Close Encounters of the Forth Kind (Forth Bridge, Queensferry, UK)

This week, British railway infrastructure company Network Rail announced plans for two visitor experiences at Britain’s finest (I’d argue one of the world’s finest) bridges, the Forth Bridge in Scotland.

The Forth Bridge from South Queensferry. By George Gastin (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
The Forth Bridge from South Queensferry. By George Gastin (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

The Forth Bridge is one of transport’s memorable additions to the world in which engineering becomes architecture, architecture becomes sculpture, and sculpture becomes pure art. Not to mention that it gets trains directly from Edinburgh to destinations further along the east coast without a massive diversion to get round the Firth of Forth, a tidal estuary north of Edinburgh. The Forth Bridge is both useful and extraordinarily beautiful (though William Morris, whose motto I’ve mangled here, considered it very ugly). It’s not the Forth Rail Bridge, mind. As the first bridge across the Firth of Forth it gets the name without needing a qualification, unlike the subsequent Forth Road Bridge, from which the Forth Bridge is well seen.

Although huge, the Forth Bridge doesn’t hulk. Rather, the repeating main elements give the bridge the appearance of bounding across the Firth of Forth, quite unexpectedly given its size. Up close, one is mesmerised by the shifting interplay of the red structural elements that form the bridge, which move at multiple depths in front of and behind each other, creating new angles and patterns, as one’s viewpoint around the bridge shifts.

by travellingred [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via flickr
Detail of the Forth Bridge. By travellingred [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0], via flickr

Network Rail’s plans, drawn up by Scottish Architectural Practice WT Architecture, envisage a visitor centre and elevated viewing gallery, linked by a lift, at North Queensferry (the north end of the bridge) and a base for undertaking guided walks up the bridge at the south end. It won’t be the first famous bridge to give walking tours; the Sydney Harbour Bridge already offers such a vertigo-inducing experience. This visualisation of the vista from the visitor centre demonstrates the strength of Network Rail’s concept, and further justifies the Forth Rail Bridge’s inclusion in this blog:

Visualisatin of proposed North Queensferry centre foyer. Courtesy Network Rail, via Network Rail press release
Visualisation of proposed North Queensferry visitor centre foyer. Courtesy Network Rail, via Network Rail press release

The Forth Rail Bridge opened in 1890 (Network Rail is hoping at least some of its visitor experience plans will be in place by 2015, the bridge’s 125th anniversary) to a design by Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker. It replaced a train ferry which had been operating since 1850. It is a cantilever bridge comprising three double cantilevers with each of the two main spans some 518m across. At the south end, a series of steel spans on granite piers and four stone arches carry the railway from the hillside to the main part of the bridge. The north side has similar but shorter arrangements. Taken as whole, the total length of the bridge is 2.47km (1.6 miles) long, and the cantilevers are 137m tall from foundation to top and some 415m across. It was Britain’s first major steel bridge (as opposed to iron) and its spans were the widest in the world at the time of its opening.

The Forth Bridge weighs in at a hefty 53,000 tonnes, and is held together by six and a half million rivets. As with many Victorian structures, it is considerably over-engineered. This is partly because Victorian engineers didn’t have access to sophisticated computer simulations which would have allowed them to reduce the amount of metalwork and still remain confident that the bridge would hold itself up in severe weather conditions, though it was the first bridge to make significant use of scientific testing and quality control of components. But perhaps more importantly, the original design for the Forth Bridge was a suspension bridge by Sir Thomas Bouch, who had recently designed a bridge over the River Tay at Dundee. That bridge collapsed in 1879 during a storm, wrecking a train and killing 75 passengers and crew. Bouch was off the job of the Forth Bridge. The replacement design had to be something that not only was indestructible, but looked indestructible too, to give confidence to travellers for whom the Tay Bridge disaster was a recent memory; over-engineering was the inevitable end result. It was that same over-engineering that gave rise to both the bridge’s distinctive and attractive form (cantilever structures are extremely strong), and the beautifully intricate criss-crossing of the many individual steel members that make up the bridge.

Throughout its history, the bridge has rarely been well seen. There was (and still is) a saying in Britain that a task is “like painting the Forth Bridge.” This is one of the best British examples of transport’s influence on language and idiom. The bridge is so big, and the environment in which it stands so harsh, that from the moment of its construction, ongoing maintenance and repainting was necessary to keep it in good condition. By the time engineers had finished working their way along the bridge, it was time to start at the beginning again. That’s the theory, at any rate, but sources disagree on whether the bridge has been in continuous repair/repainting since its construction (and in any case such work would never have been done from end to end because certain parts of the bridge are more exposed than others and would need more frequent maintenance).

Nevertheless, the Forth Bridge’s painting and maintenance requirements have been so extensive that it has been more usual to see the bridge with scaffolding on it somewhere, than not. It is only in recent years that surface treatment technologies have advanced to the point that protective coatings will last long enough to allow a significant break in the ongoing repainting programme. At the end of 2011, Network Rail announced that it had finished painting the bridge (having stripped it right back to the bare metal before doing so) and that it would not need a full repaint for another 20 years.

So Network Rail’s visitor experience plans come at a propitious moment, the first time that the bridge can be seen in its uninterrupted glory for an extended period. More details can be found on the Forth Bridge Experience website, set up by Network Rail to promote the project. At £12-15m, the project to open the bridge to the public isn’t exactly cheap, but it’s next to nothing in railway terms. And seeing the bridge (and the local area) from the upper viewing platform, 110m up, will make it money very well spent.

The Forth Bridge is a national icon, and has appeared on UK coinage (the 2004 £1 coin) and Scottish banknotes (Bank of Scotland £20), as well as on stamps (Royal Mail’s 2011 A-Z of Britain series), not to mention films like The Thirty Nine Steps (dir. Alfred Hitchcock 1935) (though it doesn’t appear in the book on which the film is based) and in many paintings.

It is listed by statutory heritage organisation Historic Scotland at Grade A, the highest category. The bridge is well on the way to receiving another accolade, that of a World Heritage Site, under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The ‘tentative’ listing (UNESCO has yet to confirm its place on the World Heritage List) can be seen here.

The tentative listing ably sums up everything that is great about the Forth Bridge, so I shall leave the final word on the matter to that document.

“No steel cantilever bridge has ever matched the perfect balance of structural elegance and quality of design represented by this bridge.”

The Forth Bridge at night. B Magnus.Hagdorn. [CC BY-SA 2.0] via flickr
The Forth Bridge at night. By Magnus.Hagdorn. [CC BY-SA 2.0], via flickr


Biddle, Gordon, 2003. Britain’s Historic Railway Buildings. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Bridge statistics from Network Rail, here

The process for gaining UNESCO World Heritage Listing is being taken forward by the Forth Bridges Forum, which is headed by the Scottish Government’s transport organisation Transport Scotland. Its site is here

The official website of the Forth Bridges Forum’s campaign to get World Heritage Listing for the Forth Bridge is here

Finding the Forth Rail Bridge

4 thoughts on “Close Encounters of the Forth Kind (Forth Bridge, Queensferry, UK)

  1. I used to travel across the road bridge twice a year for work, and one year I had a little spare time so drove to North Queensferry to have a closer look. You could get close to the bridge but it was rather unsatisfactory in terms of getting a feel for the size and majesty of the structure

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