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Runcorn Railway Bridge (Ethelfleda Bridge)
River Mersey, Runcorn in Merseyside to Widness in Cheshire, UK
Runcorn Railway Bridge (Ethelfleda Bridge)
associated engineer
William Baker
date  1863 - 10th October 1868
era  Victorian  |  category  Bridge  |  reference  SJ508835
ICE reference number  HEW 196
photo  © David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
This bridge was built to carry the London & North Western Railway across the River Mersey at Runcorn Gap on the direct rail line between London, Crewe and Liverpool. Known also as Ethelfleda’s Bridge or Britannia Bridge, it was thought to be the longest in the world at the time of construction and is still in use. It is immediately adjacent to the Silver Jubilee Bridge (the visible arch).
Before this bridge was built, travellers from London to Liverpool had to change trains at Warrington and Earlestown — a route more than 13km longer. Parliamentary approval was granted in 1861 and construction began in 1863, with the first stone laid by local shipbuilder Philip Whiteway on 12th April 1864. It was designed by the railway company's chief engineer William Baker.
The bridge crosses the river on three main spans each of 93m, formed by pairs of wrought iron double-web lattice girders, supported by two sandstone stone piers and sandstone abutments founded 13.7m below water level. It carries double rail tracks and has a cantilevered footway on its east side, which was an alternative toll crossing to the ferries.
Each girder contains 711 tonnes of iron and is fastened with 48,115 rivets. The overhead lattice cross bracing between the top flanges of each girder pair is masked by stone portals, surmounted by castellated turrets in the Gothic revival style that reach 15.2m above the rail level. The turrets may be a Victorian homage to Ethelfleda, daughter of King Alfred, who is said to have built a castle near the southern end of the bridge in around AD 915.
To allow shipping to pass beneath, the railway is 22.9m above high water level. This height is achieved by a curved approach of 59 brick arches on the Widnes (north) side, rising on a gradient of 1 in 114, and a viaduct of 33 arches on the Runcorn (south) side.
The abutments and first pair of girders were completed by November 1866, with all girders fixed in place on 14th February 1868. The first train over the bridge was the contractor's locomotive on 21st May and the formal opening was on 10th October1868, though freight services did not start until 1st February 1869, with passenger trains from 1st April.
The Manchester Ship Canal (1894) passes under the Runcorn Railway Bridge, separated from the River Mersey by a stone wall, its width at that point constrained by the bridge’s dimensions.
The London & North Western Railway, including the bridge, became part of the London Midland Scottish Railway in 1923. In 1948 it was nationalised, and in 1965 British Railways closed the pedestrian footway. It achieved Grade II* listed status on 6th October 1983, and in 2009 it was cleaned and repainted.
Contractor: Thomas Brassey
Ironwork: J. Cochrane & Sons
Repainting (2009): TI Protective Coatings
Research: ECPK
"British Railway Bridges" by David Walters
Ian Allan Publishing, London, 1963
"Crossings" by Deborah Mulhearn, in Mersey Book 2, pp.80-93, October 2007
available at www.merseybasin.org.uk
reference sources   CEH NorthBDCE2

Runcorn Railway Bridge (Ethelfleda Bridge)