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The Tay Bridge Disaster inspired McGonagall’s famous poem

Posted in Disasters, Engineering, Famous landmarks, Famous news stories, Railways, Scotland on Tuesday, 30 October 2012

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This edited article about the Tay Bridge disaster originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 775 published on 20th November 1975.

Tay Bridge disaster, picture, image, illustration

The Tay Bridge Disaster by Andrew Howat

It was war to the death between two Scottish railways, the Caledonian and the North British, with the former slowly strangling the latter. The directors of the North British listened hopefully to a scheme which might give them a dramatic advantage over their rivals.

Two estuaries, those of the Forth and the Tay, cut far into the coastline between Edinburgh and north-east Scotland, and passengers and freight had to be shipped on ferries across the two rivers.

The 46-mile (74 km) journey from Edinburgh to Dundee thus took 3¼ hours Рand storms could cause long delays. If the North British Railway could bridge the two firths, it would have stolen a big march on the Caledonian.

The directors decided to bridge the Tay first. Their Chief Engineer, Thomas Bouch, a thoroughly experienced bridge-builder, was given the task.

The Tay, wide but shallow, did not need a lengthy span, but a number of short ones. The distance between the shores was a little over a mile, but because of the way in which the line approached the southern side along the shore, the bridge had to describe a great sweeping curve, giving a total length of almost two miles (about 3 km).

Bouch designed a viaduct of 85 spans, varying in length, the longest being 285 feet (86 m). The trusses were 27 feet (8 m) in depth. In the middle of the channel 13 of the longer spans were given a distinctive character. While most of the single track was carried on top of the trusses, there, over the deepest water, it was laid inside the trusses.

This was due to a change of design to please the shipping interests of Perth, who insisted that over the main channel there should be greater clearance to enable tall ships to pass.

There was nothing very hazardous about this. But unfortunately the “high girders”, as the notorious section came to be called, were not as firmly secured to the adjacent structures as they should have been.

There was an air of complacency as the building was begun, and no thought of any possible misfortune. Although it was to be the longest bridge in the world, it was quite ordinary from the engineering point of view.

It was not long before the first suggestion of a “jinx” on the new bridge appeared. Compressed air was used in the construction of the foundations and piers, and on one occasion a blocked valve caused an explosion, with the death of several workers.

Next a severe storm blew up, and a man was lost as two of the partly constructed centre girders collapsed.

The completed bridge, of which there are remarkably few photographs, ran in a lengthy, spidery curve, with the whole structure, especially the high centre section, looking alarmingly fragile.

The first train crossed on September 26th, 1877, with Bouch himself in control of a pilot engine which led a trainload of directors and other dignitaries across the long curve. The journey took about 15 minutes, the speed not exceeding 10 mph.

The following winter a painstaking testing of the bridge was carried out, with heavy ballast engines running at varying speeds. It was decided that 40 mph (64 k/h) should be the maximum. The Chief Engineer said: “When again visiting the spot, I should wish, if possible, to have an opportunity of observing the effect of high wind when a train of carriages is running over the bridge”. But he fell ill, and his remarks were forgotten.

All was not well, however. Passengers reported an odd feeling in their ears when crossing the high girder section in windy conditions. Others complained that trains were vastly exceeding the prescribed speed limit. Painters found rust and cracks, which were hastily patched up.

It was almost dark when a storm struck Dundee on December 28th, 1879. At first there was steady rain, but soon an increase in the strength of the wind was noticed. Within a short time a Force 11 gale was blowing, broadside on to the Tay Bridge.

At 7.12 p.m. the mail train from Burntisland arrived at Tayport, and slowed down to a crawl to receive the signal clearance baton. The train moved on, and the signalman hurried back into his cabin to send the routine signal over the bridge to his north bank colleague. Then he and another employee watched the train’s lights moving into the distance on the bridge. Suddenly they saw three flashes, and the train’s tail lights vanished.

The signalman rang the signal bell to the north shore. There was no reply. The two men started out across the bridge, but the gale forced them back. They ran down to the water’s edge, but could see nothing in the darkness. Then, incredibly, the moon came out. It lit up a strange and terrifying scene.

The whole of the centre section had disappeared, apart from the bare pier stumps. The train had gone, too, taking with it 75 lives. There were no survivors.

The world was shocked, and the designer, Sir Thomas Bouch, who previously could do no wrong, was at once made the scapegoat. An enquiry noted that the bridge was simply not strong enough to withstand the combined effects of strong winds and excessive train speeds. On that terrible night, these had caused a girder to come loose at the point where the high girder section joined the lower section adjoining it.

The result had been the collapse of this section, taking the train with it.

A likely explanation of the disaster is that Thomas Bouch, like others of his time, had grown over confident of his ability to surmount the obstacles that Nature puts in mankind’s way.

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