The risks of old disused railway lines

Dr Beeching closed many old railway lines, but in doing so opened up a few unintended cans of worms.

Many farmers own a stretch of old railway line crossing the farm. These tend to be useful for moving livestock and vehicles as the old line with provide a firm surface often on higher ground.

Today, the aspiration for leisure access in the country is hugely greater than it was in Dr Beeching’s time and thus the old lines come under pressure to be opened up as footpaths, bridleways and cycle paths, and are often trespassed upon by motorbikes.

Understandably farmers will prefer to prevent this, or at least manage the access on terms that enable access to co-exist with farming.

Pressure will come to dedicate public rights of way by Agreement, or even by Order, or to grant a long Lease or even to suffer a Compulsory Purchase Order. Farmers cannot assume that an Order will not be imposed upon them. Once the line becomes a public path it will be much more difficult to use it for ordinary farming purposes.

It might therefore be worth offering a long-term permissive path agreement, which will allow a degree of public access to take place on the old line on terms which are reasonably convenient to the farmer, and not as a public right of way but only by the permission of the farmer. The matter of temporary closures, and risk avoidance, can be covered, and compensation and costs can also be claimed.

If you don’t want this on principle, you need to render it impossible for the public to acquire a public right by long use, so good access management (e.g. fences, signs, deposits) will be essential; but be warned that an Order may still be imposed.

If the old line is of no practical use to the farmer, it is worth considering offering to dedicate a footpath or bridleway along it in return for some other more tangible benefit, such as achieving closure of a public path nearby which the farmer would definitely rather be rid of.

A trade-off such as this may be achievable, and will suit everybody. The farmer gets an awkward route closed; local walkers/riders get a new stretch of bridleway; and County Council are saved the staff and cost implications of fighting a Public Inquiry.

It is advantageous in achieving this sort of resolution to use the less known process under s116 Highways Act (rather than s119). This means using the magistrates court rather than the likelihood of a Public Inquiry.

I have several current railway line cases, all of which I am steering my client towards a pragmatic solution. It always tends to be preferable to negotiate a deal which you can live with, and by which you achieve certainty, rather than by fighting a case which will cost you a lot of money and which you may lose.

West Country solicitor Jonathan Cheal is a public rights of way specialist whose services are in demand across the country on a topic which can be a minefield for farmers and landowners alike. Jonathan works with Mogers Drewett which has offices in Bath, Sherborne and Wells. He also regularly attends market days at Frome Livestock Market.



Mogers Drewett

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