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A Bridge Too Far – Scottish Review of Books
by George Rosie

A Bridge Too Far

May 30, 2015 | by George Rosie

In the last few years I have visited Queensferry several times to see how the new road bridge is coming along. On one occasion I ran into a grizzled, middle-aged American from Ohio.

Over drinks in a nearby hotel he said he had been working on the bridge and was on his way home. What he told me took me aback. ‘You Scotch guys are really sucking on hind tit,’ he said. ‘Every contractor I meet on this job seems to come from someplace in Europe or someplace in the US or someplace down in England. What’s wrong with Scotch people? Don’t you make big stuff any more? If that’s true it’s a real shame. Because it’s gonna be a real fine-looking bridge.’

After we’d parted I drove back to Edinburgh wondering if he was right. If we weren’t building the bridge who was? It didn’t take more than a few hours trawling through the contract details posted on the internet by Transport Scotland – the paymaster and de facto client for this job – to decide that the American had reason on his side. There was hardly a Scottish company on the list. And the harder I looked into sub contractors and sub-sub contractors, the worse it got.

So the Queensferry Crossing, as it’s known, is no triumph of Scottish engineering. Our contribution has been minimal. The army of consultants, sub-consultants, contractors, sub-contractors and big-time suppliers erecting the bridge and building the approach roads are a multinational bunch. All the companies that matter, the ones that make the big decisions, hail from Spain, the USA, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark and England. Plainly, the industrial culture that produced the likes of John Rennie, Thomas Telford and Sir William Arrol is not what it was.

My American acquaintance was also right when he said the new bridge is going to be truly handsome. It has a ‘cable-stay’ design based on three slender, tapering towers, each nearly 700 feet high. From each of the towers 96 cable-stays will fan out to carry a four-lane highway lined with baffles to protect it from the wind. Massive Y-shaped concrete piers will carry the approach viaducts which connect the bridge to the new roads being built to feed it. If everything goes to plan, by the end of next year 70,000 or so vehicles will be crossing it daily.

But the more I admire the elegance of the design and the ingenuity of the construction the more regrettable is the fact that Scotland’s contribution has been so meagre. Building bridges used to be one of our specialities. It is ironic that a design for a cable-stay bridge across the Forth narrows was suggested almost 200 years ago by a young Edinburgh engineer called James Anderson. Although Anderson sited his 1818 ‘bridge of chains’ on the route now occupied by the rail bridge, he imagined one on the same principle as the new one – a roadway held by chains sprouting from three towers. Whether Anderson’s design would have worked is anyone’s guess. But it was a visionary piece of work and copies of Anderson’s drawings are sold as a poster by the National Library of Scotland.

It was another 70 years before the narrows of the Forth were bridged and to a design by a pair of brilliant English engineers, John Fowler and Benjamin Baker. Their creation was realized by the greatest of Scottish industrialists, William Arrol. Between 1882 and 1890 thousands of ‘briggers’ laboured in the high girders to build one of Victorian Britain’s masterpieces. Most of the steel with which they worked was produced in the mills of western Scotland. Casualties were high. Officially there were 57 fatalities: modern research suggests there were 78. But, splendid engineering as it undoubtedly was, the Forth Bridge was never going to suffice. By the time it was finished the motor car was becoming ever more popular. Come the early 1920s, motorists were growing restive waiting for ferries across the Forth while railway passengers crossed in a few minutes.

It was too much for an energetic Edinburgh journalist called James Inglis Ker. All too often, Ker, who wrote guidebooks and McGonagall-esque doggerel, found himself in the queue of vehicles on a Queensferry quayside waiting for a ferry. In November 1923 he hired a room at the Hawes Inn in South Queensferry for a crowded meeting where he laid out plans for a new road bridge. ‘It is the natural order of things,’ he argued, ‘that a country that gave the world its finest achievements in railway bridges should lead the way in road bridge engineering.’ Ker’s plan struck a chord. Within weeks a Forth Road Bridge Promotion Committee had been formed and by the beginning of 1924 Ker and his colleagues were holding meetings around the east of Scotland and in the House of Commons to drum up support among Scottish MPs. This made His Majesty’s Government take enough notice to pay for surveys to be carried out by two firms of London engineers, Mott Hay & Anderson and Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners.

Their response came in 1930. Sir Alexander Gibb proposed a cantilevered-girder design between Hopetoun and the Rosyth dockyard while Mott, Hay & Anderson opted for a suspension bridge based on the Beamer Rock (a lump of dolomite on which the Central Tower of the new bridge is standing). When the Admiralty objected to that suggestion Mott, Hay & Anderson switched to a route east of the rail bridge between Hound Point and North Queensferry. Eventually the two firms agreed that the best route for any new bridge was just west of the rail bridge via the Mackintosh Rock (where the 1960s Forth Road Bridge now stands). Whereupon the Ministry of Transport called a halt to the project pleading ‘National financial conditions’, i.e. the economic recession of the 1930s. Ker, meanwhile, died of a heart attack at a meeting in Edinburgh in 1936.

But his idea never went away. It was resurrected in 1947 when Westminster passed a Forth Road Bridge Order Confirmation Act in the hope that one day funds might become available. The Forth Road Bridge Joint Board (FRBJB) was set up and given funds to pay for surveys and some design work. This, however, was ‘on the clear understanding’ that it would be ‘a number of years’ before any construction work could begin. Then, in September 1948, the Ministry of Transport received a visit from Brigadier Sir Bruce White of the engineering firm White, Wolfe Barry and Partners. White unveiled a project which, he claimed, would save the public purse many millions: instead of building another bridge over the Firth of Forth narrows, he proposed a roadway above the rail track on the existing railway bridge. His argument was that modern lightweight steels and aluminium alloys made this feasible. He estimated that the job could be done for £1 million, £3 million less than the cost of a new bridge. Nevertheless the MoT decided not to back it.

The road bridge across the Forth that opened in September 1964 was a thoroughly British – and largely Scottish – affair. The main contractors were Sir William Arrrol of Glasgow, Dorman Long of Middlesbrough and Cleveland Bridge of Darlington. Foundation work was by Johnsons of London and the viaducts by Whatlings of Glasgow and A M Carmichael of Edinburgh. Most of the steel came from Scottish mills and the crucial vertical ‘suspenders’ (which tie the bridge to the main cables) were engineered by Bruntons of Musselburgh. In its day, the Forth Road Bridge was the longest suspension bridge outside of the USA and the fourth longest on the planet. James Inglis Ker would have been proud.

But, with ever more of us taking to our cars, within a couple of decades the bridge was struggling to cope. As the number vehicles on the roads soared delays and closures on the bridge grew. By the early 1990s the Scottish Office decided that a new bridge was needed. Six consultants were hired to investigate the best routes and designs and consider the possibility of a tunnel under the Forth. In 1992 they produced a report titled Setting Forth which argued for a bridge on the Beamer Rock route to the west of the Forth Road Bridge. The complex geology of the area more or less ruled out a tunnel and they advised that any bridge should be either a suspension bridge (like its neighbour) or a cable stay design (like the one proposed by James Anderson in 1818).

At which point the idea ran into a blizzard of objection from environmentalists and opposition politicians. Alistair Darling, then Labour MP for Edinburgh Central, accused the government of ‘squandering’ taxpayers’ money on the report and declared that 95% of the Scottish population ‘would say no to that act of monumental stupidity’, i.e a new bridge. He was joined by Sir Menzies Campbell who urged the Scottish Office to drop ‘this ludicrous project’. But Ian Lang, then Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, argued that a new crossing had ‘the potential to yield enormous benefits for Fife, Lothian and for Scotland as a whole.’ He concluded: ‘It is the Government’s intention to take forward the proposal…’ But the government never did. For reasons that are still not at all clear, the project was dropped. One suggestion is that the Cabinet killed it for financial reasons. Another is that Lang’s successor, Michael Forsyth, thought that the existing Forth Road Bridge was adequate.

If that is the case, then he was wrong. For without anyone realizing it, the bridge’s huge main cables were corroding. It wasn’t until 2004 that worries about the Forth Road Bridge began. Five firms of consultants were hired to investigate and they did not like what they found. The corrosion had sapped around eight to ten per cent of the cables’ strength. They reckoned that if it continued, the bridge would have to be closed to heavy traffic by 2013 and shut down altogether by 2020. All that could be done was to install a Japanese-designed de-humidifying system, and hope: there were no guarantees it would work.

When the Forth Estuary Travel Authority, which succeeded the Forth Road Bridge Joint Board, was told that replacing the main cables would cost around £122 million and would involve closing the bridge completely for at least three years, it was appalled. That prospect also sent a shudder through Transport Scotland and the Scottish Executive. The closure of one lane of the bridge costs the economy around £4.5 million a week. To close all four for three years would cost in the region of £3 billion. That was not a risk that Holyrood could take. Plainly, what was needed was a new bridge. In 2005 the American-owned consultancies Jacobs Engineering and Faber Maunsell were hired to study the options. In June 2006, they recommended the Beamer Rock as the best route and a cable stay bridge as the best design. The advice was accepted and Holyrood and its agency Transport Scotland swung into action.

No bridge can be built without a realistic design. That contract was won by a joint venture of Jacobs Engineering of Los Angeles and Arup of London. Between them, the two companies split £100 million for what Transport Scotland calls a ‘15-year multi-disciplinary consultancy contract’. Jacobs Arup then assembled a battery of sub consultants, most of them foreign or foreign owned. By 2009, it had produced a ‘specimen design’ of a three-tower, cable-stay bridge centred on the Beamer Rock. By the beginning of 2010 a ‘Forth Crossing’ bill had been drafted and a committee under Conservative MSP Jackson Carlaw was formed to examine the project. Simultaneously, the bridge contracts were being advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union. By the end of the year two consortia, Forthspan and Forth Crossing Building Contractors (FCBC), were competing for the main contract. Forthspan bid £1.05 billion but FCBC was successful with a bid of £790 million.

The winning FCBC consortium is made up of American Bridge International (USA), Dragados (Spain), Hochtief (Germany), and Morrison Construction (UK). But FCBC is not a straight four-nation split. Both Dragados and Hochtief – which built Hitler’s wartime bunker – are subsidiaries of the Spanish giant Actividades de Construccione y Servicios (ACS). Thus Spanish-owned companies have 56% of the main contract.

At first count it seemed that the new bridge would cost well over £2 billion. But when it was seen that the dehumidifiers pumping dry air into the cables of the ‘old’ bridge seemed to be checking the corrosion it was decided to keep the Forth Road Bridge open for buses, taxis, cyclists and pedestrians. This ‘twin-crossing strategy’ meant that the roadway deck of the new bridge could be narrower and therefore cheaper. It is currently costed at around £1.4 billion. ‘And it’s good news for us,’ says FETA’s spokesman Chris Waite. ‘It means we can do all the necessary repairs on the existing bridge without causing too much in the way of disruption.’

As all this work was being divvied up, the Forth Crossing Bill was wending its way through the Scottish Parliament. Most of the scrutiny was done by the five-strong Holyrood Crossing Bill Committee headed by Jackson Carlaw. On 15 December 2010 MSPs voted by 108 votes to three to press ahead. Carlaw has no doubt the new bridge is necessary but has reservations about the two-crossing strategy. ‘Sometimes I wonder what I’ll be thinking if I get stuck on the new bridge and look across to the old one and see it empty apart for a couple of taxis and a bus,’ he says. ‘If that happens then I think drivers might start lobbying for the use of both bridges.’

Scotland’s current vulnerability in the world of big-time engineering was underlined by the sight of the big, red-hulled Chinese ship Zhenhua 23 sailing into the Firth of Forth in May 2013. Bound for Rosyth, she was piled high with thousands of tons of steel which would create the road deck for the new bridge. They were fabricated in Shanghai. The Zhenhua 23 was flying a Saltire. This did not mollify many local trade unionists and politicians who pointed out that the Rosyth Dockyard had a long tradition of fabricating steel. Nor was the ire confined to Fife. Ivor Roberts, President of the British Constructional Steelwork Association called the Chinese contract ‘An absolute outrage and must not be allowed to happen again. It is completely unnecessary and means that taxpayers’ money – yours and mine – is flowing out of the country.’

Almost as painful was the sight of the two huge steel cylindrical caissons being towed up the Forth on the deck of a Norwegian-owned barge. Part of the foundations for two of the bridge towers, they were built of Polish steel by the Polish company Crist Group at their yard near Gdansk on the Baltic. Another caisson was to be shipped across the North Sea to support one of the piers. Yet more bridge foundations stand in ‘coffer dams’ lined with steel sheet piles transported from Spain. The box girders for the approach viaducts were put together by Cleveland Bridge in the Northeast of England with steel supplied by Tata of India.

Holyrood politicians like to point out that around 1000-plus men and women, most of them Scots, are employed on the bridge. But the latest figures produced by Transport Scotland for contracts and supply are revealing. They show that since work began in 2011 to the end of June 2014 some 453 subcontractors have been appointed and of those 257 (56.7%) are Scottish. Those lucky 257 companies collected £90 million among them or an average of £350,000 each. That’s an average of £87,500 per annum or four none-too-generous annual salaries.

What is particularly galling, however, is that responsibility for operating the bridges has slipped out of Scotland. The contract to run and maintain both bridges plus the approach roads was put out to tender and won by Amey plc of Oxford – which is a subsidiary of Grupo Ferrovial SA of Madrid, the Spanish conglomerate that owns both Glasgow and Aberdeen airports. This month the 70 or so men and women of FETA are being transferred from a (Scottish-owned) public body into a (Spanish-owned) private contractor. They have been assured that their pensions are safe and that there will be no redundancies.

So what to make of it all? Is the lack of Scottish, even British, content inevitable in such a globalized industry? Certainly that’s implied by American Bridge (one of the four main contractors) which reckons that the consortium’s keen price was due to shrewd ‘global sourcing and procurement of materials’. On the other hand, one of the FCBC engineers told an audience in South Queensferry recently that prices were low thanks to the global recession. When work is scarce, he said, prices come down. Be that as it may, there is not a Scottish-owned construction firm big enough to tender. We cannot just lay the problem at the door of the EU or console ourselves with the fact that Scotland is a small country with a small population. So is Denmark and there are no fewer than five Danish or Danish-owned consultancies involved in the Queensferry Crossing.

Over the past forty years we have watched Scotland being stripped of its heavy and not so heavy industries. Ship-building, railways, coal mining, steel-making, heavy engineering; they are all more or less extinct. Electronics, the great hope of the 1970s, came to not very much. Not to worry, we were told by our post-modern philosophes. In the future we, the British, will use our brains while others will supply the brawn. What has actually happened is that other folk are doing both while we stand by and foot the bill.

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