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Forth Bridge
Carries Rail traffic
Crosses Firth of Forth
Locale Edinburgh, Inchgarvie and Fife, Scotland
Maintained by Balfour Beatty under contract to Network Rail
Designer Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker
Design Cantilever bridge
Total length 2,528.7 metres (8,296 ft)
Longest span 2 of 521.3 m (1710 ft)
Clearance below 46 metres (150 ft)
AADT 190–200 trains per day
Opened 4 March 1890
Coordinates 56°00′02″N 3°23′19″W / 56.000421°N 3.388726°W / 56.000421; -3.388726Coordinates: 56°00′02″N 3°23′19″W / 56.000421°N 3.388726°W / 56.000421; -3.388726
Forth Railway Bridge is located in Scotland
For the nearby road bridge, see Forth Road Bridge.

The Forth Bridge is a cantilever railway bridge over the Firth of Forth in the east of Scotland, to the east of the Forth Road Bridge, and 14 kilometres (9 mi) west of central Edinburgh. It should never be called Forth Rail Bridge or Forth Railway Bridge to distinguish it from the Forth Road Bridge. The bridge connects Scotland's capital city with Fife, and acts as a major artery connecting the north-east and south-east of the country. Described as "the one internationally recognised Scottish landmark",[1] it may be nominated by the British government to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Scotland.[2] The bridge and its associated railway infrastructure is owned by Network Rail Infrastructure Limited.



Forth Bridge at night

Construction of an earlier bridge, designed by Sir Thomas Bouch, got as far as the laying of the foundation stone, but was stopped after the failure of another of his works, the Tay Bridge. Bouch had proposed a suspension bridge but the public inquiry into the Tay bridge disaster showed that he had under-designed the structure and mistakenly used cast iron, which weakened the entire structure. Upon Bouch's death the project was handed over to two other Englishmen Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker, who designed a structure that was built by Glasgow based company Sir William Arrol & Co. between 1883 and 1890. Baker – "one of the most remarkable civil engineers Britain ever produced" – and his colleague Allan Stewart received the major credit for design and overseeing building work. During its construction, over 450 workers were injured and 98 lost their lives.


First steel structure

The bridge was built in steel alone, the first bridge in Britain to use that material.[3] It was the first major structure in Britain to be constructed of steel;[4] Its contemporary, the Eiffel Tower was built of wrought iron.

Large amounts of steel had become available only after the invention of the Bessemer process in 1855. Until 1877 the British Board of Trade had limited the use of steel in structural engineering because the process produced steel of unpredictable strength. Only the Siemens-Martin open-hearth process developed by 1875 yielded steel of consistent quality. The 64,800 tons of steel needed for the bridge was provided by two steel works in Scotland and one in Wales.[3]


The bridge is, even today, regarded as an engineering marvel [5]. It is 2.5 km (1.5 miles) in length, and the double track is elevated 46 m (approx. 150 ft) above high tide. It consists of two main spans of 1,710 ft (520 m), two side spans of 675 ft, 15 approach spans of 168 ft (51 m), and five of 25 ft (7.6 m).[6] Each main span comprises two 680 ft (210 m) cantilever arms supporting a central 350 ft (110 m) span truss. The three great four-tower cantilever structures are 340 ft (104 m) tall, each 70 ft (21 m) diameter foot resting on a separate foundation. The southern group of foundations had to be constructed as caissons under compressed air, to a depth of 90 ft (27 m). At its peak, approximately 4,600 workers were employed in its construction. Initially, it was recorded that 57 lives were lost; however, after extensive research by local historians, the figure was increased to 98.[7] Eight men were saved by boats positioned in the river under the working areas.

Forth Bridge

Hundreds more were left crippled by serious accidents, and one log book of accidents and sickness had 26,000 entries. In 2005, a project was set up by the Queensferry History Group to establish a memorial to those workers who died during the bridge's construction. In North Queensferry, a decision was also made to set up memorial benches to commemorate those who died during the construction of both the rail and the road bridges, and to seek support for this project from Fife Council.

The Forth road and rail bridges; the rail bridge is on the right.

More than 55,000 tons of steel were used, as well as 18,122 m³ of granite and over eight million rivets. The bridge was opened on 4 March 1890 by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, who drove home the last rivet, which was gold plated and suitably inscribed.[8] A contemporary materials analysis of the bridge, c. 2002, found that the steel in the bridge is of good quality, with little variation.

The use of a cantilever in bridge design was not a new idea, but the scale of Baker's undertaking was a pioneering effort, later followed in different parts of the world. Much of the work done was without precedent, including calculations for incidence of erection stresses, provisions made for reducing future maintenance costs, calculations for wind pressures made evident by the Tay Bridge disaster, the effect of temperature stresses on the structure, and so on.

Where possible, the bridge used natural features such as Inchgarvie, an island, the promontories on either side of the firth at this point, and also the high banks on either side.

The bridge has a speed limit of 50 mph (80 km/h) for passenger trains and 20 mph (32 km/h) for freight trains. The weight limit for any train on the bridge is 1,422 tonnes (1,442,000 kg) although this was waived for the frequent coal trains which used the bridge prior to the reopening of the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine railway, provided two such trains did not simultaneously occupy the bridge. The route availability code is RA8, meaning any current UK locomotive can use the bridge, which was designed to accommodate heavier steam locomotives.

Up to 190–200 trains per day crossed the bridge in 2006.[9]

Firth of Forth Rail Bridge head-on panorama


A structure like the Forth Bridge needs constant maintenance and the ancillary works for the bridge included not only a maintenance workshop and yard but a railway "colony" of some fifty houses at Dalmeny Station. The track on the bridge is of "waybeam" construction: 12 inch square baulks of timber 6 metres long are bolted into steel troughs in the bridge deck and the rails are fixed on top of these sleepers . In 1992 the bridge was re-railed with standard BS113A rail (54 kg/m). Prior to 1992 the rails on the bridge were of a unique "Forth Bridge" section.

Although modern trains put fewer stresses on the bridge than the earlier steam trains, the bridge needs constant maintenance, and this is currently undertaken by Balfour Beatty under contract to Network Rail.[10]

"Painting the Forth Bridge" is a colloquial term for a never-ending task, coined on the erroneous belief that, at one time in the history of the bridge repainting was required and commenced immediately upon completion of the previous repaint. According to a 2004 New Civil Engineer report on contemporary maintenance, such a practice never existed, although under British Rail management, and before, the bridge had a permanent maintenance crew.

A contemporary repainting of the bridge commenced with a contract award in 2002, for a schedule of work which was expected to continue until March 2009, but as of September 2009 is still ongoing. This involves the application of 20,000 m² of paint at an estimated cost of £13M a year. This new coat of paint is expected to have a life of at least 25 years. In 2008 the estimated cost was increased to £180M, and projections for finishing the job to 2012.[11]

In a report produced by JE Jacobs, Grant Thornton and Faber Maunsell in 2007 which reviewed the alternative options for a second road crossing, it was stated that the estimated working life of the Forth Bridge was in excess of 100 years.[12]

Firth of Forth Road (left) & Rail (right) bridges


The Forth Road Bridge is another popular crossing of the Firth.

In 2007, in a two week trial jointly funded by SEStran and StageCoach, a passenger hovercraft ran between Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh.[13] However, Stagecoach have indicated that they are uninterested in developing this into a service.[14]

The new Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine rail link will divert coal trains from the bridge. Instead they will travel via Stirling to Longannet Power Station. With this, there is a possibility that freight restrictions will be lifted and the potential of increasing trains from 10 tph (trains per hour) to 12 tph.

Banknotes, coins

On a 2004 £1 coin.

A representation of the Forth Bridge appears on the 2004 Issue One Pound.[15]

The 2007 series of banknotes issued by the Bank of Scotland depicts different bridges in Scotland as examples of Scottish engineering, and the £20 note features the Forth Bridge.[16]

Popular culture

  • There is a scene on the bridge in Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film The 39 Steps and it is featured even more prominently in the 1959 remake of the same film. However, there is no reference to the bridge in the book by John Buchan upon which the films are based.
  • A countdown clock to the millennium was placed on the bridge in 1998.
  • In Alan Turing's most famous paper about artificial intelligence, one of the challenges put to the subject of an imagined Turing test is "Please write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge". The test subject in Turing's paper answers, "Count me out on this one. I never could write poetry".[17]
  • The Kincaid Rail bridge in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is based on this bridge. The designer, Rockstar North, is based in Edinburgh.
  • The process of painting the bridge presumably inspired Tom Stoppard's radio play Albert's Bridge.
Original rivet from the Forth Bridge
Historic Map of railways around the bridge


  1. ^ Keay, J. & Keay, J. (1994) Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland. London. HarperCollins.ISBN 0-00-255082-2
  2. ^ UNESCO - UK Tentative List Retrieved 10.01.2009.
  3. ^ a b Langmead, Donald; Garnaut, Christine (2001) (Google Books). Encyclopedia of Architectural and Engineering Feats (3 ed.). ABC-CLIO. p. 119. ISBN 157607112X. Retrieved 2009-03-06.  
  4. ^ Plank, Roger; McEvoy, Michael; Steel Construction Institute (1993). "Forth Railway Bridge: First steel structure" (Google Books). Architecture and Construction in Steel (illustrated ed.). Taylor & Francis. p. 16. ISBN 0419176608. Retrieved 2009-03-06.  
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Forth Rail Bridge Facts & Figures". Forth Bridges Visitors Centre Trust. Retrieved April 21, 2006.
  7. ^ "Rail bridge death toll increases". BBC News. 2006-09-04. Retrieved 2007-05-16.  
  8. ^ Overview of Forth Bridge. The Gazetteer for Scotland. Retrieved 21 April 2006.
  9. ^ "The Forth Bridge". Forth Bridges Visitors Centre Trust. Retrieved 21 April 2006.
  10. ^ "Balfour Beatty Awarded Forth Bridge Contract". Press Release. Balfour Beatty, 28 April 2002. Retrieved 21 April 2006.
  11. ^ "Forth Bridge painting set to end". BBC News. 2008-02-18. Retrieved 2008-02-18.  
  12. ^ Forth Replacement Crossing - Report 1 - Assessment of Transport Network | Transport Scotland
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^ "The United Kingdom £1 Coin". The Royal Mint. Retrieved 2009-06-21.  
  16. ^ "Current Banknotes : Bank of Scotland". The Committee of Scottish Clearing Bankers. Retrieved 2008-10-29.  
  17. ^ Turing, Alan (October 1950), "Computing Machinery and Intelligence", Mind LIX (236): 433–460, doi:10.1093/mind/LIX.236.433, ISSN 0026-4423,, retrieved 2008-08-18  

Further reading

  • Charles Matthew Norrie (1956). Bridging the Years - a short history of British Civil Engineering. Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd.
  • Arnold Koerte, Firth of Forth, Firth of Tay, Birkhauser Verlag (1992), ISBN 0-8176-2444-9
  • New Civil Engineer 5 February 2004, page 18.
  • Peter R. Lewis, Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay: Reinvestigating the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879, Tempus, 2004, ISBN 0-7524-3160-9.
  • McKean, Charles, Battle for the North: The Tay and Forth Bridges and the 19th Century Railway Wars, Granta Books, (August 7, 2006), ISBN 1-86207-852-1.

External links


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