When it was first constructed, the Forth Bridge was regarded as the eighth wonder of the world. Familiarity breeds contempt, and it is easy to forget that this is a structure every bit as spectacular and remarkable as the Eiffel Tower, of which it can seem oddly reminiscent. The bridge can be viewed to really good effect from both North Queensferry and Queensferry: and the views from one of the many trains crossing it are equally worthwhile, especially of North Queensferry and Queensferry and of the Forth Road Bridge only a short distance to the west.
The coming of the railways to Scotland initially had the effect of sidelining the traditional Forth ferry ports of North Queensferry and Queensferry or South Queensferry. From 1850, Edinburgh was connected to Perth by rail using a roll-on roll-off ferry directly linking Granton near Leith and Burntisland in Fife.
This all changed in 1879 when construction began on a railway suspension bridge. This was designed by Thomas Bouch, builder of the Tay Railway Bridge that had opened the previous year. The collapse of the Tay Bridge with large loss of life on 28 December 1879 brought a halt to work on Bouch's Forth Bridge with just part of one pier built.
The completely redesigned bridge that was started in 1883 remains one of the world's most distinctive structures. It was opened by Edward, Prince of Wales on 4 March 1890. The bridge was constructed by Sir William Arrol to a design by civil engineers Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker. In the aftermath of the Tay Bridge disaster the bridge was a testament to robust and conservative over-engineering.
The end result is a massive and remarkably imposing structure. It was built as three separate double cantilevers. When each had been constructed, they were linked together by 350ft long girder spans joined to the main structure of the bridge by huge pins. The whole bridge is balanced by 1000 ton counterweights on the outside of the outer cantilever structures.
The Forth Bridge has an overall length of over 8,000ft. The towers reach a height of 361ft and trains cross the river at a height of 158ft. The total cost came to £3.2m, counting £250,000 for the abortive construction work on the earlier bridge. Construction involved the use of over 54,000 tons of steel and 6.5 million rivets. During the seven years of construction, 4,000 men were employed, of whom at least 57 were killed in accidents (some now believe the figure was nearer 80). 8 more men were saved by safety boats positioned in the river under the working areas.
Although it was formally opened in 4 March 1890, the bridge was first used some weeks earlier, on 21 January. On that day two 1,000ft long test trains each comprising a locomotive and 50 wagons, and each weighing 900 tons, rolled onto the bridge side by side from the south. The bridge easily survived the test: though following the Tay disaster it is interesting to wonder about the feelings of the crews of those first trains as they looked down at the river 150 feet below them.
The bridge has been put to good use ever since. In 1907, 30,000 trains weighing a total of 14.5 million tons crossed the bridge. In contrast, in 2000, some 60,000 trains weighing a total of 10.5 million tons crossed the bridge. Today the bridge is crossed by some 200 trains each day.
It is worth noting that although the bridge remains properly titled the Forth Bridge, since the coming of the Forth Road Bridge it has often been referred to as the Forth Rail Bridge to avoid confusion. The forthcoming addition of a second road bridge, properly called "The Queensferry Crossing" but more widely known as "The Fifth Forth Bridge" (counting the two at Kincardine) will only add to the confusion.
By 2002, when Network Rail was established, the Forth Bridge was in a poor state of repair following a long period of under-investment in maintenance. A major renovation was needed to secure its future. The bridge which emerged, a decade later, from the covering of scaffolding and sheeting intended to ensure that old lead paint didn't end up in the River Forth below, is probably in better condition than at any time since it was originally built. Meanwhile the coating of extremely durable glass-flake epoxy paint means that the well known story of the endless job of "painting the Forth Bridge" is no longer true.
Once the bridge had been restored to its original glory (or even better), thoughts turned to how best to allow the wonderful structure to be best appreciated. There are plans in place to open the bridge to the public, possibly in two separate ways.
The first would involve the building of a visitor centre at the North Queensferry end. From there visitors could travel by lift to a viewing platform at the top of the north cantilever.
The second would involve a "bridge walk" from Dalmeny at the southern end of the bridge, out along the structure and then up the slope of the south cantilever to a smaller viewing platform at the top. Visitors would then walk down the north slope of the southern cantilever before walking back to Dalmeny along the bridge. The idea of catering for two different markets of visitors, with an easily accessible attraction at one end, and something much more challenging at the other, sounds amazing, and would add another world class visitor attraction to those already available in Scotland. The Eiffel Tower and Sydney Harbour Bridge all rolled into one: how wonderful would that be?
To get a sense of how wonderful it might be, we visited the existing viewing platform at the top of the north cantilever in May 2014. Neither the platform itself nor (especially) the lift used to reach it are those which will be used by the public when the bridge opens as a visitor attraction: but the views are permanent, and they are simply sublime. Interestingly enough, though the existing viewing platform is a temporary structure, it had been designed to feel extremely secure and to overcome visitors' fear of heights. It succeeded on our visit, and that will be a real asset if translated into the permanent viewing platform.