Engineers have uncovered a host of problems with the bridge beams which could ultimately cause parts of the much-loved piece of Preston's history to collapse without warning. It will remain closed indefinitely.
Lancashire County Council and Preston City Council have pledged to work together in deciding what to do next - even though it has not yet been established which authority bears ultimate responsibility for the combined footbridge, cycleway and bridleway.
The route was closed back in February - along with a footpath which runs beneath it on the south bank of the River Ribble - after a major inspection revealed that its condition had significantly deteriorated since it last underwent a detailed examination in 2012. Minor inspections have been carried out each year since.
The bridge has now been given a score on the “bridge condition scale” of 35, down from 46 the last time it was assessed - anything below 40 means the structure is considered to be in very poor condition.
Lancashire County Council’s bridges manager, Dave Hurford, described the defects which have been identified as “critical” and said further work was needed to determine the future of the Old Tram Bridge, which runs from Avenham Park in Preston across into South Ribble.
“It would be premature to speculate on whether it’s repairable - economically or in terms of the engineering [required],” Mr Hurford said.
Cracks have been found in the concrete of two in every three of the pre-stressed concrete beams which were installed in 1966 when the previous timber deck of the bridge was replaced. Water is now able to access the wires which are integral to the stability of the structure and could cause them to corrode - bringing with it the risk of sudden failure.
Connections between the beams are also at risk of breaking and rolling off their supports and some of them are not seated correctly.
Against the backdrop of that assessment - and the risk that any of the potential failures could prove fatal to people on or beneath the bridge at the time - County Hall’s cabinet member for highways Keith Iddon said he had to put public safety first.
“It’s not the report I wanted, but the last thing I want is any member of the public to be hurt, he said.
“Over the next few months, engineers will look at [the findings of the inspection]. There'll be a cost attached to maybe repairing the bridge or putting up a new structure, so we’ll have to look at those cost.
“I haven’t got a budget [for] the bridge, but there are funds that are available that I can try and tap into.
“But it has raised a lot of public interest and the people either side of the river want to use it. It is part of Preston - it’s not the [original] tram bridge, but it is built on the site of it," he explained.
The original structure was built in 1802 to carry goods across the Ribble between Preston and Walton Summit. It was rebuilt in 1935 after being badly damaged by high flood waters.
Lawyers will now try to determine whether the county or city council officially owns the bridge.
"The documentation goes back a long way, but needless to say, we’re happy to work with each other and we’ll do the best we can in the public interest. The public do want us to keep it open," County Coun Iddon added.
Preston City Council’s cabinet member for the environment, Robert Boswell, said that the structure remained “a part of people’s childhoods and lives” today - and committed to working with the county council to find a solution, whichever authority is identified as its ultimate owner.
“It’s a pedestrian access point and cycling route - and we’re always trying to encourage people to walk and cycle.
“Our major priority is to re-open it, but we have to recognise that all options are available. Closure would be a last resort, because it is a major heritage site for the people of Preston,” Coun Boswell said.
Since the bridge closed earlier this year, people have been advised to use the Avenham Viaduct Bridge, less than a quarter of a mile away.
‘BRIDGE MUST BE PRESERVED’
More than 5,200 people have now signed a petition set up after the bridge was closed, calling for the river crossing to be saved.
The campaign - which was backed by the Lancashire Post - was launched by Michael Nye, of the Friends of the Old Tramroad Bridge group. Reacting to the latest developments, he said that the bridge could not be torn down or allowed to decay.
This bridge has to be saved as a piece of heritage. Lancashire County Council can say the bridge is worse than they feared as long as they don’t knock it down.
“They can work with us or they can have us as a campaign group against them.
“It’s a repairable bridge and it has to be repaired - it is unique.
“We have got a team of more than 1,600 people who can help - we don’t want to campaign against the council, we want to help,” Mr Nye said.