During my two decades in railway journalism, conflicts between the requirements of rails and the ambitions of cyclepath promoters have often been vexed issues, the latest manifestation being the controversy over the use of the footbridge that links Totnes to the South Devon Railway’s Totnes (Riverside) terminus and the town’s magnificent rare breeds farm next door that, as an animal lover, is the finest of its type I have ever seen.
So far the railway has refused to allow the footbridge to become part of a long-distance cyclepath stretching across southern England from the Kent coast to south Cornwall, and it has come under a barrage of criticism from local politicians at all levels for taking this stance.
There are two factors at play here. Firstly, the footbridge would need to be open 24 hours a day. So who would be funding the cost of additional security at the station and the farm park?
Two years ago, I presented the Heritage Railway Association’s Interpretation Award, which this magazine sponsors, to this railway for the creation of this station, using buildings saved from closed GWR stations across the former Swindon empire. Uninformed visitors would never guess in a million years that while everything they see there is genuine, nothing is new, but rebuilt on what was once an empty muddy greenfield site.
Sadly, our magazine regularly carries stories about vandalism of heritage railway buildings and rolling stock, which in far too many cases ends without the culprits being caught or given meaningful punishment as a deterrent to others. I’m all in favour of green transport, but it should never be at the cost of our heritage. At the moment the sites accessed by that bridge are secured at night, and must remain so.
Secondly, according to the recommended measurements in what else but a document by cyclepath organisation Sustrans, the current bridge is far too narrow to be shared by both cyclists and pedestrians. What happens in the event of a cyclist hitting walkers and causing injury? Who is liable for compensation? Who will meet bridge owner the railway’s insurance costs and liabilities? Don’t all rush at once.
I have extensively read the local media’s coverage of this issue. The railway is being painted in a negative light, and has even been accused of ‘dividing the community’, i.e. Totnes and the village of Littlehempston to the north. Erm, er… I have always assumed that these communities were or are already ‘divided’ by the River Dart, which passes between them.
The other and sensible alternative here is to build a second river crossing for the cycleway at a cost of £500,000, which, of course, austerity-hit local authorities cannot afford at present and are whinging about it. Yet, if the cyclepath is to bring the major benefits to Totnes that its proponents claim, surely this should be seen as a justifiable investment?
The railway and the farm park are doing very nicely without an unnecessary burden being imposed on them, and they are both treasured gems of the local tourist economy. If it works, why fix it – or why throw a spanner in the works?
Robin Jones, EditorEnjoy more Heritage Railway reading in the four-weekly magazine. Click here to subscribe.