Lines to Nowhere?

The High Line, New York

How do we adaptively reuse rail infrastructure sites?

If you speak to most heritage professionals they will tell you that the best way to keep a heritage asset is to use it. Reusing heritage assets has enormous benefits. There are economic benefits that come from not having to demolish and dispose of an existing building. Socially and culturally the heritage places that surround us create a connection with the past. Jane Jacobs famously described it when she said new ideas need old buildings. There are also environmental benefits that come from the embodied carbon in existing buildings. This article is a couple of years old but it gives a good overview of the sustainability benefits of adaptively reusing buildings.

Adapting heritage places while still retaining what is significant about them can be a real challenge. How do you integrate changes but avoid facadism? Can significant door architecture be retained when the doorways are all 5cm to narrow according to the latest construction codes? Should access be provided to second floors if the existing stairwells do not meet contemporary standards?

These are all problems faced everyday but, all in all, the reuse of buildings is a solvable problem. It might take some innovative and creative solutions combined with a bit of latitude from consent authorities but it can be done successfully.

Comparatively speaking the reuse of buildings is easy. Infrastructure sites, particularly railways, provide a whole new set of challenges. These are sites that are not necessarily commercially viable for adaptive reuse.

What if it is a lone railway building 20 km away from everything else? Technically the building could be adapted but how do you get a business in it; not a lot of passing traffic.

Being sites that had industrial uses there are often contamination and environmental issues. Access and safety can be major issues preventing reuse of former railway stations. A good example is the island platform. Between two active lines this site below in Raglan, NSW has limited reuse opportunities as it cannot be safely accessed without expensive footbridges being built.


It has been shown that timber road and rail bridges degrade more quickly once they stop being used. Exactly why is a mystery. The best explanation I once got from a bridge engineer is that it might be that the vibrations associated with use ‘shakes’ water out of the bridge. I’m sure there was more to it than that but when I was told it was the end of a long few days and a morning standing in 30+ degrees heat.

Legislation can also play an active role in preventing the reuse of rail lines and rail infrastructure. Sometimes an Act of parliament is required to change the use. The best idea in the world can get caught up in the political cycle. After all, governments have important things to discuss; legislation to change the use of a disused piece of rail line is always going to be very low on their priority list. The State government here in NSW just went into caretaker mode, so no decisions of this nature are happening for at least another six months.

Having said all this there are successful examples of the adaptive reuse of railway infrastructure. Urban areas provide the best opportunities for reuse such as New York’s Highline or Atlanta’s Belt Line. Adaptive reuse of railway buildings in cities can be very successful – Paris’ Musee d’Orsay, housed in the former Gare d’Orsay Railway Station, Brazil’s Julio Prestes Train Station now home to the Sao Paulo State Symphonic Orchestra and Sydney’s Eveleigh Railway Workshops now commercial buildings and public spaces.

The Victorian Government here in Australia ran a program from 2013 to 2016 designed to restore disused regional railway buildings community use. The Community Use of Vacant Rail Buildings Program provided for the adaptive reuse of buildings in 13 towns for uses ranging from art galleries, tourism enterprises and meeting and office spaces.

A popular use of disused rail lines is Rail Trails. These provide walking and cycling routes through towns and the countryside. Examples abound in Australia and internationally such as the Otago Central Rail Trail (New Zealand), Burgundy Voie Verte (France), Via Verde de la Sierra (Spain) and the Great Victorian Rail Trail (Australia).

But rail trails do not work on ‘build it and they will come basis’. They must tie into broader tourism and economic development initiatives, there needs to be a reason to visit these areas. The trail itself is only the conduit to explore the history, culture and life of the places it goes through.

The challenge that railway infrastructure sites pose is that they combine all the most difficult aspects of adaptive reuse. The issues around the adaptive reuse of single building is there. So, too are the challenges of trying to re-purpose infrastructure that has no obvious reuse opportunity; rail lines, water towers, turn tables, platforms. To find successful solutions to adaptively reusing rail infrastructure there needs to be collaboration across governments and jurisdictions.

Government, business and the community need to come together to solve these challenges. I would love to be able to end this post by giving you a solution, but that is not going to happen.

So, I come back to my original question, with a slight change, how do we successfully and sustainably adaptively reuse rail infrastructure sites?

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