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SWING BRIDGE SORROW: Call to keep historic bridge in working order

 

Swing bridge sorrow as Port of Tyne bosses told that they have a responsibility to the North East to keep the historic landmark in working order, after it jammed last weekend.

The state of the famous crossing has been put under the spotlight after hundreds of people gathered on the Newcastle Quayside on Saturday to see it swing open, only to be left disappointed when a fault caused it to jam shut.

The port authority, which is responsible for the Swing Bridge’s maintenance and operation, has claimed that Saturday’s incident was “unforeseeable” and “impossible to repair” on the spot.

Yet councillors were told last December that the Victorian structure had experienced problems for 18 months and the number of times it had actually swung open was “greatly reduced”, with the Port of Tyne having not made “necessary” improvements to its opening mechanism.

Local politicians and heritage organisations have now called for new action to ensure the bridge can remain in a functioning state for years to come.

Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah said: “The Swing Bridge is an iconic example of Geordie history and ingenuity. It is my favourite bridge in the world because it combines beauty, innovation, and function.

“I have taken a tour of the bridge some years ago and I know that there are huge challenges in maintaining it.”

She added that the Port of Tyne has “an accountability to the region and to the nation for the maintenance of this historic bridge” and that it was “crucial to our region’s identity that we preserve this important example of engineering”.

The grade II* listed crossing, which swings open around a central pivot to create two waterways either side of its main central pier, was last opened in November 2019 – when it did so on five consecutive nights.

The port authority confirmed that, aside from last Saturday, there has only been one other plan since to open it, in May 2020, but that was not followed up by the vessel which had made the request.

A spokesperson added that more than £1m of maintenance work had taken place in the last 15 years and an extra 520 man hours committed in the past three years, with engineers now working to fix the most recent fault.

Since its completion in 1876, it is estimated that the bridge has swung around 300,000 times to allow approximately 500,000 boats to pass through.

1924 is thought to have been its busiest year, when it opened 6,000 times.

Last December’s update on the bridge’s troubles was issued by Newcastle City Council principal engineer Alastair Swan, with the port authority refusing to comment at the time.

Historic England said it was in touch with the Port of Tyne about the bridge, but had not been informed about problems with its ability to swing open.

The heritage body said: “At the time of its opening in 1876, the grade II* listed Newcastle Swing Bridge was the world’s largest bridge of its kind, and it still operates using its original hydraulics engines.

“It was designed by William Armstrong and Company, whose world famous Elswick Works further upstream expanded vastly as a result.  The bridge remains a symbol of Tyneside’s industrial heritage and status.

“The bridge has undergone repairs and maintenance over the last ten years undertaken by The Port of Tyne Authority. We are in touch with the authority but have had no discussions about problems with its ability to swing.

“The ability of the bridge to move as intended is a key part of its significance as a scheduled monument and grade II* listed building. We would be willing to discuss any repair issues to make it operate successfully.”

Tim Wickens, of heritage group the Northumberland & Newcastle Society, said he would expect the port to “take appropriate responsibility” for “an iconic and truly loved structure”.

Newcastle Lib Dem councillor Greg Stone added that the bridge had become “very much a museum piece”, adding: “Sadly the maintenance of the city’s bridges seems to be being largely neglected by the councils and in this case by Port of Tyne, and there must be questions about whether the Swing Bridge can remain functional in the future.”

The port authority indicated that it would be open to discussions about making improvements to the bridge, following last weekend’s problem.

A spokesman from the Port of Tyne said: “We apologise to everyone who came down to see the bridge swing. We sent a team of six engineers down ahead of the opening to carry out checks but unfortunately, just as the bridge was about to open, a high-pressure valve inside the mechanism failed.

“It was unforeseeable and given the age of the component and where it is situated, it was impossible to repair at the time.

“We fully understand how important the Swing Bridge is as part of the city’s heritage and have our engineers working on it to fix the problem, and ensure the bridge can continue to swing.”

In 2018, the Port of Tyne invested £200,000 in restoring the timer decking on the bridge – work that took seven months to complete.

Written by Daniel Holland, Local Democracy Reporter


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