Why we should mothball the Forth replacement crossing
Bruce Whitehead, a freelance journalist with an engineering degree from Napier University, has a novel idea for the new Forth crossing: let’s stop building it.
If you’ve been stuck in traffic queues to get across the Forth recently, you may well react with an expletive or two when I suggest that the Forth road bridge replacement shouldn’t be built… yet.
A few years ago I was chair of the ForthRight Alliance, opposed to the building of a Forth replacement crossing. Given the Christmas “cracker” we got from the Forth Road Bridge a month ago, you might not think this is something I’d admit to. But this was years before a one-inch break was found in a road deck beam.
Back in 2008, the only justification the government had for replacing the bridge was flimsy. We were told by FETA, the Forth Estuary Transport Authority which maintained the crossing, that they’d found corrosion in the cables which support the roadway. About 100 of the 22,000 wires which are bundled together to form the main suspension cables, or less than half of 1%, were affected.
This minimal corrosion was the sole reason why the SNP government had argued for replacing the bridge. At the time, the Bridgemaster (sounds like a Game of Thrones character), Barry Colford, told me that although he was “highly confident” that drying out the cables would work, he couldn’t be 100% certain – even though sixteen other major suspension bridges installed de-humidification during construction, and they were all fine. But because FETA was retro-fitting the driers, there was a small chance that it might not work.
Now, Barry Colford has to sleep at night (even now, in his present job in America, he fondly dreams about Queensferry). He had to be satisfied that the bridge wouldn’t suddenly, or even gradually, fall apart. So it’s understandable that “highly confident” wouldn’t do. His predecessor though, Alistair Andrew, had relied on the engineering doctrine of “factor of safety” to assess maintenance projects. A factor of 2.0 is the minimum required to allow bridgemasters to sleep at night; the Forth bridge, even after suffering corroded wires, still came in at 2.3, only marginally down from the figure when brand-new, 40 years before.
Three years ago the government quietly admitted that the corrosion had been halted. But because the £2bn Queensferry Crossing had already been started, it had to be completed. I disagree, and I think there’s a way to pause the new bridge to free up sorely needed cash.
About half of the £2bn bridge (which lost its cyclepath and walkway to save money) has been built. But since then Scotland has, like the rest of the UK, been bludgeoned by austerity.*
[* austerity /ɔːˈster.ɪ.ti/ (n.) the financial practice of taxing the poor to pay for the gambling debts of rich bankers.]
Two weeks ago John Swinney, the bank manager (sorry, finance minister; he does look like a bank manager though!) told us he could no longer find enough money to fund £320m worth of essential council services, so this sum would be deducted from the grant given to local authorities. That’s nearly a million pounds a day. The impact is clear to anyone working in public services, supplying the public sector, or using council services (i.e. all of us).
Sports centres in South Lanarkshire, children’s services in Edinburgh, adult education and mental health services in Glasgow… all of these are taking serious hits, slashing funding, cancelling classes, courses, support training. 60,000 council jobs have been cut by the government since 2010.
But there’s an alternative. Now that the Forth Road Bridge has been fixed again, and will be open for all traffic in a few weeks, engineers fully expect it to function normally for its entire design life: that’s 125 years, so 2089.
Now, I know they dropped the ball a little with the corrosion; they should have seen that coming sooner. And maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to privatise bridge maintenance to a firm without the tolls income (helpfully abolished by none other than bank manag… sorry Finance Minister John Swinney in 2008). But this time the bridge should be fine. Fingers crossed. And that means that we don’t need the other one – not yet anyway.
Not spending the remaining £1bn will fund the reversal of John Swinney’s planned council budget cuts for three years. Surely that’s a higher priority?
Engineering projects are often mothballed and kept for when they might be needed in the future. The Queensferry Crossing could be kept oiled and wrapped up until, say, 2085, leaving four years to add on the remaining bits of Lego. A doddle. I know what I’d do.