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High Level Bridge, Newcastle
River Tyne, Newcastle to Gateshead, UK
High Level Bridge, Newcastle
associated engineer
Robert Stephenson
date  July 1846 - 4th February 1850
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Bridge  |  reference  NZ250636
ICE reference number  HEW 22
photo  PHEW
A two-deck rail and road bridge that crosses the River Tyne north-south. The trains run on the upper level and road vehicles on the lower. The Grade I listed bridge forms one part of a spectacular 1.6km long viaduct system that runs through Newcastle. It remains in daily use after a comprehensive refit.
The bridge was built for east coast mainline of the York, Newcastle & Berwick Railway and designed by the railway's chief engineer Robert Stephenson (1803-59). It is the oldest of the ten existing bridges across the Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead, and is thought to be the first bridge in the world to carry rail and road traffic on one structure.
A high-level bridge was chosen to avoid the necessity of very long approach gradients (suitable for steam trains) in the heavily built-up areas on either side of the river valley. To save money, and reduce width, the railway was placed above rather than beside the roadway, creating the first two-deck bridge in the UK. It's also the earliest major example of a wrought iron tied arch or bowstring girder bridge.
The bridge is 408m long 156m of it over water 12.2m wide and contains some 5,100 tonnes of iron. It has six 38m river spans, supported on masonry piers up to 40m high and 14m by 4.9m in section. The river spans are flanked by four 11m land spans on either side, making 14 spans in total.
Each river span consists of four parallel cast iron arch ribs that spring from road level. Horizontal wrought iron bars, visible under the bridge, tie the ends of the arches together. Each rib was cast in five sections. Horizontal and vertical bracing frames provide additional rib stiffness, with diagonal bracing between the spandrels of inner and outer ribs. Longitudinal girders connect the tops of the spandrel pillars and transverse girders cross the ribs, giving a rigid structure.
The rail deck sits on the arches and is supported by cast iron columns. The rails are 34.1m above high water. The road deck is hung from the rail deck on wrought iron tension roads enclosed in cast iron box sections, and is 25.9m above high water. Both decks are timber.
On the lower deck, a single carriageway road runs between the inner pair of arches, 6.1m apart, with 2m wide pedestrian walkways in the gap between inner and outer arches on each side.
A Y-shaped junction brings the rail and road decks onto the bridge at the north end, while at the south end the road deck emerges between (and below) the two curving branches of the rail deck.
Nasmyth's steam-powered piling machine was used to drive the timber piles for the masonry bridge piers one of its earliest applications. Scottish mechanical engineer James Hall Nasmyth (1808-90) had patented his steam hammer on 9th June 1842 and subsequently modified its design to produce a machine to drive piles, which was first demonstrated on 3rd July 1845 in Devonport.
To allow rail traffic across the river as soon as possible, a temporary timber bridge was built on the east side of the new bridge's foundations while the permanent structure was under construction. The single-track temporary deck opened on 29th August 1848.
On 7th June 1849, the Mayor of Gateshead George Hawks (1801-1863) drove in the last key of the bridge arches to complete the superstructure. On August 11th 1849, a test train travelled over the new rail deck and the first train to carry passengers crossed it four days later. At this stage the bridge had one rail track. The temporary deck was then removed and the permanent deck completed it was wide enough for three tracks. Southbound trains used the eastern track, northbound trains the middle one, and the western track was for freight trains.
On 27th September 1849, Queen Victoria carried out the official opening of the High Level Bridge. Construction was not completed until 16th January 1850 and the bridge was opened to road traffic on 4th February 1850.
Overall expenditure on the project was 491,153. The bridge cost 243,096 (including 112,000 for ironwork), the bridge approaches were 113,057, and land and compensation (including relocating 785 families) totalled 135,000.
Road tolls were charged from 1850 until their abolition in 1937. Horse-drawn carriages were using the bridge from the 1880s, with electric trams from 1923. Horse-drawn buses were not phased out until 1931.
The northern part of the bridge was damaged on 24th June 1866, when a fire in Close, Newcastle, destroyed a large flour mill and some grain warehouses.
However, the bridge only carried the east coast main rail line until after the King Edward VII Bridge (NZ246632) opened in July 1906. Mainline trains switched to the newer bridge, avoiding the need to reverse out of Newcastle Central Station (NZ246638) as had happened previously, while trains en route for Sunderland and Middlesbrough used Stephenson's bridge.
The High Level Bridge was Grade I listed in April 1950. In the 1980s, the number of rail tracks across it was reduced from three to two as part of the east coast mainline electrification scheme and the western track was electrified.
In December 2004, a detailed inspection of the bridge was carried out by engineers abseiling from the top of the structure and accessing the underside from a 50m lorry-mounted elevating platform. The bridge's structural condition was worse than anticipated and in February 2005 it was closed to road traffic for an extensive restoration programme to safeguard its long-term future.
The road carriageway was narrowed from two lanes to one and safety barriers fitted. Essential maintenance included replacing the road deck timbers with hardwood (greenheart) and repairing widespread severe cracks in the cast iron structure. A total of 33 layers of paint were removed and the bridge repainted in a creamy colour similar to the original.
The bridge re-opened on 2nd June 2008 after a 43m refit. The roadway on the lower deck is now for southbound (Newcastle to Gateshead) buses and taxis only, limited to 32kph (20mph). Pedestrians and cyclists can still use the original footpaths on each side of the roadway.
Assistant engineer: Thomas Elliot Harrison
Resident engineer: Robert Hodgson
Contractor (river piers, north approaches): Rush & Lawton
Contractor (south approaches): Wilson & Gibson
Sub-contractor (approaches): Losh, Wilson & Bell
Masonry arches: Abbott & Co
Ironwork: Hawks Crawshay & Sons
Inspection (2004): Owen Williams Railways
Project manager (2005-8): Mott MacDonald
Contractor (2005-8): May Gurney
Research: ECPK
reference sources   CEH North

High Level Bridge, Newcastle