not use a closed railway line. One line may re-open as a preserved railway. ‘Land required for roads that have overlaid these former railway routes considerably exceeds the original land take for railway construction, so that, apart from minimising disruption to communities along the line of route, there is little advantage in following these former alignments and the costs incurred may have actually been higher than those of following totally new alignments. In most cases, to allow road construction to take place, the vertical profile of the former railways has been altered significantly with embankments lowered and cuttings infilled to allow for the greater width needed to construct the new road’. This would not be compacted by trains.

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.

Shropshire: No mileages were shown for the three lines in the League’s list. One scheme was not progressed. Of the others, short lengths (100 yards or less) were used in constructing the A53 and A518 bypasses. Road width was a minimum of 15.6 yards overall between fences. Formations were poor quality material and needed replacement.

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).[4] 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.

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 Yarmouth library reveal that only about 1/4 mile of road sits on the formation of the closed railway, some remains unused, whilst some is covered by houses.    

Suffolk [West]: In respect of the two locations listed, for which no mileages were shown, one bypass was built, but the disused railway was not used. In the other case, part of closed single line railway was used, but its length cannot now be determined, but the ‘width would have been 21 metres’, considerably in excess of that of a single line.

Sussex [East]: The League list two: 1.3 km and 2.3 km respectively. The 2.3 km section [of the 22.4 km Lewes-East Grinstead line] was not converted, and is still disused. The longest section is a 15km pre­served steam railway - the Bluebell line - due to be extended by 3km. The southern part of the line was crossed by the Phoenix Cause­way at right angles and cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be called a conversion.

Sussex [West]: An 0.8 mile length of single track railway was used as part of a road. The League’s 1970 book stated that considerable acquisition of land would be needed for this 100 ft wide road! The council confirmed that considerable area of land was acquired to obtain the necessary width. This is not a conversion.

Warwickshire: Of the three schemes listed representing 5.5 miles, only one scheme was progressed and that was 0.9 miles in length.

West Lothian: One scheme was listed, but no mileage was shown. No reply was received to repeated letters asking if the conversion took place.

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 be a Motor Road.  

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.

Yorkshire East Riding: Five sections of closed railway route were listed as planned for conversion to roads. Of these, four totalling 34.5 miles have been used as recreational routes for horse riders, cyclists and walkers. The fifth route for which no mileage was quoted by the League has been built over by a mix of housing, works and a car park. Consideration is being given to the need to revert one of the recreational routes to commercial rail use.

Yorkshire West Riding: One location is now in Bradford MDC. The schemes for converting Shipley-Bradford, for which no mileages were shown, were never implemented. The other location is now in Leeds MDC. They were unable to provide any information.

 

Several conversions involved property demolition to provide adequate widths and to create large roundabouts to connect into existing roads (one example in County Durham was eight times the railway width), major earthworks to match road and railway levels. Several others required wide areas for earthworks to reconcile road and rail levels.

 

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 page 65), 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.

 

 

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[1] 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 Kent and East Sussex.

[2] 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)

[3] Evidently, Freedom of Information comes at a price, which the ordinary man in the street may not be able to afford.

[4] The concept was greeted with derision at Alston, which was at the end of a branch line from Haltwistle and was closed in 1976. (See The Railway Closure Controversy). Such roads are still conspicuous by their absence. (See also page 50 for misplaced belief in all-weather roads).