Over the last few years I’ve been making the occasional jaunt down to Queensferry just to see how the new road bridge is coming along. It is, after all, the biggest public works project in Scotland for decades and easily the most expensive.
At £1.4bn (probably) it’s three times the cost of the Edinburgh trams and almost four times that of the Parliament building. On one of my visits I ran into a grizzled, middle-aged American from, I think, Ohio. Over a couple of drinks in a North Queensferry hotel he told me he’d been working on the new bridge, had done his stint and was on his way back to the US. When we got round to talking about the bridge’s progress what he said took me aback.
“You Scotch guys are really sucking on hind tit,” he said. “Every contractor I meet on this job seems to come from someplace in Europe or someplace in the US or someplace down in England. What’s wrong with Scotch people? Don’t you make big stuff any more? If that’s true it’s a real shame. Because it’s gonna be a real fine-looking bridge.” Maybe he thought he’d embarrassed me because he quickly changed the subject to talk about the problems of working out on the Firth of Forth in high winds and grappling with the “real strange” dialects of folk from south Fife.
I drove back to Edinburgh wondering if he was right. If we were weren’t building the bridge who was? It didn’t take more than a few hours trawling through the contract details posed on the internet by Transport Scotland (the paymaster and de facto client for this job) to decide that the American was right. There was hardly a Scottish company on the list. And the harder I looked – into sub contractors and sub-sub contractors – the worse it got. We were indeed `sucking on the hind tit’.
So the Queensferry Crossing (as we must call it) is no triumph of Scottish engineering. Our contribution has been minimal. The little army of consultants, sub-consultants, contractors, sub-contractors and big-time suppliers erecting the bridge and building the approach roads are a multinational bunch. All the companies that matter, the ones that make the big decisions, hail from Spain, the USA, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark and England. Plainly, the industrial culture that produced the likes of John Rennie, Thomas Telford, the lighthouse Stevensons and Sir William Arrol is not what it was.
My American acquaintance was right on the other count too: the new bridge is going to be a truly handsome bridge. It’s a “cable-stay” design based on three slender, tapering towers, each nearly 700 feet high. From each of the towers 96 cable-stays will fan out to carry a four-lane highway lined with baffles to protect it from the wind. Massive Y-shaped concrete piers will carry the approach viaducts which connect the bridge to the new roads being built to feed it. If everything goes to plan – and there seems to be no reason it shouldn’t – by the end of next year 70,000 or so cars, vans and lorries will be running across every day.
Scottish flair for bridge-building – then
But the more I admire the elegance of the design and the ingenuity of the construction the more I regret the fact that Scotland’s contribution has been so meagre. There was a time when, if Scots were known for anything at all, it was as practical, hard-headed, engineering-type folk. And building bridges seems to have been one of our specialities. If any one man can be said to have re-invented the suspension bridge for modern times it has to be that early 19th century Scots-American farmer/engineer James Finley (who believed in “utility, economy and despatch”).
I suppose there’s irony in the fact that a design for a cable-stay bridge across the Forth narrows was suggested almost 200 years ago by a young Edinburgh engineer called James Anderson. Although Anderson sited his 1818 “bridge of chains” on the route now occupied by the rail bridge he visualised one on the same principle as the new one – a roadway held by chains sprouting from three towers. Whether or not Anderson’s design would have worked is anyone’s guess. Mine would be, probably not. But it was a visionary piece of work and copies of Anderson’s drawings – engraved by Lizars – are sold as a poster by the National Library of Scotland.
It was another 70 years before the narrows of the Forth were bridged and to a design by a pair of brilliant English engineers, John Fowler and Benjamin Baker. Their creation was realised by the greatest of Scottish industrialists, William Arrol. Between 1882 and 1890 thousands of “briggers” laboured in the high girders to build one of Victorian Britain’s masterpieces. Most of the steel with which they worked was produced in the mills of western Scotland with a small quantity coming from South Wales. Casualties were high. Officially there were 57 fatalities: modern research suggests there were 78.
But, splendid engineering as it undoubtedly was, the railway bridge was never going to be enough. By the time it was finished the motor car was making serious inroads. By the early 1920s Scotland’s motorists were growing restive waiting for ferries across the Forth while railway passengers cruised across in a few minutes. It became too much for an energetic Edinburgh journalist called James Inglis Ker, who wrote guide books of Scotland but had a propensity to create McGonagalesque poetry: e.g. “Oh, there’s some who sing of Erin’s isle/ The Green Isle of the Sea/ And others who hymn the coasts of France/ And the shores of Brittany….” (There’s much more in that vein).
Ker all too often found himself in the queue of vehicles on a Queensferry quayside waiting to cross. So, in November 1923 he hired a room at the Hawes Inn in South Queensferry for a crowded meeting where he laid out plans for a new road bridge (a lattice-work suspension bridge sketched by the Glasgow engineers Leitch & Sharpe). Ker told the meeting that “It is the natural order of things that a country that gave the world its finest achievements in railway bridges should lead the way in road bridge engineering.”
Ker’s bridge plan struck a chord. Within weeks a Forth Road Bridge Promotion Committee had been formed and by the beginning of 1924 Ker and colleagues were holding meetings around the east of Scotland and in the House of Commons to drum up support among Scottish MPs. This made His Majesty’s Government take enough notice to stump up for surveys and suggestion to be carried out by two firms of London engineers, Mott Hay & Anderson and Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners.
By 1930 the engineers had reported back. Sir Alexander Gibb proposed a cantilevered-girder design between Hopetoun and the Rosyth dockyard while Mott, Hay & Anderson opted for a suspension bridge based on the Beamer Rock (a big lump of dolomite on which the Central Tower of the new bridge is standing). When the Admiralty objected to that plan Mott, Hay & Anderson switched to a route east of the rail bridge between Hound Point and North Queensferry. There was also a scheme (now sadly forgotten) by Edinburgh engineers Blyth & Blyth incorporating some interesting `modernist’ architecture by Frank (later Sir Frank) Mears, son-in-law to Patrick Geddes.
Eventually the two London firms agreed that the best route for any new bridge was just west of the rail bridge via the Mackintosh Rock (which is where the 1960s Forth Road Bridge now stands). At which point the Ministry of Transport called a halt to the project pleading “National financial conditions”, i.e. the economic recession of the 1930s. The instigator of it all, journalist, author, poet and roadway campaigner James Inglis Ker, died of a heart attack at a meeting in Edinburgh in 1936.
Infrastructure spending is an economic good…
But Ker’s idea never went away. It was resurrected in 1947 when Westminster passed a Forth Road Bridge Order Confirmation Act in the hope that one day funds might become available. The Order also set up the Forth Road Bridge Joint Board (FRBJB) which was given money to pay for surveys and some design work but `on the clear understanding’ that it would be “a number of years” before any construction work could begin. In fact, it was to be another decade.
Then, in September 1948, the Ministry of Transport received a visit from Brigadier Sir Bruce White, KBE, FICE, of the engineering firm White, Wolfe Barry and Partners. In the course of a “lengthy meeting” White unveiled a project which, he claimed, would save His Majesty’s Government many millions: instead of building a brand-new bridge over the Firth of Forth narrows White proposed a roadway above the rail track on the existing railway bridge. His argument was that modern lightweight steels and aluminium alloys made the idea feasible and that the job could be done for £1m compared to £4m for a new bridge.
The idea of one bridge piggybacking on another was a fairly startling one. White’s visit sent the Men from the Ministry scurrying to their archives where they found that he wasn’t the first to suggest attaching a roadway to the charismatic railway bridge. Such ideas had been around for almost 20 years. One idea dated July 1930, was to attach a roadway under the rail track. That notion was run past the MoT’s top railway engineer who said the Admiralty would never consent to the `reduced headroom’ and that the stresses on the structure would be “excessive”.
A few months later a Mr Ridge-Beedle (a Glasgow contractor) came up with the idea of paving over the spaces between the railway lines (as per level crossings) and running cars across when no trains were about. In April 1935 A Mr Park (also of Glasgow) fancied “… constructing carriageways out at the sides of the Forth Bridge.” Yet another was to drive cars onto long, flat-bed railway bogies and shuttle them across that way. All these wheezes were politely but firmly declined by the MoT mandarins although they make fascinating reading.
The road bridge across the Forth that opened in September 1964 was a thoroughly British – and largely Scottish – affair. The main contractors were Sir William Arrrol of Glasgow, Dorman Long of Middlesborough and Cleveland Bridge of Darlington. Foundation work was by John Howard & Co. of London and the viaducts by Whatlings of Glasgow and A M Carmichael of Edinburgh. Most of the steel came from Scottish mills and the crucial vertical “suspenders” (which tie the bridge to the main cables) were engineered by Bruntons of Musselburgh. In its day, the Forth Road Bridge was the longest suspension bridge outside of the USA and the fourth longest on the planet. James Inglis Ker would have been proud.
But with more and more Scots sharing Ker’s passion for motoring, within a few decades the bridge was struggling to cope. As the numbers of cars, vans, lorries and buses on the roads soared, delays and closures on the bridge grew. By the early 1990s the Scottish Office (then in the hands of the Tories) decided that a brand new bridge was needed. Six consultants were hired to check out the best routes and designs and investigate the possibilities of a tunnel under the Forth..
In 1992 they came back with a report entitled `Setting Forth’ which advised a bridge on the Beamer Rock route to the west of the Forth Road Bridge (the initial choice of Mott Hay & Anderson back in 1931). The complex geology of the area more or less ruled out a tunnel and they advised that any bridge should be either a suspension bridge (like its neighbour) or a cable stay design (like the one proposed by James Anderson back in 1818).
…but Treasury controls may be more powerful
At which point the idea ran into a blizzard of objection from environmentalists and opposition politicians. Alistair Darling, (then Labour MP for Edinburgh Central), accused the government of “squandering” taxpayers’ money on the report and declared that 95% of the Scottish population “would say no to that act of monumental stupidity,” i.e a new bridge. He was joined in his attack by the Lib-Dem grandee Sir Menzies Campbell who urged the Scottish Office to drop “this ludicrous project.”
But Ian Lang, then Secretary of State for Scotland, argued that a new crossing had “the potential to yield enormous benefits for Fife, Lothian and for Scotland as a whole..” and that “.. It is the Government’s intention to take forward the proposal…” But the government never did. For reasons that are still not at all clear, the project was dropped. One suggestion is that the Cabinet killed the idea for financial reasons. Another is that Lang’s successor Michael Forsyth, a zealous Thatcherite, thought that the existing Forth Road Bridge was adequate.
But if he did think that, then he was wrong. Without anyone realising it, the bridge’s huge main cables, which are around two feet in diameter and made up of more than 11,000 strands of high-tensile steel, were corroding. It wasn’t until 2004 (after concerns among American engineers) that worries about the Forth Road Bridge began. Five firms of consultants were hired to investigate and when they opened up the cables they didn’t like what they found. The corrosion had sapped around 8% – 10% of the cables’ strength. They reckoned that if the corrosion continued, the bridge would have to be closed to heavy traffic by 2013 and shut down altogether by 2020. All that could be done was to install a Japanese-designed de-humidifying system and hope: there were no guarantees it would work.
When the Forth Estuary Travel Authority (i.e. the rebranded FRBJBm or now FETA) was told that replacing the main cables would cost around £122m (at 2004 prices) and would involve closing the bridge completely for at least three years, they were appalled. That prospect also sent a shudder through Transport Scotland and the Scottish Executive. Closing just one lane of the bridge costs the economy of Scotland around £650,000 a working day, or £4.5m a week. Closing all four lanes for three years would cost nearly £3bn, probably more.
That was not a risk that Holyrood could take. Plainly, what was needed was a new bridge. In 2005 the American-owned consultancies Jacobs Engineering and Faber Maunsell were hired to study the options. They reported back in June 2006, recommending the Beamer Rock (as proposed by Mott Hay & Anderson in 1931) as the best route and a cable stay bridge (as proposed by James Anderson in 1818) as the best design. The advice was accepted and Holyrood and its agency Transport Scotland swung into action.
No bridge can be built without a realistic design, something for the builders to work on. That contract was won by a joint venture of Jacobs Engineering of Los Angeles and Arup of London. Between them Jacobs and Arup split £100m for what Transport Scotland calls a “15-year multi-disciplinary consultancy contract.” Jacobs Arup then assembled a battery of sub consultants, most of them foreign or foreign-owned. By 2009 they’d produced a “specimen design” of a three-tower, cable-stay bridge centred on the Beamer Rock designed, it’s believed, by Mike Glover and Naeem Hussain, two of Arup’s star turns.
Meanwhile, Holyrood and its acolytes were cranking up the legislation machine. By the beginning of 2010 a “Forth Crossing” bill had been drafted and a committee under Tory MSP Jackson Carlaw formed to examine the project. Almost at the same time, the bridge contracts were being advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union (as is the law) and the big beasts of the civil engineering industry began to move in. By the end of the year two consortia, Forthspan and Forth Crossing Building Contractors (FCBC), were slugging it out for the main contract. Forthspan bid £1.05bn but FCBC won the day with a bid of £790m (which a miffed but anonymous Forthspan source saw as unreasonably low).
The Spanish connection
The winning FCBC consortium is made up of American Bridge International (USA), Dragados (Spain), Hochtief (Germany), and Morrison Construction (UK). But FCBC is not a straight four-nation split. Both Dragados and Hochtief are subsidiaries of the Spanish giant Actividades de Construccione y Servicios (ACS). So Spanish-owned companies have 56% of the main contract, and I suppose, the lion’s share of any profits. Any profit from Morrison Construction’s minority share belongs to its parent, the English building firm Galliford Try.
At first count it seemed that the new bridge would cost well over £2bn. But when it was seen that the dehumidifiers pumping dry air into the cables of the “old” bridge seemed to be working and checking the corrosion it was decided to keep the Forth Road Bridge open for buses, taxis, cyclists and pedestrians. This “twin-crossing strategy” meant that the roadway deck of the new bridge could be narrower and therefore cheaper. It’s currently costed at around £1.4bn.
“And its good news for us,” says FETA’s spokesman Chris Waite. “It means we can do all the necessary repairs on the existing bridge without causing too much in the way of disruption.”
As all this work was being divvied up, the Forth Crossing Bill was trundling through the Holyrood parliament. Most of the scrutinising of the Bill was done by the Holyrood Crossing Bill Committee headed by Jackson Carlaw. The five members spent weeks in 2010 listening to the suits from Transport Scotland and Jacobs Arup telling them how necessary the new bridge was and then to local businesses, land owners, conservationists and members of the public telling them it wasn’t, not really.
Objections were many and varied: the cost, the impact on local communities, the noise, the lack of Scottish participation, the pollution, the threat to the countryside, the compulsory purchase orders, abuse of human rights and much else. More than one objector accused Transport Scotland of lack of consultation, secrecy and even downright dishonesty. Others argued that as the procurement process was already well under way their objections were a waste of time: the bridge was a fait accompli.
In the end – and as expected – Carlaw’s team gave the bill the thumbs up and in the afternoon of Thursday, 15 December 2010 Holyrood voted by 108 votes to three to press on. Carlaw has no doubt the new bridge is necessary but has reservations about the two-crossing strategy.
“Sometimes I wonder what I’ll be thinking if I get stuck on the new bridge and look across to the old one and see it empty apart for a couple of taxis and a bus,” he says. “If that happens then I think drivers might start lobbying for the use of both bridges.”
Building a big bridge is a tricky business. It needs more than a “specimen design” such as the one produced by the JacobsArup team. “That’s just a kind of template,” is how one engineer describes it. “On a big job like this one the guys building the bridge, the main contractors, usually hire their own designers to do the detailed design work.” Which is what Forth Crossing Bridge Constructors did by assembling a squad of specialist engineers and architects – from Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and the USA.
And the Chinese are here too but the Scots?
Scotland’s current vulnerability in the world of big-time engineering was underlined by the sight of the big, red-hulled Chinese ship Zhenhua 23 sailing into the Firth of Forth in May 2013 bound for Rosyth. Her deck was piled high with thousands of tons of steel which would create the road deck for the new bridge. They’d been fabricated in Shanghai by Zhenhua Heavy Industries and transported across the Pacific, through the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean and up the Bay of Biscay and the North Sea to be unloaded at Rosyth. As she sailed into the Firth of Forth the Zhenhua 23 was flying a Saltire from her superstructure.
The advent of the Zhenhua 23 and her cargo infuriated many local trade unionists and politicians who pointed out that the Rosyth Dockyard had a long tradition of fabricating steel. Nor was the ire confined to Fife. Ivor Roberts, President of the British Constructional Steelwork Association, called the Chinese contract “an absolute outrage that must not be allowed to happen again. It is completely unnecessary and means that taxpayers’ money – yours and mine – is flowing out of the country.”
Almost as unsettling, to me anyway, was the sight of the two huge steel cylindrical caissons being towed up the Forth on the deck of a (Norwegian-owned) barge. They were part of the foundations for two of the bridge towers. They’d been built of Polish steel by the Polish company Crist Group at their yard near Gdansk on the Baltic. Another caisson was to be shipped across the North Sea to support one of the piers. Yet more bridge foundations stand in “coffer dams” lined with steel sheet piles transported from Spain. The box girders for the approach viaducts were put together by Cleveland Bridge in the Northeast of England with steel supplied by Tata of India (owners of ex-Corus, ex-British Steel).
And then there are the new approach roads. I’d have thought building and kitting out the roads to the new bridge at a decent price was well within the competence of Scots firms. Apparently not. There were three separate contracts advertised for those road-building jobs and all three went to Ireland, two of them to Northern Ireland and one to the Republic.
Holyrood politicians like to point out that around 1000-1200 men and women, most of them Scots, are employed on the bridge. Heaven knows, the jobs are welcome. But the latest figures produced by Transport Scotland for contracts and supply are revealing. They show that since work began in 2011 to the end of June 2014 some 453 subcontractors have been appointed and of those 257 (56.7%) are Scottish. Those lucky 257 companies collected £90m among them or an average of £350,000 each. That’s an average of £87,500 per annum or four none-too-generous annual wages. .
What I find particularly galling is that responsibility for operating the bridges has slipped out of Scotland. The contract to run and maintain both bridges plus the approach roads was put out to tender and won by Amey plc of Oxford – which is a subsidiary of Grupo Ferrovial SA of Madrid, the Spanish conglomerate that owns both Glasgow and Aberdeen airports. As of June this year, the 70 or so men and women of FETA are being transferred from a (Scottish-owned) public body into a (Spanish-owned) private contractor. They’ve been assured that their pensions are safe and that there will be no redundancies. We’ll see.
Taur Macadam, the big ships, nae mair
So what to make of it all? Is the lack of Scottish, even British, content inevitable in such a globalised industry? Certainly that’s implied by American Bridge (one of the four main contractors) who reckon the consortium’s keen price was due to shrewd “.. global sourcing and procurement of materials…” On the other hand, one of the FCBC engineers told an audience in South Queensferry recently that prices were low thanks to the global recession. When work is scarce, he said, prices come down.
But the fact that we don’t have a Scottish-owned construction firm big enough to tender – even as part of a consortium – bothers me. As does our absence from the list of consultancies. We cannot just lay the problem at the door of the EU or console ourselves with the fact that Scotland is a small country with a small population. So is Denmark and there are no fewer than five Danish or Danish-owned consultancies involved in the Queensferry Crossing. The Danes, as the Americans would say, are eating our lunch.
Over the past 40 or so years we’ve watched Scotland being stripped of its heavy and not so heavy industries. Ship-building, railways, coal mining, steel-making, heavy engineering are all more or less extinct. Electronics, the great white hope of the 1970s, came to not very much. Not to worry, we were told by our post-modern philosophes. In the future we, the British, will do all the brainy stuff while other folk do the heavy lifting (like welding high-tensile steel sections or making subsea caissons and coffer-dam sheet piles).
But if the Queensferry Crossing is anything to go by, other folk are doing the heavy lifting and the brainy stuff, leaving us to do, well, what? Lay on the tea and biscuits? Watch it happening? Write about it? Admire it? Pay for it? I guess that’s what bothers me most about the beautiful (and it is beautiful) structure that is rising out of the Firth of Forth. It represents a future that makes me very uneasy. It suggests that we just cannot compete in a globalised world. Especially in areas like big-time engineering where once we were not only contenders but global superstars.
Appendix: Queensferry Crossing consultants, contractors and main suppliers
Design and engineering consultants
The design and engineering consultants are a joint venture comprising:
- Jacobs Engineering Inc, Pasadena, USA
- Arup, London, UK
- Value of design contract £100,000,000
- Design and engineering sub consultants
- Flint & Neill, subsidiary of Cowi, Kongens Lyngby, Denmark
- Dissing & Weitling, Copenhagen, Denmark
- E. C. Harris, subsidiary of Arcadis NV, Amsterdam, Netherlands
- PWC, London, UK
- Dundas & Wilson, Edinburgh, Scotland
The main contractors are Forth Crossing Bridge Constructors (FCBC). They are a consortium of four companies each with a percentage of the business. They are:
- American Bridge, Pittsburgh, USA (28%)
- Dragados SA, Madrid, Spain (28%)
- Hochtief, Essen, Germany (28%)
- Morrison Construction, London, UK (16%)
- Dragados and Hochtief are subsidiaries of Actividades de Construccione y Servicios (ACS) of Madrid, Spain. Morrison Construction is a subsidiary of Galiford Try of London, UK.
- Value of main contract £790,000,000
Main contractors’ design and engineering consultants
- Grontmij, De Bilt, Netherlands
- Leonhardt Andrae, Stuttgart, Germany
- Ramboll, Copenhagen, Denmark
- Svend Ole Hansen, Copenhagen, Denmark
- Gifford Consulting, subsidiary of Ramboll, Copenhagen, Denmark
- Aecom, Los Angeles, USA
- URS Scott Wilson, subsidiary of Aecom, Los Angeles, USA
The road contractors are a joint venture SiskRoadbridge. They comprise:
- John Sisk, Clondalkin, Dublin, Republic of Ireland
- Roadbridge, Ballysheedey, County Limerick, Republic of Ireland
- Value of road contract £25,000,000
- Intelligent transport systems (ITS)
- John Graham (Dromore), Dromore, Northern Ireland, UK.
- Value of ITS contract £13,000,000
- Politecnico of Milan, Milan, Italy £ 250,000
- Headland Archaeology, Edinburgh, Scotland£248,000
- Johnsons of Whixley, Yorkshire, England £229,000
- Three Shires, Leicestershire, England £13,967
Suppliers are paid by the contractors. Their fees are commercially confidential and are not published. Three of the largest contracts have gone to:
- Zhenhua Heavy Industries, Shanghai, Peoples Republic of China
- Crist Group, Gdansk, Poland
- Cleveland Bridge, Darlington, UK
This article was first published in edited form as A Bridge Too Far on the Scottish Review of Books website and is republished here with permission.
The historic image above showing the construction of the Forth Bridge was sourced from Wikipedia.