The Forth Bridges

A key engineering structure of the world, its the Forth Rail, Forth RoadRoad, and Queensferry Crossing that make up the Forth bridges. Scotland’s major transport hub, its fair to say the Forth bridges have been key secrets of Scotland’s success- wonders of Scotland, and the world.

Forth Rail Bridge

Scotland’s greatest man-made wonder, was the first to be built. It was the first major steel operation in the UK, and went on to use more steel than had ever been seen in any structure. The idea of a rail bridge had been discussed for decades- as the Firth of Forth at the time was the only major interruption in trains running from London all the way to Aberdeen- in what is around 600 miles. Thus the potential for great social and economical progress had been very clearly seen. It was English engineers Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker, both of London underground railway fame, who took on the job of designing the new bridge.

The steel masterpiece stands at 120m high, with the length of the structure being around 2,500m. More than 6,000 people worked on the bridge over an 8-year period, and it came at a total cost of around 3.2million (around £300 million today). This ended up up being well over the planed original budget (under one million). The revolutionary though expensive rail bridge would eventually open in 1890, going onto carry around 30,000 trains per year at its earliest peak.

Now carrying around 70,000 trains, the bridge subsequently underwent significant restoration & modification in the 90s. Floodlighting was installed during this upgrade, and today there are more than a thousand lights across the bridge. This upgrade notable included stripping the old paint off, and putting new, specially designed paint on. The job of painting the Forth Bridge is now thus no longer known as the task that never ends. This special paint job didn’t come cheap either- with a £130 million bill coming the way of new owners, Railtrack.

So there has been close to £500 million that has been spent on the Forth Rail bridge alone- but it was worth every penny as it was a economic revolution. It was one of our great luxuries for many years, and its creation rubber-stamped Scotland as an engineering powerhouse. It also brought about great economic growth and opportunities around Scotland, and despite all the improvements over the last century, in both transport and trade, it still plays a very important role in the country today.

It is officially still called the Forth Bridge, by the way, but the majority of people have referred to it as the Forth Rail Bridge since the establishment of the Forth Road Bridge.

Forth Road Bridge

Next to be built was the Forth Road Bridge. The construction of the bridge would come around 30 years after the original plans to create a bridge were scrapped due to world war two. September 1964 was when the bridge was to be completed, with Queen Elizabeth doing the grand opening honours. At the time it was the largest suspension bridge in the world, Barr the Golden-gate bridge in the United States. The new suspension bridge allowed traffic to freely travel across central Scotland, from Edinburgh across the Firth and into Fife. This lessening the heavy burden on the Kincardine Bridge.

It used to be a toll bridge. It was subsequently an often chaotic place, with many incidents of crashes and accidents. After ended the toll requirement when exiting the city, eventually the entire toll system was abolished in 2008 (cost about a quid too). There has been many incidents involving the bridge over the years. It was initially difficult to predict how much traffic was going to be on the bridge upon opening, and there was some clear misjudgements made by the engineers. The condition of the bridge should be much better for its age. An underestimation of its usage is most likely responsible, with more than 60,000 cars crossing the bridge daily- more than double the predicted amount.

With the bridges deteriorating condition, the Scottish government decided to take action. In 2005, an £8 million plan was put in place to make alternations with the cable. Previously, some of the cables had been broken and an increased rate of corrosion had alarmed inspectors, so much so that they went on to compare it to a bridge in its 70s (not 40s). With the idea that the two-tower bridge could live for much longer, it was decided that it would only open to public transport, aswell as the public themselves (walkers, cyclists). A £1.4 billion plan was accepted by the Scottish government – to install a new 2.8km long cable-stayed bridge across the River Forth.

Queensferry Crossing

The Queensferry Crossing opened in August 2017, and was one of the biggest infrastructure plans in Scottish history. Upon its opening, it became longest three-tower cable-stayed bridge in the world- covering 1.6 miles. Each of the three towers are around 210 metres high. It is around 23,000 miles of cable that is used to support the bridge, which took more than 6 years to complete. Concrete was a much discussed aspect of the construction of the bridge.

It took more than 15 days of constant, 24/7, pouring of concrete to create the foundations of the South tower. This setting a new world record – the largest continuous underwater pour. 150,000 tones of concrete were used in the process overall. The creation of the bridge saw the destruction of a 100+ year old lighthouse, sitting on Beamers Rock, just below the bridge. The middle tower of the bridge was subsequently constructed in its place.

Queen Elizabeth was the one who officially opened the new bridge- more than 50 years after she had opened the Forth Road Bridge. While the public were the ones who decided on the name of the bridge. A vote was held in 2013, with Queensferry Crossing being announced as the winner, seeing off the likes of McBridge and the more productive St Margaret’s Crossing. There were several deaths during construction of the bridge- including a man, John Cousin, who was killed when the Jib (beam) of an 18-tonne crane fell on him. Although there were more deaths (and incidents) to follow, the toll was nowhere near that of its neighbour- with 74 people being killed on the construction of the Forth Road Bridge.

Historians were on the scene in the early part of the construction of the Queensferry Crossing, and they discovered archaeological material from the Mesolithic period (around the Stone Age) at either side of the bridge. Stone tools, remains of a home, and old animal bones were among the finds.

Her Majesty the Queen arrives to open the Forth Road Bridge (left) and returns for the Queensferry Crossing opening, more than 50 years later. (below) (Image courtesy of the Times)

The Secret Tunnel

In 1963 an engineer named Alistair Moore and a group of miners had decided to take action in the face of the increasingly difficult process of getting coal pulled out from Fife to the Lothians. The plants in Fife had become so broken down that many areas were in unworkable condition, while some plants were closed outright. The Lothians on the other hand had upgraded and more progressive facilities, and room for the extra work. Two groups, one at either side, began what a 2 year construction project of what was largely constant digging towards each other.

This is far from being the first time the idea of a tunnel between fife and Lothian has come up. Away back in the 1580s and an engineer, Sir George Bruce, attempted to create an arch-shaped tunnel under the waters, big enough to fit 4 horses. He and his team actually made it around 1/3 of the way, though in somewhat bizarre circumstances the tunnel was deliberately flooded. King James VI was invited to view the tunnel, but apparently the King was having a strong spout of paranoia at the time. Believing the invitation was a plot to kill him (most likely not believing the possibility of such a tunnel), he had it flooded and destroyed. Sir George Bruce faced treason charges but they were later dropped.

Back to the 1960s, and this tunnel was about 450 metres under, and was very successful in its use- bringing coal across the forth- though it barely lasted 20 years due it being extremely dangerous, aswell as significant changes in the economic circumstances in the country at the time. Alistair Moore was a genius and its a shame that it was disregarded before being concreted up. With investment and modern technology it could well have come in very handy today.


More than 1,000 people have committed suicide at the bridges (largely the Forth Road Bridge). Its an 180ft drop. Incredibly four people have survived it, though all ended up with paralysing injuries- and criminal charges. There has been suggestions of a suicide watch potentially being established, but so far nothing has came of this. They are working bridges, with a good few hundred people working around the clock in maintenance. So you would imagine its the engineers, the electricians, (and the sweepers)- they will effectively be the suicide watch. Its completely unrealistic to have people on the bridge constantly throughout the year, specifically for those purposes.

Obviously the wider problem lies in society and its always been there- we just need to find a better way of getting positive messages out there, this alone can stop the transition from thinking to acting. We’ve all had times when weve thought about it, but it passed like everything else.

Just remember; all things are difficult before they are easy.

John Norley

Forth Bridges Gallery

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