Scotland politics

Forth Road Bridge failure 'unforeseeable', MSPs rule

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Media captionThe Forth Road Bridge was closed for much of December due to structural damage

A Holyrood inquiry into the closure of the Forth Road Bridge has concluded that the fault which caused it could not have been foreseen.

The bridge was closed for much of December 2015 due to structural damage.

MSPs ruled that work on the component which eventually failed was put off as a "direct consequence" of the Scottish government cutting funding grants.

However, a majority of the committee said this decision was "an appropriate course of action" at the time.

The bridge was closed to all traffic on 4 December after a crack was discovered in a truss under the southbound carriageway.

It was eventually re-opened to cars on 23 December, although HGV traffic was not allowed back on the bridge until mid-February.

Seized pin

Holyrood's infrastructure and capital investment committee held an inquiry into the closure, taking evidence from engineers, members of the old Forth Estuary Transport Authority (Feta) which previously ran the bridge, and Transport Minister Derek Mackay.

Engineering consultant Richard Hornby said a seized pin caused the truss end link to crack, saying it had probably been seized "for years".

Former bridge engineer Barry Colford told MSPs that he wanted to replace the truss, but "did not have the funding".

The committee was told that budget cuts and the abolition of bridge tolls had an impact on the capital budget for the bridge.

Image caption MSPs recommended giving bridge bosses the power to shut the bridge immediately in emergencies

In their report, the majority of MSPs on the committee said the decision to defer the work was appropriate, "on the basis of both the prevailing financial circumstances and the engineering advice available".

The majority of the committee were content that had Feta felt it was necessary to push through the works to protect public safety, a case could have been made to Transport Scotland for extra funding.

Labour member David Stewart dissented from both of these views.

'Remarkable achievement'

All committee members agreed that Feta had "acted entirely appropriately" throughout, and had dealt with financial challenges in "a professional and responsible manner".

They also paid tribute to Transport Scotland, current bridge operators Amey and all of the staff who worked to fix the bridge "during a period of adverse weather conditions", calling this "a remarkable engineering achievement".

The committee also agreed with the "unanimous view of witnesses" who said that "the defect which caused the closure in December 2015 could not have been foreseen".

Image caption The crack was discovered in a truss under the southbound carriageway

MSPs did, however, raise concerns about the fact five hours passed between Amey recommending the bridge be closed and ministers taking the decision.

While this "did not present any danger to users", members said there was a "lack of clarity as to who is ultimately responsible for closing the Forth Road Bridge".

They recommended there should be a "clearer and more immediate decision making procedure" for handling emergencies.

They suggested senior engineers should be able to close the bridge "without delay", without waiting for permission from ministers, in the event of an emergency.

Compensation calls

Scottish Labour called for ministers to offer compensation to businesses affected by the closure.

A spokesman said: "It's clear that cuts from the SNP government to the repairs budget saw vital work cancelled on the Forth Road Bridge which could have avoided the chaos we saw over Christmas."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie also demanded compensation for businesses.

He said: "The Forth Road Bridge is a major artery that closed on the government's watch. They should not leave businesses to pick up the tab.

"Committee has recognised itself that bridge users and particularly hauliers were severely affected by the closure. Hundreds of thousands of pounds were lost by businesses."

Scottish Conservative transport spokesman Alex Johnstone said the report highlighted the "true price of the Scottish government's penny-pinching approach to its responsibilities".

He said: "While it is the case that the closure of the Forth Road Bridge could not have been foreseen, the Scottish government's slow response in repairing the bridge has had a catastrophic impact on people and businesses."

Image copyright Amey
Image caption Monitoring equipment was installed on some sections of the bridge as part of the repair work

Transport Minister Derek Mackay said he believed a "clear procedure" was in place for the closure of the bridge in emergencies but he promised ministers would carefully consider the report's conclusions.

He added: "We particularly agree with the finding that the defect, which led to the bridge being closed, has been recognised as 'unforeseen'.

"It is clear the decision to close the bridge was the right thing to do and the efforts in getting the bridge fully quickly reopened were a 'remarkable engineering achievement' given the challenging conditions."

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme, Mac West, chairman of the Institution of Civil Engineers in Scotland, said lessons had been learned.

"This is the first occurrence in the world of this particular failure occurring. It will be of interest to bridge masters across the world," he said.

"The Forth Road Bridge already has a very high safety inspection regime in place. It will be even higher now.

"I think the likelihood of a similar occurrence in the future is probably very small."

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