With a new steel coating, the bridge it is not constantly repainted now
With a new steel coating, the bridge it is not constantly repainted now

Supply audit: The Forth Bridge

5 April 2019

It’s big, it’s red and it’s a Scottish icon. Despite being over 100 years old, the massive structure is a virtually unaltered historic masterpiece – and is still going strong 

Let’s start with the obvious: how long does it take to paint the Forth Bridge?
Although the saying “like painting the Forth Bridge” has in the UK come to refer to a never-ending Sisyphean task, the cantilever railway bridge that crosses the Firth of Forth between North and South Queensferry has never been continuously repainted. In 2001, Balfour Beatty began refurbishing it, a task that took 10 years, 214,000 litres of paint and cost £130m. They say it won’t need repainting until 2036.

How come?
The old paint was blasted away so the steel could be given an industrial coating. A new specialist glass flake epoxy paint, similar to that used on offshore oil rigs, was applied – and a small specialist team monitors the bridge, which is regularly exposed to extreme (Scottish) weather.

Why was it built in the first place?
The ferry crossing between North and South Queensferry, which connected Aberdeen and the northeast to Edinburgh and the south, was one of the busiest in Scotland. A tunnel had been considered – but deemed impractical – and as the railways spread, a bridge seemed to make more sense. Work on the bridge started in 1873, under Edinburgh engineer Thomas Bouch, but stopped six years later when the Tay Bridge at Dundee, which he had also designed, collapsed, killing 75 people. 

So who finished it?
The shock effectively killed Bouch but engineers John Fowler and Benjamin Baker took over. It took seven years to build (at least 73 people died in the making) and was opened by the future Edward VII on 4 March 1890. One hundred and twenty five years later, UNESCO recognised it as a world heritage site.

On what grounds?
The bridge was – and is – remarkable for its scale: it is 2.5km long, the three double-cantilever towers rise 110m from their granite pier foundations and collectively span 521m. The materials were innovative – back then, it was rare to use mild steel on such a project. 

Isn’t there a road bridge over the Forth?
Yes, two – the Forth Road Bridge, opened in 1964 by Queen Elizabeth II, and the Queensferry Crossing, opened in 2017. 

Do say…
“Amazing to think that, 130 years after it opened, it carries 200 trains a day.”

Don’t say…
“May the Forth be with you.”

A bridge too far
The Forth Bridge inspired Iain Banks’s novel The Bridge in which one of the protagonists is so taken with its beauty he crashes his car. Banks, who died in 2013, could see the structure from his house.

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