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Runcorn-Widnes Transporter Bridge, site of
Runcorn Gap, River Mersey, Merseyside, UK
associated engineer
John James Webster
John Thomas Wood
date  December 1901
era  Modern  |  category  Bridge  |  reference  SJ509835
The Runcorn-Widnes Transporter Bridge was one of four transporter bridges constructed in Britain, and the only one of which that has been demolished. It carried vehicles and pedestrians over the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal but was replaced by a modern road bridge in the mid 20th century to meet increased traffic demands.
In the late 19th century, the only ways for traffic to cross the Runcorn Gap were via a rowboat ferry or via the Runcorn Railway Bridge (opened 1868). Construction of the Manchester Ship Canal (1887-94) along the south bank of the River Mersey meant two ferry journeys with a climb over the canal wall in between. Runcorn, at the terminus of the Bridgewater Canal, and Widnes, a centre for chemical manufacturing, were two busy industrial hubs in urgent need of a direct road link.
However, any bridge had to be tall enough for ocean-going vessels on the Ship Canal to pass beneath, and high-level bridges are expensive. The cost-effective solution was a transporter bridge of steel lattice girders, a design already employed in Europe, with goods and pedestrians in a travelling carriage slung beneath a bridge span above navigation height.
The Widnes & Runcorn Bridge Company was established in 1899, with Sir John Tomlinson Brunner (1842-1919), then Member of Parliament (Liberal) for Northwich, as its chairman. The necessary Act of Parliament to authorise construction and operation of the Runcorn-Widnes Transporter Bridge received royal assent on 10th July 1900. Funding consisted of £100,000 of share capital, including £25,000 from Widnes Corporation, and £10,000 from Runcorn Urban Council.
The bridge was designed by John James Webster (1845-1914) and John Thomas Wood (1849-1932). At the time, it had the longest span in Britain carrying road traffic. This was the first of four similar transporter bridges in the UK and also the largest of its type in the world. The other three survive — at Newport (1906, operational) in South Wales, Middlesbrough (1911, operational) and Warrington (1915, disused).
Construction of the Runcorn-Widnes bridge began in December 1901, with main contractor Arrol’s Bridge & Roof Company from Glasgow and local sub-contractor Widnes Foundry Company. The lattice girder structure consisted of two towers with a high-level deck suspended on cables between them. Low-level roadway approaches ran between the masonry abutments and the towers.
Each tower had two tapering legs connected by cross bracing at ground level, and by trusses above the deck and at the top. Access walkways spanned the top trusses on each tower, reached via spiral staircases inside the tower legs. The tops of the towers were 57.8m above high water level and the span between them, centre to centre, was 304.8m.
The tower legs were founded on four large cylindrical steel caissons sunk into the river bed and bolted to the underlying sandstone bedrock. They appear to have been hollow and probably were infilled afterwards. The two tower piers, the Runcorn one on the south side of the ship canal and the Widnes one near the north bank of the river, were 9.1m wide and formed by bracing eight caissons together.
The bridge deck carried rails for a 23.5m long electric-powered bogey or trolley from which hung the transporter car. The deck, a truss girder 5.5m deep and 10.7m wide, was 350.5m long and so extended beyond the towers. The top of the girder was 25m above high water level.
The deck was carried by vertical hangers attached to steel suspension cables 305mm in diameter strung from tower to tower. The two suspension cables had steel back stays from the tower caps and were anchored at the top of the masonry abutments. Each of the four stay cables consisted of 19 strands anchored into three steel shoes, two shoes of six strands and one central shoe of seven strands. Teams of heavy horses were used to pull the cables into place.
New roads were constructed either side of the bridge. The 98m long north approach included four river spans (approximately 68m in total) between abutment and tower, and the 140m long south approach included one span over the canal bank (approximately 15m), also between abutment and tower.
The transporter car, or gondola, consisted of a platform 16.8m long and 7.3m wide, with a timber hut providing shelter for passengers. Originally, four equally spaced latticed steel arches spanned above the width of the platform, linked longitudinally to form a rigid cage. A square cabin mounted above the centre of the cage gave the gondola’s driver a clear view all round.
The gondola’s platform was level with the approach roads for drive-on access, which meant its underside was 3.7m above high water. It cleared the ship canal wall by only 1.4m. The loaded car took between 2.25 and 4 minutes to make the crossing. Electricity for the motors on the trolley came from a three-storey power house (SJ511836) of red sandstone with twin hipped slate roofs, constructed adjacent to the abutment on the Widnes (north) side. Transporter bridge offices (SJ511837) were built close by at the west end of St Mary’s Road.
The bridge was completed in 1905 at a cost of £130,000 — about one-third the cost of a traditional high-level bridge. It was opened by Sir John Brunner on 29th May, with the first gondola crossing on 8th April.
Though undoubtedly better than a ferry boat, the bridge was not without problems. Its gondola was susceptible to adverse weather, and high winds frequently closed the bridge. By 1911, it was not operating economically and was sold to Widnes Corporation under the Widnes and Runcorn Bridge (Transfer) Act of 18th August 1911. It closed for refurbishment, including alterations to the method of propulsion, with services resuming in 1913.
Two royal passengers visited the bridge, and presumably made the crossing: King George V in 1925 and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1958.
However, by the mid-20th century, the bridge was struggling to cope with the volume of traffic queuing to cross, and it could only carry a maximum load of 20 tonnes. In 1946, the Ministry of Transport agreed it should be replaced by a road bridge. Three more Acts were passed to facilitate the change — the Cheshire and Lancashire County Councils (Runcorn-Widnes Bridge, etc.) Act on 31st July 1947 and two iterations of the Runcorn-Widnes Bridge Act on 12th July 1950 and 21st December 1955.
A through arch road bridge was constructed (1956-61) alongside the transporter. The new bridge, now known as the Silver Jubilee Bridge, opened on 21st July 1961 and carries the A533. The Runcorn-Widnes Transporter Bridge closed the day afterwards, on 22nd July. It’s estimated that on average it transported more than one million foot passengers and 250,000 vehicles a year. Demolition commenced soon after closure, took over two years to complete and cost more than the original construction.
The steel superstructure may have been dismantled but traces of the transporter survive in the former bridge approaches and abutments at the north end of Waterloo Road in Runcorn and the south end of Mersey Road in Widnes. The former transporter offices remain, as does the former power house, given Grade II* listing in October 1983.
Contractor: Arrol's Bridge & Roof Co, Glasgow
Steelwork: Widnes Foundry Company
Research: ECPK
bibliography
"Flying Bridges. A Short History of Transporter Bridges", eBook by Cyril J. Wood, Diarama Multi-Media, available on www.canalscape.net
http://hansard.millbanksystems.com
www.cc-publishing.co.uk
www.gracesguide.co.uk
www.haltonscollections.org.uk
www.historicengland.org.uk
www.liverpoolecho.co.uk
www.runcornhistsoc.org.uk
www.transporttrust.com
Location

Runcorn-Widnes Transporter Bridge, site of