The row over the Hammersmith Bridge closure intensified today as the Government told a council to ‘look again’ at reopening it to pedestrians and cyclists within weeks.
The cost of fixing the Victorian bridge in West London has already hit £141million and it was initially thought it would not reopen until 2027 – four years later than planned.
But the Department for Transport has now urged the council to ‘redouble efforts towards reinstating pedestrian, cycle and river traffic as soon as safely possible’.
However the council hit back, saying it won’t go against specialist advice that there is a ‘serious risk to lives of the tens of thousands’ of people crossing the structure.
A Government report today found earlier risk assessments were ‘conservative’ and there was now a much better understanding of the 422ft (129m) span bridge.
But it added that pedestals would have to be blasted to check for cracks, which is planned for next April, and more monitoring equipment would need to be fitted.
Therefore a temporary ferry across the River Thames to replace the bridge is still planned, after revelations yesterday that this could be running as soon as February.
The closure of the landmark, which normally carries 16,000 people a day and 22,000 vehicles, has provoked international ridicule and caused misery for local residents.
Today, Transport Minister Baroness Vere said the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham (LDHF) should ‘seriously consider’ the options to get it partially open.
But the council told MailOnline today: ‘World-leading specialist engineers strongly advised the badly-corroded suspension structure faced catastrophic failure. If the bridge collapsed, as they advised it could, it would have been a national disaster.’
Houseboats are moored nearby the closed Hammersmith Bridge in West London last month
This is a part elevation of Hammersmith Bridge, opened in 1887 and built over the foundations of an earlier suspension bridge. It has a main span of 422ft (129m) and two equal side spans
The inside (left) and outside face (right) of a crack in the eastern pedestal were revealed in August after the ornamental casings were removed and it was stripped of paint by grit blasting
It added that the Government’s Taskforce on the bridge met today at 11am, but its members were only sent the papers which included the new report at 10.23am.
In September, the DfT asked engineering consultants Aecom and fracture mechanics expert Professor Norman Fleck from the University of Cambridge to write a report about the bridge.
Hammersmith Bridge timeline: Why will the repairs take so long?
- Stage one: Start ferry contract – 66 working days (three months) after funding is released. It is now hoped this will start in February 2021
- Then: Four months to ‘understand’ condition of the bridge’s pedestals at a cost of £13.9m
- Then: Emergency stabilisation work for seven months at a cost of £13.9m
- Then: Permanent stabilisation work, taking 21 months at a cost of £32m
- Then: Bridge strengthening, taking 30 months, for £80m.
- Total: 65 months, or five years and five months
- This still falls short of the projected six and a half year timeline
Professor Fleck said a ‘small sum of money’ would allow for ‘immediate remedial action’, adding: ‘In the short term, it would be possible to reopen the bridge quickly and cheaply for pedestrian traffic provided measures are taken to stabilise the cast iron pedestals.’
The expert said this could ideally be carried out ‘without delay, on a timeframe of weeks, and at modest cost’.
The DfT wanted both parties to review engineering studies of the bridge’s condition which were previously done by consultants for the council.
They investigated computer modelling and risk assessments by the consultants and the bridge strengthening works proposed by Transport for London (TfL).
A DfT spokesman said: ‘They concluded that earlier risk assessments were conservative and, as there is now a better understanding of how the bridge might be behaving, suggest assumptions on its closure should be revisited.
‘The reports recommend LBHF and its consultants reconsider whether the bridge can be reopened, albeit with restrictions, in its current state to pedestrians, cyclists and river traffic.
‘Further mitigation measures will be needed. These include blast-cleaning the paint from the two remaining pedestals so that any hidden fractures can be identified, as well as potentially installing further monitoring equipment.’
Both reports found that understanding of the bridge’s condition had ‘improved considerably’ since March when the current risk assessment was prepared.
This graphic shows where 13 distinct cracks are located in the eastern pedestal of the bridge
An original drawing of the pedestal, saddle and roller assembly on Hammersmith Bridge. The pedestals are cast iron castings forming a hollow cellular box, as shown in the graphic above
An unusual feature is the height of the chains at the end of the side spans, which is because the bridge was built around the anchorage of an older bridge. This results in the need for a tall pedestal for the chains to turn down towards the anchorages, as shown in the graphic above
The DfT added: ‘The government is therefore calling on LBHF to review Aecom and Fleck’s work and consider their rationale for a full closure of the bridge, with a focus on exploring all avenues for a partial reopening.’
Hammersmith Bridge debacle means The Boat Race will be held near CAMBRIDGE for first time since Second World War over fears for safety of athletes
The world-famous Boat Race will be moved away from the River Thames for only the second time in its 165-year continuous history due to safety fears over Hammersmith Bridge.
Health and safety officials banned all river traffic from passing under the 133-year-old suspension bridge in August after inspectors discovered cracks in the structure.
The closure forced officials of the Oxford versus Cambridge Boat Race to look at new locations away from the River Thames for the 2021 event.
A three-mile stretch of the River Great Ouse, between Ely and Littleport in Cambridgeshire, was last month been announced as the venue for next year.
Both races, the women’s and men’s, will take place on the river in April.
Cambridge University Boat Club (CUBC), who have trained on the River Ouse for decades and who opened a new £5million boathouse at Ely in 2016, welcomed the move.
Oxford University Boat Club (OUBC) also welcomed the announcement with the team said to be ‘particularly excited about trying to turn Cambridge over on their home water’.
The move is also said to have alleviated Covid fears from officials, with the Thames event traditionally attracting thousands of spectators along the banks and on the bridges on the route.
The Government has provided the funding for removing ornate cast-iron casings and blast cleaning two western pedestals via a funding deal agreed with TfL in October.
This work is expected to be carried out by April 2021, with the eastern pedestals having already been blast-cleaned.
Baroness Vere said: ‘Today’s reports set out that there is potentially a route to Hammersmith Bridge being partially reopened and without major works, which is something I know people in the area will welcome.
‘I’m therefore calling on Hammersmith and Fulham Council to seriously consider these reports so we can do right by people who have been impacted by this bridge’s closure, and help people move around London easily again as soon as is safely possible.
‘We remain committed to finding a funding solution for the bridge’s full repair and reopening to vehicular traffic.’
The DfT added that given any reopening before the stabilisation works have been completed will be restricted, the temporary ferry service is still planned.
Yesterday, it emerged during a TfL board meeting that the funding to repair and reopen the crossing is still not in place.
But a temporary fix is now on the way with TfL saying yesterday it was ‘working at pace’ on a procurement process to get the ferry contract put in place.
The meeting was also told that ‘urgent’ funding is needed for stabilisation works to at least reopen it for walkers, cyclists and boats underneath.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan faces a battle for the cash, with his deputy saying yesterday that ‘over the years have made a number of applications to Government for funding’.
Ministers are desperate for a solution to re-open the vital crossing amid fear its closure could hurt the Conservatives in next year’s London mayoral elections.
Yesterday, TfL commissioner Andy Byford said: ‘We have been working with Government, as part of the funding agreement we identified £4million as our contribution to Hammersmith Bridge repairs.
‘And we are working at pace to ensure that a ferry is provisioned, is secured, and we’ve run a procurement process, we’ve issued the documents, such that we can get a successful bidder confirmed by February so that a temporary ferry link can be provided over the river on that critical crossing.’
Pedestrians look at signs confirming the closure of the Victorian bridge which has been shut
A warning sign on Hammersmith Bridge which has been closed to traffic since April last year
He added that they had brought in bus service improvements with the frequency of route 533 increased but admitted the problems were a ‘highly contentious issue’.
Land of Broken Bridges: Nearly HALF of 9,000 motorway and A-road crossings in England are in ‘poor’ state and in dire need of repair, official data shows
Almost half of the bridges on England’s motorways and A-roads are in a poor or very poor condition, it was claimed earlier this month.
Evidence of damage or defects have been found in 4,000 out of around 9,000 bridges and large culverts, according to Highways England data released under freedom of information laws.
Some 858 had at least one crucial section in a ‘very poor condition’ that could put them at risk of failure, The Times reported.
The revelations follow the closure of Hammersmith Bridge, although this is not owned or maintained by Highways England.
Highways England released details of bridge defects after an 18-month battle with the UK’s data protection watchdog. They had tried to prevent details being revealed on the grounds it could help terrorists commit an attack.
But the organisation insisted that a rating of ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ does not mean that a structure is unsafe – rather that it is to record a visual inspection, such as the paint condition, to help plan for future maintenance.
Mr Byford continued: ‘We’re very alive to the problems over in that part of London and we want to get that bridge job underway and to get the ferry up and running.’
Last month the council revealed plans to build a double-decker crossing over the existing structure which would mean it could be re-opened in a year.
Hopes were raised last month after the bridge’s owners, the Labour-run Hammersmith and Fulham Council, submitted proposals for a temporary crossing.
The double-decker structure would see the creation of two raised decks built above the road: an upper level for cars and a lower level for pedestrians and cyclists.
Council officials have told Transport Secretary Grant Shapps that they could have the temporary crossing up and running within a year of a contractor being approved.
They say the raised deck would not put pressure on the existing structure and would allow for pedestals, anchors and chains to removed and repaired elsewhere.
Heidi Alexander, Deputy Mayor of London for Transport, said today: ‘I am involved in fortnightly meetings as part of the Government’s taskforce with Baroness Vere.
‘The bridge itself is owned by Hammersmith and Fulham Council. We over the years have made a number of applications to Government for funding.
‘We’ve been very much part of trying to find solutions to all of this. The key issue is funding and that’s what needs to be resolved in order to make rapid progress.
‘Whilst we’re doing some works at the moment on the pedestals and we’re progressing rapidly the plans for the ferry, what we urgently need is the funding to be secured so we can actually do the stabilisation works, so at the very least we can get the bridge reopened for people who are walking, cycling and boats underneath it.’
Local residents have welcomed potential solutions, but the idea of a double-decker crossing has provoked scepticism among engineers who fear the Grade II-listed bridge could collapse at any moment.
This is a computer generated plan of a proposed temporary Hammersmith Bridge, alongside the original, which is not set to be back to normal until 2027 as it is repaired
Plans to reopen the bridge with a temporary ‘double-decker’ crossing were also unveiled last month. Council chiefs plan to install the two-layer structure above the current road level
The structure is so unstable that river traffic has been banned from passing underneath. The last time the Thames was closed was when the river iced up during the Great Freeze of 1814.
The bridge has been closed to traffic since April last year, when inspectors discovered dangerous ‘micro-fractures’ in the brittle cast iron pedestals.
In August, the bridge was closed off to pedestrians and cyclists after the heatwave was said to have triggered a rapid increase in the size of the fractures – putting the bridge at risk of sudden collapse.
But the new report released today claimed this was unlikely to have been caused by the hot weather and that the crack may actually be ‘quite shallow’.
The council’s proposal of a double-decker crossing was drawn up by property tycoon Sir John Ritblat, the former boss of British Land, along with Foster + Partners and specialist bridge engineers COWI.
It is one of a number of solutions being considered by a Department for Transport taskforce.
The proposed double-decker crossing will not place a load on the current structure – allowing engineers to continue work on the bridge as planned
The double-decker structure will allow the existing road approaches to still be used, and is designed to add no load to the current bridge deck – which will be removed in stages for repair
Another proposal, revealed in the Mail last month, involves the construction of a temporary road crossing running alongside the bridge.
Reacting to the DfT report, Councillor Stephen Cowan from Hammersmith and Fulham Council said today: ‘The suggestion that the bridge could be reopened to pedestrians, cyclists and river traffic, with little money spent on safety measures, has been the Government’s consistent position in Taskforce meetings over past months.
‘Our response has been to ask if they would take on the legal responsibility for such a decision, but they have consistently refused to do so.
‘The bridge was closed because world-leading specialist engineers strongly advised the badly-corroded suspension structure faced catastrophic failure. If the bridge collapsed, as they advised it could, it would have been a national disaster.
‘Our consistent advice to the government has been to listen to the specialist engineers on the Continued Case for Safe Operation (CCSO) board which constantly reviews such matters to protect public safety.
‘The Government’s Taskforce met today at 11am. However, its members were only sent the papers which included first sight of the Fleck and Aecom reports at 10.23am today and after media reports appeared.
‘It’s fair to say that a number of Taskforce members questioned the Government Taskforce’s Chair, Baroness Vere, about the professionalism of sending papers so late while spinning the story to the media well beforehand.
‘During the Taskforce meeting, government advisers confirmed the government had released the Fleck and Aecom reports before waiting to consider the imminent conclusions of engineers Mott McDonald who are undertaking the latest review.
‘Nor did they put their own papers to the CCSO. This appears to be subject to political interference – something that has consistently hindered progress.
‘We learnt that the Fleck Report had been concluded on November 6, 2020, and that the Aecom paper was started on September 30, completed on November 26 and issued on December 4. No explanation was given as to why these reports were not shared with the CCSO or the Taskforce prior to today.
‘Hammersmith and Fulham will continue to look at all possible means of safely having the bridge re-opened but will never take any decision that is against the specialist engineers’ advice that there is a serious risk to the lives of the tens of thousands of pedestrians, cyclists, motor vehicles drivers and river traffic that used or travelled under the bridge each week.’