What’s Highways England for? Sounds like a simple question – and I always thought it had a simple answer. After all, it does what it says on the tin, right? Highways England builds and maintains England’s motorways and trunk roads.
But it turns out that’s not all it does. As we explain in our feature on page 34, Highways England also looks after the Historic Railways Estate.
The Historic Railways Estate comprises over 3,000 old bridges, tunnels and viaducts – mostly remnants of the little branch lines axed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s. Today, many of them have become treasured features of a great many cycling and rambling paths following long-forgotten railway lines.
Several are on the route of proposed heritage railways.
But hang on - why ask Highways England to look after disused railway structures? Well, that’s a good question, and one that the government really needs to answer because putting Highways England in charge of the Historic Railways Estate is like putting a pig farmer in charge of a toddlers’ playgroup. The agency’s approach to maintaining these structures is brutal and heavy-handed. Highways England likes a bridge that will take fully-laden HGV; show it a Victorian brick arch that needs a bit of repointing it just can’t help itself: it either plugs it with mass concrete or knocks it down. Highways England is not the right organisation to be entrusted with this responsibility. Somebody in government screwed up and now somebody needs to sort it out.