Recently posted to the National Preservation Forum - thought it might be fun to open this up here as well!
I have nothing against Sustrans or their goals and ideals per se - I'm not complaining about what they do. I just want to make it clear that they are 'lodgers' on railway land.
The trackbeds that rail used to run on was bought with real (private) money from land owners, under Acts of Parliament. Since nationalised in 1948 those trackbeds have belonged to the Government (the British People, really), and Sustrans would do well to remember that the land is primarily still a railway - even if the metals have been litfed - and could revert to being a working railway at any time.
In the meantime, using the trackbed as long-distance footpaths and cycleways is an excellent use - the level or gentle gradients makes ideal route for said activity - but not to the exclusion of one day re-laying the metals which belong there by right.If I see a freight train these days it is a novelty.
When I was a child (around 1960) freight trains ('goods trains' we called them) where everywhere. Successive corrupt governments have removed freight from rail, to satisfy their friends in road haulage, closed down railways, sold off vast swathes of trackbed to property developers and supermarkets in a bid to ensure rail never returns. Interesting move, as the land wasn't really theirs to sell... They only managed it on behalf of the British people.
We must, as a movement, ensure that the same thing does not happen with Sustrans. They must not regard the trackbeds as theirs; they are not - they are railway trackbeds, and I for one are happy to share those trackbeds and routes with Sustrans - but not hand them over.
My own views are slightly at variance to the above. I don't think there was any deliberate sense of selling off railway land to prevent railways being reopened, more to monetise what could be seen as dead land. Whilst some at the MoT may have thought that rail had had its day I'm sure there were just as many who were aware that oil was a finite resource and that the railways would return. This may explain why such a huge percentage of rail routes, even ones closed decades ago, are still clear of all obstructions.
Of course Sustrans was formed to shift the costs of maintaining many of these essential future routes. There's no real love for cyclists at either local, regional or national level, but Sustrans was created purely as a custodian for these future rail routes. We should be grateful to them for this.
I believe that cycling will become a very important transport mode in the future, second only to rail. Ideally there should be a railway and cycleway between Bath and Bournemouth. But obviously rail should have priority at all times and places. This is hardly controversial.
What perhaps is a little more controversial is the suggestion that heritage railways have been encouraged for precisely the same reason that Sustrans has - as a way of shifting costs away from the government and preserving rail routes. Heritage railways will have to morph into community railways offering real trains, passenger and freight, as well as 'heritage' trains, with the real trains taking precedence. This is the agenda, which will become clearer over time, which guarantees the restoration of the S&D together with thousands of miles of other temporarily closed railways. Our aim is to ensure that the S&D is rebuilt as we want it, not some distant bureaucrats.