Is iconic Preston bridge falling down?

Fears that Preston's iconic Tram Bridge could be starting to collapse have been dismissed by County Hall bosses and a pressure group trying to save it.

Monday, 21st June 2021, 8:19 am

Pieces of the historic structure, which was branded dangerous and shut down more than two years ago, have fallen off into the River Ribble, raising concerns that the 1802 bridge is now in the advanced stages of decay.

A footpath under the bridge has had to be closed to protect walkers. But despite a growing campaign to force preservation rather than demolition, the river crossing remains crumbling and forlorn without council cash to do either.

The County Council says it is now working with the owners, Preston City Council, to find a solution "including external funding for a new bridge."

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Pieces are beginning to fall off the old Tram Bridge.
Pieces are beginning to fall off the old Tram Bridge.

Yet the Friends of the Old Tramroad Bridge group, set up to stop it being pulled down, have revealed they are stepping up their campaign to save it.

"The bridge is repairable - and at a far smaller cost than building a new one," said founder Michael Nye. "This is a unique structure in the whole of the UK, there isn't another like it.

"We want to work with both councils. But we want the councils to listen to us and drop their 'we know best' attitude. Demolition is not the only answer."

The recent deterioration, spotted by a Lancashire Post reader, has resulted in two diagonal struts under the bridge disintegrating and becoming detached.

Gaps are now visible where the spars have fallen into the river.

An LCC spokesman explained that the old timber pieces were not load-bearing and the bridge was in no increased risk of collapse.

"The diagonal raking struts were an integral part of the original timber construction of the bridge," he said. "These were replicated when the timber deck was replaced with concrete in the 1960s.

"While their poor condition is a potential risk to passers-by, and one of the reasons that we have had to close the path beneath the bridge for safety, they no longer perform a structural role in supporting the bridge.

"We are continuing to work with Preston City Council, which owns the bridge, to manage its closure and look at options for the future of the bridge, including sourcing external funding for a new bridge."

The bridge was declared 'dangerous' more than two years ago.

LCC engineers ordered immediate closure in February 2019 after they found more than 200 faults during a safety inspection. Some of the most serious defects involved concrete beams which were only installed in the 1960s.

County Hall concluded that the bridge had deteriorated so much since its last inspection in 2012 that it was "beyond repair" and could collapse at any time. Demolition was the only answer.

Since then a major row has been going on over what to do with the structure which the campaign group say is "iconic" and "unique."

Preston applied for Government money from the Transforming Cities Fund for a new crossing in December 2019 as part of a package of measures to improve transport in the city.

The river crossing in its heyday.

The council asked for whopping £182m, but received only £40m, which will be swallowed up by more urgent projects like a new rail station for Cottam and a pedestrianisation scheme in Friargate.

So without state funding it appears they will now look for finance from elsewhere for a scheme which could cost at least £6m.

Michael Nye said that the wooden spars had been bolstered by reinforced concrete ones in the 1960s and since then had become "basically superfluous or just cosmetic."

"Some have come away, but the majority still remain," he said. "But they are not holding the bridge up.

"I'm no engineer, but in my opinion, working on the evidence that I have been given by engineering companies, it is not about to collapse. I will gladly walk along it and jump up and down on it to show that.

"The bridge was closed two years ago because it was said to be in imminent danger of collapse. Well we've had storms and floods since then and has it collapsed? No."

A petition to save the bridge attracted thousands of signatures back in 2019. Now the Friends of the Old Tramroad Bridge group have joined to form a committee to spearhead the fight.

"Our campaign has taken a quantum leap recently and we've got more of a voice than we did," said Mr Nye. "I'm more optimistic that the bridge can be restored than I was when I first created the Facebook group.

"If the councils would listen to Joe Public then I'm sure we could do this. Yes, the bridge is an embarrassment at the moment. But it was a tourist attraction back in its early days and we could turn it into the grand southern entrance to Avenham Park that it was originally meant to be.

"The cost of repairing it would be less than the cost of just demolishing it, never mind building a replacement. That is the best economic and environmental course of action."

The tramway crossing was opened in 1803 to carry goods across the River Ribble between Preston and Walton Summit. But the line closed in 1859.

The wooden bridge was largely rebuilt in 1935 after being badly damaged by high flood water and a new deck of pre-stressed concrete was installed in 1966 to replace the old timber one.

An inspection in 2019 found the bridge had deteriorated markedly since the previous one in 2012 and there were more than 200 faults detected.

In the 2012 inspection engineers had said it was "in poor condition overall, with a number of significant defects."

Engineers immediately ordered its closure saying it could collapse without warning.