From urban freight route to green oasis

The Castlefield Viaduct in Manchester is congested – but only with wild flowers and weeds. Plans will see the 330m-long landmark turned into an urban oasis for next summer, as the Victorian structure sees new life as a breathtaking part of the city skyline. 

Campaigners and neighbours have long hoped that the imposing structure, that once served the railway warehouses in the very centre of Manchester, would see new life one day. That day is about to come.

The bridge, surely the most impressive of all the structures in central Manchester, has been isolated from the network, ever since the closure of Manchester Central passenger station (now preserved and reborn as a thriving conference centre) and the closure of the railway warehouses that still stand on the busy Deansgate thoroughfare.

The facades of those building have also been preserved and the interiors are a complex of mixed use leisure, retail and residential accomodation. The bridge however has remained derelict since the late 1960s. Ironically the bridge garden plan for the former urban freight route comes just as the pressure is building for a modern equivalent of the traditional goods delivery to the doorsteps of city centre customers.

A part to play in the Castlefield Corridor

The bridge doesn’t feature in any plans to upgrade its namesake Castlefield Corridor. The well-known bottleneck, although passing within metres of the bridge, is isolated from the structure. The Castlefield area of central Manchetser was criss-crossed by competing Victorian railway companies, and the lines that once used the bridge have long since been removed. The terminus they used is abandoned to rail use, but serves as a vast conference centre, and the choice of the ruling Conservative party as the venue for their annual conference this week.

The former lines carried by the Castlefield Viaduct are marked in orange on this 1910 map of the city centre railways

The elevation of the tracks make it impractical to consider it in any part of remodelling the corridor. At least – that’s the current thinking. Castlefield is the site of Manchester’s Roman origins, and the world’s first purpose built passenger railway. It spans the Bridgewater Canal, the world’s first industrial canal. The viaduct was used to carry heavy rail traffic in and out of Manchester Central railway station. It stayed in use until 1969.

National Trust plans a future for the viaduct

The heritage organisation, the National Trust, is working with local interests to turn the viaduct into an urban garden oasis. “We’re excited to be working to make this a reality”, says the charity in a statement.

“The vision is to transform Castlefield Viaduct into a free-to-access park and meeting place for people and nature. Imagine a hidden oasis sitting above this busy city. It will be a space that respects the listed structure, celebrates the nature, beauty and history of the viaduct.”

High Line Park an inspiration

As the accompanying map shows, the viaduct is adjacent to the existing lines out of Piccadilly Station (formerly know as London Road). A pipe-dream exists to fly additional tracks over the tangled web of approach road to Piccadilly station, and double deck the corridor. Impossible say most observers – except those who built the triple-deck station at Antwerp Centraal and the high speed lines into Paris Gard du Nord. Extensive flyovers are also familiar closer to home for Mancunians. Examples of similar arrangements once existed in Sheffield, Liverpool and Wolverhampton.

The Beetham Tower, Manchester’s tallest structure, is framed in this impression of the Castlefield urban garden, set to open for the summer of 2022 (Source: National Trust)

As an urban garden based on a former rail route, the ultimate inspiration for this project comes from New York’s High Line park, which uses the track of the former west side railway in Manhattan. Paris and even Edinburgh in Scotland have plans to follow suit, using redundant freight lines for this unusual interpretation of the green agenda. A champagne supernova may or may not be planned for the opening.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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