Inside Edinburgh’s North Bridge project

Saturday April 8th 2023


Scaffolding on Edinburgh's North Bridge.

Written by Local Democracy Reporter, Donald Turvill

It is one of Edinburgh’s most historically significant structures, a key transport link connecting the Old and New Towns and also a vantage point to take in views of the Capital’s iconic skyline – but for five years now the North Bridge has been something of an eyesore.

The bridge, originally completed in 1897 after four years of construction, has been concealed by over 300km of scaffolding tubes, and partially closed to traffic and pedestrians since 2018, after the Victorian structure was found to be in need of significant repairs to ensure it’s continued use for future generations.

The work was supposed to take around two years, and cost an estimated £22m – but as engineers took a closer look, often at sections not properly inspected in over 100 years, it became clear the job would be even more of a behemoth task that was first envisaged.

And since starting work, the project has beset with complications compounded by the pandemic and Brexit.

It is now expected to be completed in 2025 – five years behind schedule, and with an expected cost of £86m, nearly four times the initial estimate

After so many problems however the end is in sight. Later this month the bridge will finally re-open to traffic in both directions, with the major milestone signalling that the works are nearing their final stages.

And ahead of that, I was invited to see the progress that’s been made and find out what happens next.

Moving up through the multiple levels of scaffolding, the sheer scale of the job – and the many difficulties that come with doing it above a major railway station – were evident.

And it was also clear the project, led by Balfour Beatty, is just as much about maintaining the heritage as it is ensuring the link remains structurally sound and safe for years to come.

The cast iron façade which covers the three 55-metre spans – the exterior shell which most will associate with the structure’s appearance – has been stripped off and sent to specialist blacksmiths in Leicester to be sensitively restored. One of the final stages will be to paint and reinstall the parts.

Grit blasting and repainting all structural steelwork and entirely replacing large sections of the bridge’s concrete deck are just some of the works needed to restore the North Bridge.

“Many people might be travelling across the bridge and wondering what all the work is being done,” council transport manager Stephen Knox said.

“There’s actually only a very small amount of work being done on the top of the bridge – the vast majority of the work is being done underneath.

“There’s a vast array of complex steelwork, that’s all been surveyed, assessed, repaired, designed, fabricated and that’s all to facilitate the bridge being suitable for service for many years to come.

“Most of the engineering is hidden, covered in this beautiful cast iron façade which doesn’t play a structural part but it’s been a very important part of the refurbishment.”

However Mr Knox, whose last major project was the Queensferry Crossing, said the “real challenge” has been simply accessing the bridge.

“Before this extensive scaffolding system was constructed we could only get limited access to the inside of the bridge,” he explained.

“As we have accessed individual elements of the structure, as we have started to strip off some of the corroded metal work, as we have started to do concrete repairs unfortunately more defects have become apparent.”

But there have also been nice surprises too; bridge engineers were contacted by researchers at Edinburgh University who said a time capsule had been installed in the bridge during the original construction, to mark the historic laying of the foundation stone in the North Pier.

It is believed it contains a range of different items including coins and newspapers, however it has not been discovered during the restoration and is likely to remain sealed for decades still.

“As much as we would love to go digging about to try and find the time capsule it’s probably one of those secrets that will just remain in the bridge,” Mr Knox said.

He added: “Hopefully we’ll not be back on this bridge doing this scale of repairs in my lifetime. One of the things we are doing is installing a permanent access platform below the bridge, it’ll be quite discreet but what it will do is allow us to inspect and maintain the bridge more efficiently moving forward.”

But whilst it is hoped another major repair job is not required for another 100 years or so, the North Bridge could well be dug up again to facilitate a north-south tram line within the next decade.

Councillor Scott Arthur, transport convener on Edinburgh City Council, said checks had been done “just to make sure that if we do decide to take trams down here it can carry them”.

He added: “If tram works are to come here it’ll be the minimal work of installing the tram line itself and the overhead cables.

“What I’ve been reassured by is the Victorians in their foresight actually designed a bridge back in the 1800s that could take trams in the 21st Century.

“In the next few months we’ll be consulting on this, speaking to residents, speaking to businesses about the benefits of an additional tram line.”

And he dismissed the suggestion made by fellow city councillors it would have been cheaper and quicker to dismantle the A-listed bridge and have it rebuilt, saying this would have been “cultural vandalism”.

He said: “William Arrol built the Forth Rail Bridge, then Tower Bridge in London and then he came here and built this bridge, so this is a really important structure, it’s a listed structure and it’s part of what defines Edinburgh’s skyline.

“This restoration work I think has taken longer than it actually took to build the bridge to start with. They’ve essentially demolished a massive section of the bridge and rebuilt it whilst keeping it open to at least some traffic.

“This project comes with a lot of responsibility to respect Edinburgh’s history and the built environment here.”

Cllr Arthur said once the refurbishment is complete in 2025 there will be “analysis done on how the project was proceeded”.

He added: “I think there’s an open question about whether right at the start should the decision have been made to completely close the bridge, perhaps complete this work a little bit more cheaply and a little bit more quickly – but hindsight is a powerful thing.”

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