Britain’s newest road bridge, suspended by 23,000 miles of cables over the Firth of Forth, has opened to traffic.
At 1.6 miles (2.7km) in length, the Queensferry Crossing is the longest bridge of its type in the world and, at 210m (689ft) high, Britain’s tallest, say its designers. For motorists, only one thing will matter: the new crossing promises a queue-free drive home at motorway speeds.
Built at a cost of £1.35bn, the bridge will be formally opened by the Queen next Monday, 53 years to the day after she opened its predecessor, the Forth road bridge.
Completed in 1964 before Fife became part of Edinburgh’s sprawling commuter belt, the old road bridge has become notorious for its 40mph speed limit and its stop-start queues during rush hour, as 60,000 vehicles a day press into its narrow two-lane carriageways.
It is frequently closed to high-sided vehicles due to strong winds, sometimes to all traffic, and occasionally by hauliers ignoring warning signs. In January it was shut for 19 hours, causing chaos for motorists across the region, after a lorry was blown over when its driver ignored signs banning HGVs from the bridge.
Equipped with the latest weather, safety and traffic sensors, the bridge includes specially designed screens installed along its entire length to reduce wind pressure on vehicles. Mike Glover, the bridge’s chief engineer and former technical director of the HS1 rail link, said the screens meant the chances of this bridge being closed by high winds were very remote. “If you can get to the bridge, you will cross it,” Glover said.
The new crossing is a state-of-the-art design. The old bridge has 100 joints, which increase the road noise for motorists. The Queensferry Crossing has just two joints, one at either end, and otherwise has an entirely smooth surface.
Designed to carry 24m vehicles a year, Glover predicts the bridge will last for up to 150 years; its official design life is for 120, and it requires minimal maintenance.
The Forth, a busy and exposed estuary, which services the sprawling oil refinery and petrochemicals complex at Grangemouth and the dockyard where the UK’s newest aircraft carriers are built at Rosyth, is already home to two famous bridges.
Closest to Edinburgh sits one of the world’s most famous crossings: the red cast iron bulk of the Victorian-era Forth railway bridge, which has a Unesco world heritage listing.
The Firth of Forth will be one of the few major waterways in the world spanned by bridges built in three consecutive centuries. The Queensferry Crossing introduction as a full-speed motorway will take some weeks, in part because the Scottish government is keen to raise as much publicity as it can for its launch. Built without private finance, at well under half its originally-projected budget, it is Scotland’s largest infrastructure project.
Police Scotland is coy about the precise time early on Wednesday that it will allow cars on to avoid a queue of expectant motorists. Its first phase open to traffic will last for only two days. It will close again on Friday morning, to allow it to be prepared for four days of public celebrations.
With its formal opening by the Queen on Monday, it will be opened solely to pedestrians on Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday before foot traffic is banned entirely.
At first, motorists will be limited to travelling at 40mph or 50mph. In four to six weeks it will rise to 70mph. After decades of 40mph speed controls on its sister bridge, Transport Scotland wants drivers to get used to its higher speeds gradually.
Although cheaper than originally forecast, its completion has been delayed by weather, and the decision to commission it in 2007 was contested by environmentalists and some local residents.
The Scottish Green party argues that having two road bridges will increase carbon emissions, worsen congestion and air pollution. Describing the new crossing as a vanity project, the party urged greater emphasis on improving public transport and on saving the original bridge.
In a joint statement, the WWF Scotland conservation group and the British Lung Foundation said Scottish ministers should make tackling the cold, damp and mouldy homes occupied by hundreds of thousands of Scots its next major infrastructure project.
“By doing so, the Scottish government can create warmer homes, deliver huge economic benefits, improve the nation’s health and drastically reduce emissions too,” said Sarah Beattie-Smith, a climate and energy policy officer at WWF Scotland.
Colin Howden, director of the public transport pressure group Transform Scotland, said ministers must now focus their spending and policies on improving rail services in the region. It was ironic, Howden said, that the most iconic bridge over the Forth was its Victorian rail bridge.
“It is widely acknowledged that journey times to destinations in Fife and to Perth are simply not competitive with car journey times due to decades of under-investment,” he said. “The train journey time from Edinburgh to Perth is slower than a century ago, and rectifying this historic failing should be the next priority for the Scottish Government’s transport capital investment programme.”
Pressure to replace the original Forth road bridge began in the 1990s as traffic growth put it under heavy pressure, with up to 70,000 vehicles using it every day. In 2004, inspections discovered corrosion of its main cables, which reduced their strength by up to 10%.
Work began on entirely replacing it with a new bridge, four lanes wide in each direction, but in time engineers discovered the cables could be saved with dehumidifiers. The Scottish government then decided to keep the existing bridge as a dedicated bus-only and cyclist crossing. Transport Scotland says increased public transport will absorb future traffic growth.
The name of the new bridge, decided in a public vote, pays homage to the Firth of Forth’s history and the two villages that sit on opposite shores: North and South Queensferry. Their names and that of the new bridge refer to a legend that St Margaret of Scotland, queen to the 11th-century king Malcolm Canmore, ordered the first organised ferry service to help pilgrims reach St Andrew’s in the 11th century.