REVEALED: The cost of replacing Preston's old tram bridge - and why there is no sign of it happening

The estimated bill for replacing the old tram bridge linking Preston and South Ribble has been revealed – two years to the week after the existing structure and a path beneath it were closed over safety fears.

Sunday, 21st February 2021, 5:30 pm
Updated Wednesday, 24th February 2021, 10:47 am

Lancashire County Council confirmed to the Post that the price tag for a new cross-river connection would be in the region of £6m.

However, a group dedicated to the restoration of the bridge claims that the historic feature can be saved for “much less” than that – and have vowed to set about raising the cash to keep it standing.

The bridge was blocked off at short notice on 27th February, 2019 after an inspection concluded that it could collapse without warning.

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Preston's old tram bridge has been closed since February 2019

During what was the first major assessment of its condition in seven years, engineers identified cracks in two thirds of the bridge’s pre-stressed concrete beams – allowing water to access the vital wires which give it stability, potentially causing them to corrode.

Connections between the beams were also found to be at risk of breaking and rolling off their supports.

Two years on from the shock closure and there is no immediate prospect of either repair – which has since been deemed unviable – or replacement of the much-loved part of Preston’s horizon, which runs from Avenham Park into South Ribble.

A project to restore the link was included in a £182m bid to the government’s Transforming Cities Fund for a series of groundbreaking schemes to overhaul transport in and around Preston However, the city ultimately secured only £40m – more than half of which will go on a new Cottam Parkway railway station.

An inspection of the bridge two years ago found that it was at risk of collapse

The remainder is earmarked for initiatives including a revamp of Friargate and Ringway – with nothing left over to bring the old tram bridge route back to life.

At the time the faults were found, it was unclear whether responsibility for the structure lay with County Hall or Preston City Council – although it has since been found to belong to the latter.

Cllr Robert Boswell, the city’s cabinet member for environment and community safety, said he recognised that the closure of the bridge had been “disappointing” for residents.

“The major faults identified with the structure unfortunately cannot be readily fixed and would in fact involve the removal and replacement of the whole bridge deck.

The old tram bridge as it stands today (image: Tony Worrall)

“Such work would be extremely expensive but equally would not provide the future longevity of the structure that a new bridge would.

“The city council, in partnership with Lancashire County Council, will continue to seek out funding opportunities for the old tram bridge.

“No definite decision has yet been made to demolish the bridge – and in the meantime it must remain closed for the protection and safety of the public,” Cllr Boswell added.

Since the closure of the bridge, people have been advised to use the Avenham Viaduct Bridge, about a quarter of a mile away.

A spokesman for Lancashire County Council said that the bridge is now considered “beyond repair”.

“Investigations found evidence to suggest that the bridge falls under the ownership of Preston City Council.

“A proposal to replace the bridge was included in a funding bid made in close co-operation with Preston City Council and other partners for various transport improvements as part of the Transforming Cities Fund programme, and while we received significant funding for a number of measures, these did not include the tram bridge scheme.

“We will continue to work with Preston City Council to look at options for the future of the bridge, including sourcing external funding for a new bridge, and managing its closure.”

‘THIS BRIDGE COULD STILL BE STANDING IN 100 YEARS’

Campaigners calling for the landmark bridge to be saved claim that it would cost less to spare the structure than to replace it.

The Friends of the Old Tramroad Bridge are poised to establish themselves as a registered charity in order to raise the cash to carry out what they say experts in the field have advised are perfectly feasible repairs.

The group’s founder, Michael Nye, says he has been told that the necessary work would come in “at or around the cost of demolition alone” – and “much less” than funding an entirely new bridge.

“Demolition of a bridge is a specialist process – you can’t just blow it up or you will instantly get floods on the river.

“Using modern techniques, the concrete can be strengthened – the bridge does not need to be demolished.

“The companies that I’ve spoken to are at the top of their game and were willing to talk to me because they are rightly proud of their work.

“The Brandy Bridge in Merthyr Tydfil was able to be repaired - and that was in a worse condition than our bridge here in Preston.

“The trestles on the old tramroad bridge have supported it year in, year out with precious little maintenance – restore those and that bridge is good for another 100 years at least,” said Mr. Nye.

The original structure was built in 1802 to carry goods across the Ribble between Preston and Walton Summit. It was largely rebuilt in 1935 after being badly damaged by high flood waters and a new deck was installed to replace the previous timber one in 1966.

However, Mr. Nye said that the alterations undertaken down the years do not diminish the bridge’s historical significance – particularly as it is the only one of the “trestle and spar” style in the country.

“With each repair, bits of the original have been left, so it has evolved – and that makes it extremely interesting.

“It is also far greener to restore and repair what you have than just replace it with something else.

“I also think that £6m is an underestimate of the cost to replace what is actually there, rather than putting in something less substantial.”

The group is now seeking new committee members as it moves towards charitable status in order to allow it to bid for grants and then make its case to the county and city councils for the repair work to be carried out.

However, the county council’s inspection report in 2019 concluded that it would be unlikely that the “extensive concrete repairs” needed to the piers would be able to be undertaken “with the superstructure in situ” – and that providing “structural propping in the tidal river channel would be very challenging”.

It added: “The raking struts would require support when the superstructure is removed, unless they are also removed.

“Given the extent of defects in the piers and the difficulty of undertaking repairs in the tidal river, it is unlikely that preservation of the piers would be viable and their replacement should be considered as part of a review of options to replace the bridge.

“In summary, the bridge should be closed, both above and below, to safeguard users. Options to replace the bridge should be studied,” the report concluded.