Sunday, 28 December 2014

Tay Bridge Disaster

This week marks the 135th anniversary of the Tay Bridge Disaster, which saw a train plunge into the River Tay during a storm on 28 December 1879. All those on board were killed.

The bridge had been constructed only a few years earlier, to carry the railway between Dundee and Wormit. It was initially seen as an engineering triumph - its successor is the longest rail bridge over water in Europe.
The current Tay Bridge

Although construction began in 1871, the first train did not cross until 1877 and the bridge opened to passengers in June 1878. Challenges included changes to the design when the bedrock proved much deeper than expected; the 2.75-mile length to be spanned, done in a curving sweep; and the need for height so ships sailing to Perth could pass beneath. The bridge was supported on cast-iron piers, with the cast-iron columns supporting its girders strengthened by wrought-iron cross-bracing.

On the night of 28 December, a ferocious storm swept across the bridge. At 7.13pm, a train set off north along the bridge; it never reached the other side. The storm took not only the train, but also the central spans of the bridge itself into the river. In fact, the train was found still within the bridge's girders when divers examined the scene. (The locomotive was later recovered and returned to service.) 46 bodies were recovered, but at least 59 and perhaps as many as 75 people died.

Investigations into the bridge included testing of the girders in London, at the Kirkcaldy Testing Works (now a museum). David Kirkaldy was able to confirm that the cast iron lugs used to fasten tie bars to the bridge columns, and the ties themselves, were inadequate. Combined with design flaws (notably a lack of allowance for wind loading, which meant the bracing was inadequate); the questionable quality of castings by the foundry; and poor maintenance, they left the bridge unable to withstand the storm of 28 December. The Court of Inquiry which investigated the disaster did not reach complete agreement on its causes, but did broadly agree on these points.

Engineer Sir Thomas Bouch had designed the bridge, and was responsible for its construction and maintenance; he was knighted in part because of this work. Unsurprisingly, the effect of the disaster on his reputation was devastating. At the time of the disaster, he had been working on the proposed Forth Bridge, but the design work was transferred elsewhere. He died the following year, before the official inquiry was complete. 

A new bridge was built parallel to the old one, opening in 1887 - it incorporates some wrought iron girders from its predecessor. Parts of the original bridge's piers still remain visible. A memorial at the end of the bridge in Dundee lists the names of the known victims. 




Elsewhere said...

"Oh! Ill-fated bridge of the silv'ry Tay,
I now must conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed."
~~William McGonagall, c. 1880

CarolineLD said...

Ah yes, McGonagall seems to have been particularly 'inspired' by the bridge!

Ralph Hancock said...

The quality of the castings was worse than questionable. The iron was impure, and they were peppered with holes which had been filled with a grey putty called 'Beaumont Egg' to avoid their being noticed.

Stephen Barker said...

Sir Thomas Bouch had made a reputation for constructing lightweight and low cost railway structures. Because the original bridge was only single track it was very narrow and was described as looking like a thread thrown over the Tay.
As a layman one suspects that on high narrow piers the bridge lacked lateral stability. The poor construction and maintenance merely compounding the problem.
The attention given to railway accidents and deaths nowadays is a reflection of how high safety standards are compared to the past and how comparatively rare such incidents are.
On researching local newspapers in the 1880's I had been struck by the fact that in one year there had been around 6 deaths of people either working on the railways, crossing lines or walking alongside tracks. Given these deaths were for one rural area, I did wonder how many people died nationally on the railways.

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