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‘Just admit it – you gambled and you lost’: New pressure on SNP over Forth Road Bridge

Transport Minister Derek Mackay (PA Images)
Transport Minister Derek Mackay (PA Images)

The Sunday Post today lays bare a new series of damning claims that cast doubt over his assertions that a cancelled strengthening programme five years ago was “unrelated” to the problem that forced the vital crossing’s shutdown.

As Scotland enters the ninth day of disruption, we can reveal:

  • Lorries carrying abnormal loads were banned from the bridge in February after analysis raised fears over the impact they would have on the section which is now broken.
  • A top engineer has accused transport chiefs of taking a punt on the new bridge being ready in time – and losing.
  • Bridge bosses were forced to downgrade plans to fix a section of the crossing because of budget cuts.
  • The temporary repair being worked on will cost an estimated £2 million but the bridge still has more than £81m worth of outstanding maintenance work needing done in the next decade.
  • Fears have been raised the crack spotted by engineers could have been there for up to seven months.
  • Lawyers have warned the Scottish Government could be facing a multi-million pound compensation bill for the disruption caused to businesses.
  • Former bridge executives Barry Colford and Chris Tracey are refusing to comment on the fiasco but are likely to be called to a major Holyrood inquiry.

Reacting to our investigation, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader Alex Rowley said: “These are extraordinary revelations. The fact that as far back as February there were concerns is very concerning.

“We now know the chief engineer was so concerned about the safety of the bridge that certain vehicles were prevented from travelling on it. We need full transparency from the SNP Government about this.”

He added: “The idea that problems with the bridge were unforeseen, as Nicola Sturgeon and Derek Mackay have claimed, just doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny.

“We know the SNP Transport Minister misled parliament when he claimed there was no link between cancelled repair works in 2010 and the damaged area now. And we know budget cuts resulted in vital repair works being put off.

“We need a full parliamentary inquiry to get to the bottom of what went wrong here.

“The thousands of people and businesses affected by the closure deserve full transparency.”

The bridge has been closed because of fractures in a load-bearing beam called a “truss end link member”.

The member is part of a linkage system which, as The Sunday Post revealed last week, was found to “be significantly overstressed during certain combinations of loading”.

An email in February from former bridgemaster Mr Colford to former Forth Estuary Transport Authority (FETA) convenor Lesley Hinds revealed that analysis of the load being put on to the truss end links had forced bridge chiefs to put traffic restrictions in place.

Elderly Scots face Christmas alone thanks to Forth Road Bridge closure – Click here to read more

The restrictions, on abnormal vehicles carrying more than 150 tonnes, were to remain in place, Mr Colford wrote, until the truss end links were either strengthened or replaced.

Speaking last week, Mr Mackay said FETA had considered replacing the part of the crossing which is cracked five years ago but decided against going ahead with the work.

The SNP minister said the bridge operators had looked at the “replacement of that area and much more” in 2010 but “would have been informed that other works would have addressed what was identified to be the problem”, and that “on that advice they rescoped their work”.

However, we can reveal the decision to go with a strengthening programme rather than replacement was not purely an engineering consideration.

FETA minutes from September 2012, obtained by our reporters,  show the decision not to replace was also because of finances.

The minutes state: “With regard to the truss end links, following the reduction in capital funding, an allowance for strengthening works only, and not for the full replacement scheme, has been made in the three-year capital plan.”

The Scottish Government spent much of last week defending itself against criticism of the 65% drop in FETA’s maintenance budget.

Engineer John Carson, who led the team which built the Skye Bridge, said: “It was farcical that Transport Scotland was trying to pass this off as unforeseeable. There have been alarm bells ringing about so many aspects of that bridge for years and Transport Scotland knew this.

“With the new crossing coming they gambled and they lost. It would be better if they just admitted that.

“The bottom line is FETA did not have enough money to complete all of the maintenance and we are now seeing the consequences of that.”

In total, £81m needs to be spent on maintenance works on the bridge in the next decade. The current bridge is scheduled to be turned into a public transport-only route when the new crossing opens, reducing demand on the 51-year-old structure.

Transport chiefs have consistently said the problem with the bridge has only emerged in the last few weeks.

However, the last detailed inspection of the component that failed was carried out in May and sources say the crack could have emerged at any point after then.

The next inspection for the component was scheduled for May next year but bridge workers who were working in the area just happened to spot it.

Former FETA convenor and Labour councillor Lesley Hinds said: “More than a week on it feels like we have more questions than answers.  The transport minister is still pretending that FETA wasn’t operating with one hand tied behind its back.”