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At its peak in 1928, the length of the UK’s national railway infrastructure (the route controlled by Railtrack or its successor, National Rail) was 20235 miles. Today the length is less than half of that, standing at 9817 miles with the decline being due to the rise of the car for personal travel and lorries for cargo transport, as well as demographic and economic changes. Of the 9817 miles remaining, 9042 miles are currently in use with approximately 800 miles of disused, railway infrastructure and likely more than that which national rail no longer manages.

Although there are many examples of urban regeneration projects which develop waterfronts, brownfields and old buildings, there are relatively few which make use of disused rail infrastructure, either in the UK or in other post-industrial countries around the world. With cities around the world expanding, what potential does disused rail infrastructure in and around urban areas have for development? With literature on this topic relatively slim, I have looked at two very different projects which have tried to utilise the unique aspects of railway infrastructure in regeneration.

The High Line

The first project is The High Line in Manhattan, New York city, which first opened in 2009. Once an elevated freight line, the High Line became disused for several years with demolition inevitable until Joshua David and Robert Hammond, inspired by the way that nature had taken over the line, founded the organisation ‘Friends of the High Line’, with the intention of preserving it for reuse. The High line is now a 1.45 mile long public park which, as well as a place for people to walk alongside nature, also hosts events, artists and exhibitions. The High Line is significant as it makes use of the unique site that railway infrastructure provides as a long, narrow, connecting site rather than a large block. It allows pedestrian travel separated from the vehicles below whilst also creating a continuous strip of green within a dense urban area.

Figure 1: Freight Train on the High Line in the 1950s

Figure 2: Rails on the High Line

Figure 3: The High Line from above


The Thinkbelt

The second project is The Thinkbelt by Cedric Price, designed in 1965, which was sited in North Staffordshire but never realised. The Thinkbelt is a very different project on a very different scale but utilises the unique opportunities for connectivity that railway infrastructure can provide. Price envisaged the project as a sort of university, running on a circuit with mobile classrooms which could use the existing rail lines to move around between static locations such as student halls, libraries and workshops which would be located in disused rail-side factories as well as new structures. Price also planned for Keele university (located with the triangle of the circuit) to have a connection into the network. Price worked on the scheme for some time and was received by the Ministry of Education who told Price that they would review the proposal, nothing ever came of it.

Figure 4: Thinkbelt Perspective by Cedric Price 

Figure 5: Thinkbelt Map

References and Further Reading:

Department for Transport (2017) Length of national railway route at year end, and passenger travel by national railway and London Underground;

Friends of the High Line The High Line Pocket Guide;

Matthews, S. (2001) The Fun Palace and Potteries Thinkbelt

Martin, D (2014) The Thinkbelt: The University that Never Was Cedric Price profile

List of Figures:

Figure 1 – Freight Train on the High Line, Jim Shaughnessy (link:

Figure 2 and Header Image – Rails on the High Line, NYC Parks (link:

Figure 3 – High Line from above, Timothy Schenck (link:

Figure 4 – Thinkbelt visual, Julia Cervantes (link:

Figure 5 – Thinkbelt Plan, (link:

School of Architecture
Planning and Landscape
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tyne and Wear, NE1 7RU

Tel: 0191 208 6509


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