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Issue 74 - Bridging the gap

Scotland Magazine Issue 74
April 2014


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Bridging the gap

The history behind the Forth Road bridge

The 4 September 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Forth Road Bridge opening. Like its more renowned neighbour, the Forth Rail Bridge, which also spans the Firth of Forth a little down stream, the Forth Road Bridge remains an astonishing feat of engineering. At 1006 metres, it was the longest suspension bridge in Europe and the 4th longest in the world when Queen Elizabeth II, along with 50,000 members of the public, first welcomed traffic on to the bridge.

It was the culmination of a construction process that took six years and linked North Queensferry in Fife with the Lothian coastline at Queensferry.

This crossing point grew along the narrowest point of the channel (a little over a mile separates the two settlements) during the 11th century when Queen Margaret (the wife of Malcolm Canmore III, King of Scotland) established a church at Dunfermline and paid for a ferry service to transport pilgrims, on their way to St Andrews, across the Forth Estuary.

In 1164 Margaret and Malcolm’s son, King Malcolm IV granted the crossing a charter
and gave it the regal title of Passagium Regina, the Queen’s Passage.

It then became known as the Queen’s Ferry at which point the villages of Queensferry and North Queensferry began to develop.

Today both villages are extremely attractive, interesting in their own right and enduringly popular with tourists who enjoy magnificent views of the Lothian and Fife coastlines.

Although both are almost defined by the two bridges it was industries such as fishing and quarrying that allowed Queensferry and North Queensferry to grow.

Queensferry has many fine historic buildings within its confines, including its oldest, St Mary’s Church, which dates from 1441. At North Queensferry stands the Jubilee Well, an ancient spring that was used for centuries to relieve tired and thirsty travellers, some of whom may well have been those very early pilgrims.

The monks of Dunfermline Abbey operated the earliest ferry crossings and in 1320 free passage was granted to the monks and their goods as well as the abbey’s priors and canons. A variety of ferries ran for several centuries, carrying thousands of passengers, with perhaps the most famous being Mary, Queen of Scots, who used the ferry many times – it came in particularly handy after escaping imprisonment from Loch Leven Castle in 1568.

The idea of a road crossing was considered as far back as 1740 and again in the early 19th century when 83,000 people, 6000 carts and carriages and 44,000 animals used the ferry service annually.

Even with paddleboats transferring foot passengers across the Firth of Forth from 1821 (the first steamer was named Queen Margaret) and the magnificent Forth Rail Bridge relieving some pressure when it opened in 1890, the necessity of a road bridge had become a matter of urgency by the 1920s and by the end of the decade appropriate sites had been explored.

The 1930s saw the construction of many famous suspension bridges (the world’s first modern day suspension group was the Menai Bridge, which connected Anglesey with the
Welsh mainland in 1826), particularly in the United States of America with the opening of the George Washington Bridge and San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

However it was not until 1958 that the green light was given for the Forth Road Bridge by which time the Queensferry service was the busiest in Scotland with four ferries annually carrying 1.5 million people, 600,000 cars and 200,000 goods vehicles by 40,000 ferry journeys.

The construction process quickly got underway but such was its scale that a consortium was set up consisting of three companies – Sir William Arrol & Company, The Cleveland Bridge Company and Dorman Long Ltd. They amalgamated to form the ACD Bridge Company and work began in September 1958.

By 1962 the two huge and iconic 512-foot towers had been positioned out in the Firth of Forth, securely anchored on either bank by four cables that had been dragged over the towers. The
cables were a crucial phase in the building process as all of the bridges weight, as well as its traffic, would be taken on these.

However cable spinning had never taken place before in Europe and so a school to train cable spinners was set up in Queensferry. Here the enormous cables were spun, each incorporating nearly 11,500 separate parallel steel wires, which, when combined, had a diameter of nearly two feet and weighed in at 3,650 tons.

A number of temporary footbridges were erected across the river, some around 500 feet above the water, allowing the cables to be positioned. In the end more than 30,000 miles of steel was used, a length that could stretch 1¼ times around the world.

By 1963 the bridges two mammoth box girders were finally ready to be put into place. Such was the quality of design and engineering that
when the girders united they were only one inch out of line.

The finishing touches were then applied and on the 4 September 1964 Queen Elizabeth, along with 16,000 invited guests, 50,000 members of the public, packed tightly along each shore, and a
21-gun salute, heralded the opening of the Forth Road Bridge.

The first vehicles began to make their way across at 5.48pm and over the course of the
next 3½ hours over 20,000 half crowns were paid at the tolls and over two million vehicles
used the bridge in its first year.

In all the Forth Road Bridge had cost £19.5 million to build (£11.5 million for the bridge itself and £8 million for the approach roads) and over the next 29 years toll revenue repaid the public debt of £14.35 million.

The two towers had to be strengthened in 1990 as the increased weight of the traffic on the bridge had doubled from 22 tons to 44 tons. In 1993 the toll income was invested in the bridge operation and repairs before being abolished in 2008, seven years after the Forth Road Bridge had become a Category A Listed Structure.

From the early 1990s a third Forth crossing was considered but it was not until 2008 that this was finally

The Queensferry Crossing will open in 2016 to carry motor-cycles, cars and heavy goods vehicles, relieving the pressure on the Forth Road Bridge, which will continue to take public transport, cyclists and pedestrians. The third bridge will ensure, for many years to come, the continued existence of this iconic structure that spans this historic crossing.