The leader of Hammersmith & Fulham Council says that its decision to close Hammersmith Bridge to cyclists and pedestrians in August may have averted a “national disaster,” in reaction to reports ordered by the government which claim that the council was too hasty in ordering a complete closure of the Thames crossing, and that it could be partially reopened within weeks.
Closed to motor traffic since April 2019 after cracks were found in one of the pillars supporting the 177 year old suspension bridge, the council, which is responsible for the Victorian structure, fully closed it with just a few hours’ notice in August, saying that the damage had worsened.
The cost of fully repairing the bridge is estimated at £141 million, and it has become the subject of a political row involving the Labour-controlled council, their counterparts across the river in the Liberal Democrat-run borough of Richmond, as well as central government and Transport for London (TfL).
Two reports commissioned by the Department for Transport – one from civil engineers Aecom, the other from fracture mechanics expert Professor Norman Fleck of Cambridge University – recommend that it would be safe to reopen the bridge to people on foot or on bike, reports the Evening Standard.
Transport minister Baroness Vere, who is overseeing a taskforce concerning the reopening of the bridge, insisted: “Today’s reports set out that there is potentially a route to Hammersmith Bridge being reopened on a limited basis without major works, which is something I know people in the area will welcome.
“I’m therefore calling on Hammersmith & Fulham Council to seriously consider these reports so we can do right by people who have been blighted by this bridge’s closure. Moving forward, we remain committed to finding a funding solution for the bridge’s full repair and reopening to vehicular traffic,” she added.
The Aecom report recommended that the crack “may not necessarily be connected with the high temperatures seen in August” and advised that “that the exact source of the event, and the depth of this crack should be investigated as it seems likely that the crack is quite shallow.”
In his report, Professor Fleck said that “In the short term, it would be possible to reopen the bridge quickly and cheaply for pedestrian traffic provided measures are taken to stabilise the cast iron pedestals,” adding that the works could be carried out “without delay, on a timeframe of weeks, and at modest cost”.
But Hammersmith & Fulham Council leader Steve Cowan said in response that a “national disaster” could have happened had a complete closure not been ordered in the summer.
“The suggestion that the bridge could be reopened to pedestrians, cyclists and river traffic, with little money spent on safety measures, has been the Government’s consistent position in Taskforce meetings over past months,” he said.
“Our response has been to ask if they would take on the legal responsibility for such a decision, but they have consistently refused to do so.
“The bridge was closed because world-leading specialist engineers strongly advised the badly-corroded suspension structure faced catastrophic failure. If the bridge collapsed, as they advised it could, it would have been a national disaster.
“Our consistent advice to the government has been to listen to the specialist engineers on the Continued Case for Safe Operation (CCSO) board which constantly reviews such matters to protect public safety.”
He also said that members of the taskforce had little time to review the reports commissioned by the DfT ahead of a meeting earlier today.
“The government’s Taskforce met today at 11:00,” he said. “However, its members were only sent the papers which included first sight of the Fleck and Aecom reports at 10:23 today and after media reports appeared.
“It’s fair to say that a number of Taskforce members questioned the Government Taskforce’s Chair, Baroness Vere, about the professionalism of sending papers so late while spinning the story to the media well beforehand.”
He added: “Hammersmith & Fulham will continue to look at all possible means of safely having the bridge re-opened but will never take any decision that is against the specialist engineers’ advice that there is a serious risk to the lives of the tens of thousands of pedestrians, cyclists, motor vehicles drivers and river traffic that used or travelled under the bridge each week.”
As we reported in October, the bridge is likely to remain closed to motor vehicles for the next seven years while strengthening works are carried out. A pedestrian and cyclist ferry planned to come into operation in spring next year is still on the agenda, according to the DfT.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.