Residents in fight to reopen footpath on railway land

The gated path at the end of Welland Mews
The gated path at the end of Welland Mews
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Walkers campaigning for a footpath across railway land to be reopened have put their case forward at a public inquiry.

Lincolnshire County Council acting on behalf of residents from Stamford applied to reopen the footpath between Welland Mews and Hudds Mill on the Stamford lower Meadows and have it classified as an official public footpath.

The pathway was closed in December 2006 by Network Rail, which owns the land it runs across. The company put up a 6ft gate and fence in place of the former five-bar latch gate which walkers regularly opened or climbed over.

Planning inspector Martin Elliot opened a two-day public inquiry at Stamford Town Hall on Tuesday and listened to arguments from the county council, residents and Network Rail.

The council claimed the pathway should become a public footpath because it had been commonly used for more than 20 years when it was closed.

The council, represented by senior solicitor Mandy Wood and definitive map officer Tim Jenks, had 57 letters of support and a petition with 333 signatures of support. More than 50 members of the Stamford Healthy Walks group, which regularly used the footpath during its excursions, had signed the petition.

A council survey revealed more than 30 people used the pathway monthly when it was open.

Juan Lopez, representing Network Rail, made the case that the footpath could not legally be opened because the land in question was classified as “operational land”. He said the British Transport Commission Act 1949 ruled that any access on railway land without permission constitutes trespass.

Industry watchdog the Office of Rail Regulation classifies the land as still operational when the track bed is still there, even if the tracks have been removed.

Network Rail would have to get Office of Rail Regulation consent to declassify the land in order to reopen the path.

Network Rail head of reliability Jerry Greenwood said the company’s definition of operational land is any land between boundary fencing and the tracks.

Mr Greenwood said: “There are a lot of services and cables within the railway corridor away from the track within the railway fences.”

He said there could be unknown risks on the land including possible live cables, disused rails, spikes and inspection pits.

Mr Greenwood said: “The danger is high if people can get onto the rail track.

“If a public footpath was granted it would have to be immediately closed until Network Rail could make it safe.”

This would be likely to involve building a fence between the path and live railway tracks.

Lincolnshire County Council put its argument forward with the help of four witnesses, Elizabeth and James Heesom, of St Mary’s Place, Stamford and Diane and John Smith, of St George’s Square, Stamford.

The witnesses testified to regularly using the path for more than 20 years including during the development of the Welland Mews housing complex between 1987 and 1992 when access to the path was disputed by Network Rail. They reported regularly entering the route via an unlocked gate and through a wide hole in a hedgerow which preceded the gate in the 1970s.

Level crossing manager for Grantham James Perkins said the site was inspected about five times a year as part of line-walking safety checks. He said whenever the gate at the eastern end of the path near Wellend Mews was found to be unlocked a padlock was replaced as practice.

Mr Lopez said the lock, combined with the gate and fence, signified a reasonable deterrent. However, the path is more easily accessible from the Uffington end of the path via a kissing gate, and prior to that a stile.

Mr Lopez said Network Rail was only required to put up signs at the nearest station warning people not trespass on railway property, rather than at individual sites along the line.

A number of members of the public testified in favour of the path reopening, including Max Winslow, Paul Willoughby-Ellis, Brian Gooch, Michael Sharpe and Tim Musgrove.

The planning inspector has up to 10 weeks to make his decision.