They are an emblem of Britain’s engineering prowess and steeped in hundreds of years of history, but London’s bridges risk disintegrating into the Thames as they suffer from lack of funds and crumble under the weight of party politics.
In recent months a number of the Capital’s bridges have either needed emergency repairs, or been closed to the public entirely due to fears they are structurally unsafe.
In late August, Tower Bridge caused gridlock as it closed for 48 hours after it suffered ‘technical issues’ resulting in the iconic structure remaining in the upright position. Along the river, Vauxhall Bridge and London Bridge are closed to car traffic as urgent repair work takes place.
One by one, London’s bridges seem to be falling apart – as Hammersmith bridge is placed on ‘amber alert’ with high temperatures putting it under increased risk of collapsing.
The 133-year-old cast iron suspension bridge in west London was closed ‘indefinitely’ to motorists in April last year after ‘critical faults’ were detected.
The iconic structure then closed to pedestrians and cyclists last month after a heatwave made the cracks ‘significantly increase’, causing fury among residents.
This week, thermometers are being fitted and the suspension chains are being cooled with water. Engineers warn that if the chains reach 22.5C a ‘red alert’ will be declared, according to the Evening Standard.
Londoners last night slammed Mayor Sadiq Khan as he repeated his call on the Government to give TfL and Hammersmith Council, ‘the financial support to get Hammersmith Bridge repaired and reopened.’
But critics hit out at the Labour Mayor for ‘wasting’ money on failed projects including the doomed £53.5 million ‘garden bridge’ project.
Yesterday it emerged that it will be at least nine months before £46million of work can make Hammersmith bridge safe again for cyclists and pedestrians. It could cost as much as £163million and take two years for cars to get back to using it.
Shaun Bailey, the Tory nominee for next year’s mayoral election, told MailOnline: ‘London’s bridges are falling down. And strangely enough, London’s bridges are the responsibility of London’s Mayor.
‘But instead of fixing our bridges, Sadiq Khan has spent four years blaming the government and avoiding responsibility.
‘I’m grateful Grant Shapps followed my advice and took over the restoration of Hammersmith Bridge. But Sadiq Khan should be asking himself why the government is doing the Mayor’s job for him.’
An engineer abseils from Lambeth Bridge on September 17, as he works on the lighting system for the ‘Illuminated River’ public art commission that will eventually see 14 bridges on the river Thames lit up at night,
In recent months a number of the Capital’s bridges have either needed emergency repairs, or been closed to the public entirely due to fears they are structurally unsafe
A cyclist negotiates the closed paths and alleyways around Hammersmith Bridge which has now been closed for nearly a year and a half due to safety concerns, on September 17
Campaign groups have called for the repairs to be carried out in full and at speed, as roads and commutes become harder as people return to work after the COVID-19 lockdown. Pictured, Lambeth Bridge
In late August, Tower Bridge was closed for 48 hours after it suffered ‘technical issues’ resulting in the iconic bridge remaining in the upright position
Warning signs direct pedestrians around the works taking place on Vauxhall Bridge
Warning signs direct river traffic near Hammersmith Bridge which has now been closed for nearly a year and a half due to safety concerns
WHAT IS THE TASK FORCE’S JOB?
The Government task force will be responsible for opening Hammersmith Bridge bridge ‘as speedily as possible’, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said.
The task force will be led by transport minister Baroness Vere and will initially try to reopen the bridge for cyclists and pedestrians, before moving on to motor traffic.
It has also been confirmed that the Department for Transport has commissioned its own engineering advice on the condition of the bridge.
The Department of Transport have said the situation needs to be resolved ‘as soon as possible’.
The Department will also continue to work with local groups and stakeholders, and consider all the options for a solution.
This could include temporary measures that could be brought in to help with local traffic.
The Rotherhithe Tunnel and Blackwall Tunnel have also been identified by TfL as needing major work.
The Conservative MP for Chelsea and Fulham, Greg Hands, worked out that between 2015 and 2019, TfL spent some £5.3 million on ‘monitoring’ Hammersmith Bridge.
By 2016, a repair plan budgeted at £27 million had been agreed but TfL never quite got round to starting it. Last year, a few days after the Boat Race, engineers suddenly noticed that things were much worse and so the bridge was closed overnight to all traffic. By then, the repair bill was put at £40 million. Now, it is around £163 million.
A Government task force has now been launched to reopen Hammersmith Bridge after it closed to motor traffic last year due to structural problems.
However Khan told Mayor’s Question Time yesterday: ‘While I welcome any effort to engage with us I can’t say that setting up a taskforce sounds like it will give Londoners the quick solution they so desperately need.’
The new task force will be responsible for opening the bridge ‘as speedily as possible’, first reopening to cyclists and pedestrians at a ‘minimum’.
A Government task force had originally been launched to reopen the bridge after it first closed to motor traffic last year, then to pedestrians this year.
It was announced by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who slammed a ‘lack of leadership’ in the capital to fix Hammersmith Bridge.
He said earlier this month: ‘There has been a lack of leadership in London on reopening this vital bridge.
‘It’s stopped Londoners moving about easily and caused huge inconvenience to everyone, adding extra time to their commute or journeys.
‘We won’t let hard working Londoners suffer any longer. The Government is setting up a task force to establish the next steps in opening the bridge as speedily as possible.
‘We’ll be decisive and quick to make sure we can take steps that’ll be good for commuters, good for residents and good for business.’
The task force will be led by transport minister Baroness Vere and the priority is initially trying to reopen the bridge for cyclists and pedestrians, before moving on to motor traffic.
It has been confirmed that the Department for Transport has commissioned its own engineering advice on the condition of the bridge.
The Department will also continue to work with local groups and stakeholders to consider all the options for a solution to the structural problems.
This could include temporary crossings being could brought in to help with local traffic pressures if it cannot be made safe as quickly as possible.
Residents have previously demanded a temporary bridge to be put in place as anger has increased around a year-and-a-half after the initial closure in 2019.
Micro-fractures were discovered in the structure in 2014 when the council leader commissioned a structural integrity review of all aspects of the bridge’s suspension structure, which began in 2015.
The bridge originally remained open to pedestrians and cyclists but closed after Hammersmith and Fulham Council said the 34C heatwave had caused the cracks in the bridge to ‘significantly increase’ and widen.
An engineer applies protective sheeting to part of the structure of Hammersmith Bridge which remains closed to vehicles and pedestrians
Warning signs direct pedestrians around the closed pathways near Hammersmith Bridge
Engineers look at progress on the on installation of the lighting system for the ‘Illuminated River’ public art commission
Hammersmith bridge is placed on ‘amber alert’ with high temperatures putting it under increased risk of collapsing
Vauxhall Bridge (pictured) and London Bridge are closed to car traffic as urgent repair work takes place
The fixtures and rivets are seen on the underside of Tower Bridge
Patches of rust and decay are seen on Lambeth Bridge. A number of London’s bridges have recently either needed emergency repairs, or have been closed to the public entirely due to fears that they are structurally unsafe
An engineer applies protective sheeting to part of the structure of Hammersmith Bridge
Parents of pupils at £39,000-a-year St Paul’s School have been ferrying them across the Thames in BOATS due to Hammersmith Bridge closure
Bridge over troubled water: No Hammermith route means much longer journey for pupils
Fed-up parents of pupils at a £39,000-a-year bankside school have been using small boats to cross the River Thames after Hammersmith Bridge was closed for repairs.
Mothers and fathers with children at boys-only St Paul’s School near Barnes, south west London, have been secretly doing drop-offs in the tiny vessels after the route was shut.
Teachers and staff are understood to be unaware of the enterprising water-based school run and have even laid on buses themselves to try and tackle the problem.
But parents have been using the ‘tin fish’ nicknamed boats – which are usually used for coaching rowers – to nip across the Thames.
The problem has got so bad the river community have been emailed telling them the Port of London Authority is on the lookout for any of the crossings.
It considers the issue so serious it has warned it will take enforcement action if any are caught in the act.
A boating community insider told MailOnline: ‘These are the little coaching boats, that usually escort rowers out onto the river. They are small metal things with an outboard motor on the back, so can go pretty well.
‘As enterprising as it is for parents, a trip like that is obviously fraught with danger.
‘Everyone is annoyed the bridge is shut, but this doesn’t seem like a risk worth taking.’
St Paul’s School, which says it caters for gifted boys aged 7 to 18 years, charges £12,997 per tem to boarding pupils and £8,636 per term to non-boarders.
Hammersmith Bridge, which is maintained by Hammersmith and Fulham London Borough Council, was estimated to have been used by 4,000 students a day to get to school before it was shut last month.
Parents of children at St Paul’s School have not told teachers about the water journeys
The structure had to be shut over widening cracks were found, meaning some pupils have to go on three-hour commutes just to get taught.
It had previously serviced St Paul’s as well as Harrodian, which costs £8,147 for sixth formers.
New estimates on repairs say it will be at least nine months before £46million of work can make the bridge safe again for cyclists and pedestrians.
The Port of London Authority confirmed it was aware of the boats being used to cross the river.
A spokesman told MailOnline: ‘The PLA are aware of instances of small ‘tin fish’ boats being used to carry people across at Hammersmith.
‘These are very small boats designed to be used for the coaching of rowing activity – ie to carry coaching crew during rowing practice and rowing events.
‘These boats are not designed to carry passengers. We have spoken to the people responsible for this unsafe activity and advised them very clearly about the safety risks involved and that ‘tin fish’ should not be used for such ‘passenger ferry’ use at any time.
‘We do understand the difficulties caused by the sudden closure of Hammersmith Bridge. The PLA continues to discuss with the bridge owner – London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, with TfL and the Department for Transport possible options to achieve a temporary crossing – either a temporary bridge or a dedicated passenger boat service.’
The school is yet to comment.
An engineer abseils from Lambeth Bridge as he works on the lighting system for the ‘Illuminated River’ public art commission
It led the local authority, which owns the bridge, to close the crossing to all users and ban vessels from sailing underneath it on August 13.
The bridge was estimated to be used by around 16,000 pedestrians and cyclists a day before the additional closure.
August’s announcement led to protests from residents who were furious at the lengthy journeys they were forced to take, rather than walking across the bridge.
Pedestrians, including hundred of schoolchildren, have been forced to divert via Barnes Bridge, with traffic having to use Chiswick and Putney bridges instead.
There have also been concerns from eco-enthusiasts that it would discourage people from cycling and walking, leading to further traffic build-ups.
A statement from Hammersmith and Fulham Council said: ‘Hammersmith Bridge is closed to pedestrians and river traffic from 5pm today (13 August) because of an increased risk to public safety due to a sudden deterioration in key parts of the suspension structure.
‘Specialist engineers have been undertaking 24/7 monitoring of the structural integrity of the bridge throughout using an extensive network of sensors on the 19th century structure.
‘The deterioration in the structure was exacerbated by the recent heatwave which caused cracks to significantly increase – despite measures taken to mitigate the heat.
‘The bridge will remain closed until the engineers are confident that it is safe to re-open to pedestrians and river traffic.
‘It means that pedestrians and cyclists must now cross the river elsewhere, while all river traffic under the bridge will also be stopped – including the pedestrian walkways under Hammersmith Bridge – while engineers examine the extent of the damage.’
The council wrote a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson later that month stating the estimated cost to make it safe and ‘avoid a potential catastrophic failure’ is £46million.
The letter said: ‘No local authority has that kind of money available. We therefore write to ask that the Government funds this work as a matter of urgency.’
Upon closure in 2019, Hammersmith Bridge had been about to undergo a full refurbishment, which engineers estimated at the time would cost £120million and take three years to complete.
Transport for London then provided £25million for preparatory repair work.
The council said in February there had been ‘good progress’ on the refurbishments.
The latest news comes after months of arguments about who should pay for the bridge’s repair bill, which has been estimated to cost more than £140million.
Hammersmith Bridge, designed by civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette and opened in 1887, is made from cast iron and is one of two of its kind in the world.