On 10th April 2019 the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham suddenly and without notice announced that Hammersmith Bridge was closed to all traffic due to urgent concerns about its structural integrity. To anyone familiar with the bridge or its history the surprise must be that it had taken so long for this almost inevitable event to happen. Behind it lies a story of the failure to properly monitor the structure and fund repairs in a timely manner which in turn tells of the failure of government at all levels to properly protect our existing structures.
Hammersmith Bridge may not be that important when it comes to our national transport network but the saga is a microcosm of what many feel is a failure to properly fund and maintain our transport network. We look at the history of the bridge, what is happening now and what the future may bring. In addition to this, the signage and travel information provided by TfL is a telling indication of how London’s once great, properly administered, information about the travel services provided has become pitifully inadequate, disorganised and lacking in clarity. Frank Pick would have been appalled.
“It wasn’t built for modern traffic”
As we shall see later, the excuses and eagerness to pin the blame on someone else seems to have been in overdrive when it comes to Hammersmith Bridge. All sides seemed keen to point out that Hammersmith Bridge opened in 1877 in an era of when travel was generally on foot or by horse. Even bicycles were a relative rarity with the somewhat impractical penny farthing only just starting to be superseded by the ‘safety bicycle’ – the forerunner of the bicycle of today with pneumatic tyres on two equal-size wheels.
The age of Hammersmith Bridge is a valid point when considering the factors which has led to the situation we are now in. Indeed one could go further and point out that the foundations of the bridge were built for a previous bridge on the same site and date back to 1827. This, of course, does not explain why the bridge has to suddenly be shut. Some of the rail lines into London Bridge are located on viaducts built in the 1830s. Hungerford Rail Bridge was built in the 1860s as was Westminster Bridge. Both still see intensive use today. Construction of Tower Bridge (opened 1894) started just two years after the construction of the present-day Hammersmith Bridge yet that has been properly maintained throughout its life.
Blame the structural design …
One of the problems of Hammersmith Bridge is its unusual design. In fact there doesn’t even seem to be universal agreement on how to categorise it. Probably the best description is that it is a chain-link suspension bridge Unfortunately, the phrase “it is only as good as its weakest link” is probably very apt when describing this kind of bridge. Whereas a cable suspension link has redundancy in that the cable has many parallel strands of wire, any one of which can snap (providing not too many do) without affecting the overall integrity of the bridge, a chain-link suspension bridge is a series of construction links where every chain-link has to be sound for the bridge to be safe.
Not surprisingly the world has seen very few chain-link suspension bridges. Rather bafflingly large signs currently on the bridge claim that the only two in the world are Hammersmith Bridge and one at Budapest. More specifically the latter is one linking the cities of Buda and Pest on opposite banks of the River Danube. In fact Hammersmith Bridge isn’t even the only chain suspension bridge traversing the Thames.
The claim made about the bridge being one of only two in the world in existence must come as news to the people of Marlow who claim that their bridge is one of only two in the world – the other being Budapest. The people of Marlow have better claim as the one at Budapest was actually modelled on their much smaller bridge. In fact there are quite a few “chain suspension bridges” (listed here) including the Clifton suspension bridge.
To make matters worse, Hammersmith Bridge is largely constructed of wrought iron despite the fact that by the 1880s steel was starting to replace wrought iron. It was an era where the cost of making steel was being reduced due to the introduction of the Bessemer converter which was patented in 1856 and the first experimental converter built in 1857.
… or maybe the IRA
A sure sign of a weak design of a structure is its attractiveness to terrorists.
Al Qeada had struck the World Trade Center in New York in 1993 and clearly, even then, recognised its structural weakness which they again exploited on September 11th 2001. In a similar way the IRA has attacked Hammersmith Bridge and caused some damage three times (1939, 1996 and 2000). On the final occasion their main explosive device went off and it caused the bridge to be closed for two years and when it did reopen further weight restrictions were initially put in place due to the permanent damage caused.
… or maybe the politics behind it
At present Hammersmith Bridge is absolutely festooned with signs. One that may seem insignificant and irrelevant is one just a few yards on the south side of the bridge. It can be seen shortly after you leave the bridge in a southbound direction. It tells you that your are entering the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames. Curiously, there is no sign in the opposite direction informing you that you are entering the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham (LBH&F).
The Thames is an obvious feature to be used a boundary for different administrative districts. Famously, one traditionally refers to the two sides of the Thames in this area as the ‘Surrey bank’ or ‘the Middlesex bank’. This all works fine until a bridge is built across the river and someone has to have ownership of it. Hammersmith Bridge was built by Sir Joseph Bazalgette (of sewers fame) and chief engineer of the former Metropolitan Board of Works.
The Metropolitan Board of Works was the predecessor of the London County Council which was later enhanced to be the Greater London Council (GLC). The was wound up but eventually replaced by the Greater London Authority (GLA). TfL is the transport arm of the GLA and you would think both logically and by historical precedent that it would be responsible for Hammersmith Bridge – but it isn’t. It is up to LBH&F to maintain it.
To make matters worse, the people most affected by the closure are those who live in Barnes and the surrounding area south of the river rather than residents of LBH&F. The next bridge upstream is Barnes rail bridge and further upstream still is Chiswick Bridge. Chiswick Bridge is a substantial 1930s structure and at least partially in the London Borough of Hounslow but TfLs responsibility. Buses diverted from Hammersmith via Chiswick Bridge take around 15 minutes to reach the south side of Hammersmith Bridge – providing there is little or no traffic along the route.
On the downstream side, the next crossing point is Putney Bridge which is already very congested traffic-wise – especially on the south side where Putney town centre is located. Putney Bridge is the responsibility of the London Borough of Wandsworth. A few years ago they closed the bridge for a while for planned maintenance and repair so that bridge is currently in good condition.
The reality is that there is really very little alternative to Hammersmith Bridge without a very long detour. To make matters even worse Charing Cross Hospital in Fulham with its accident & emergency facilities is, by road, less than a mile away from the north end of Hammersmith Bridge and even ambulances are banned from crossing the bridge.
So, in summary then, you have:
- LBH&F who own the bridge
- The London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames whose residents are bearing the brunt of the impact of the bridge closure
- Chiswick Bridge which lies in the London Borough of Hounslow so they bear some of the impact of closure
- The London Borough of Wandsworth being responsible for Putney Bridge and the traffic on the south side of it.
To add to the complexity, TfL is responsible for red routes and both Chiswick and Putney bridges are on red routes. Hammersmith Bridge is not on a red route and therefore, strictly speaking is nothing to do with TfL – other than their buses run over it. However TfL were already taking a keen interest in the bridge and were offering to contribute substantially to its refurbishment – as was envisaged prior to the latest micro-cracks being discovered in the wrought iron structure.
As well as that, TfL are very active in promoting cycling. The transport users who have been main beneficiaries of the closure of the bridge have definitely been cyclists and it is this group that may need placating when the bridge finally re-opens. Certainly, the increase in numbers will almost certainly have to be taken into account.
.. but it is probably all down to money
Another way of looking at the problem is that it is down to LBH&F to sort out the problem but they have no money. Cynics may say that the known need to repair the bridge went to the bottom of the queue because the people affected were relatively-affluent residents in Barnes. Of course, some residents (and certainly some businesses) in Hammersmith may be affected and it is also true that not all residents of Barnes are affluent and many relied on the bus over the bridge
The good old days. A roof-box RT bus goes over Hammersmith Bridge
Cynics have also suggested that the timing of the closure is suspicious – just days after the start of the financial year when the budget is effectively set in stone and too late to do anything about it until next year. The reality has more to do with the discovery of tell-tale micro-cracks. Probably of no relevance at all is that the Boat Race took place three days earlier and the bridge would have been packed with pedestrians. An earlier concern about the thousands of people on the bridge in 1870 in order to watch the Boat Race was what prompted the earlier bridge to be replaced. However, the nature of the cracks and where they were found means they had probably been there a long time and were caused by heavy traffic.
Crossrail style secrecy?
Something that has emerged following closure is that it certainly wasn’t the case that LBH&F were totally ignoring the situation. They were concerned and were actively monitoring the situation. Indeed they were even making preparations for a planned long-term closure to remedy the situation for good and were in the process of devising detailed plans to repair the bridge.
What was generally not known at the time is that LBH&F were starting to realise the situation may well be far more serious than previously thought. As well as a problem with the chains and the decking there was a potential problem with cracks in the wrought iron structure. It was these worse fears being confirmed that led to the sudden closure of the bridge.
Unfortunately, their openness as to the true situation of things as they were left something to be desired. It seems as, rather like Crossrail, they were hoping everything would turn out fine and things would go according to their rather optimistic plan. In the case of a bridge, unlike something like tube trains, delay doesn’t generally just mean that you spend uneconomic amounts keeping ancient structures going, there comes a point where you just have to close the bridge.
Don’t save for a rainy day
It would be all too easy simply to blame LBH&F but there is more to it than this. In times gone by councils would methodically check the status of its assets rather like Network Rail does. Councils would also borrow money in the event of an unexpected emergency. This willingness to borrow money met with the disapproval of the Treasury (the ultimate guarantor). It also led to some councils being rather too keen to borrow to overcome short-term problems. In any case, it could be argued that many instances of borrowing were not unexpected emergencies but something foreseeable.
The closure of Hammersmith Bridge was necessary and foreseeable and probably should have happened a few years ago. What caused the bridge to be suddenly closed could not have been foreseen unless the bridge had been fully (almost literally microscopically) examined as part of a periodic examination.
To get around not being able to borrow, councils then tended to build up contingency funds. This was something that seemed only prudent and sensible. However, some funds were becoming rather large and seen by some (typically politicians) as excessive. The government therefore restricted the amount of contingency funds that councils could hold as it was felt they were being unduly pessimistic and needlessly making unavailable money that could be used for local benefit.
TfL used to, very sensibly, have a large contingency measured in hundreds of millions of pounds. This led to some local politicians from the shires complaining to the Treasury that they had to do a lot of belt-tightening whilst TfL was awash with money yet receiving hundreds of millions of pounds each year from the Treasury. Of course, Crossrail has shown that TfL’s former contingency, far from being excessive, was prudent and could have been put to good use in the manner intended if they had been allowed to keep it.
The blame game
It is also the case that in times of austerity government and local government organisations tend to look for other organisations to foot the bill. This leads to various parties being quick to point the blame elsewhere For example, there is a page on the London Borough of Richmond web site about the Hammersmith Bridge closure. The first paragraph states
Hammersmith Bridge is owned and maintained by the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham (LBHF). Transport for London (TfL) is responsible for managing bus services across the bridge.
So, ‘nothing to do with us’.
Caroline Pidgeon, chair of the Assembly’s Transport Select Committee and a Liberal Democrat, was quick to blame Labour-run LBH&F:
“Hammersmith and Fulham Council are also attempting to make cheap political points. They are seeking to blame national government when in reality Transport for London have long been committed to investing in repairing and strengthening the bridge.”
Initially TfL seemed quite antagonistic and made a point of pointing out responsibility for the bridge lay with LB&F but now seem to have adopted a more co-operative and constructive tone:
We are working with Hammersmith and Fulham Council to confirm the final plan for this work as soon as possible.
It really is a big deal
For someone used to living in London and often adjusting their journey in the light of traffic problems it is probably hard to understand just what a big deal the closure of this small two-lane bridge already is. Drivers of heavy or wide vehicles will have known for years due to the weight restriction (generally 7.5 tonnes but at times has gone down to 5 tonnes) and the width restriction.
The only signposted weight exemption was for buses. These were restricted to single-decker in later years and, furthermore, only one bus in each direction was allowed on the bridge at one time. A rather cavalier attitude was taken to this rule until LBH&F threatened to ban buses completely unless it was fully observed.
Once the bridge was closed, car drivers found that their journey was going to take considerably longer. With the A4 in Hammersmith, just north of the bridge, a gateway into London and also to the west has effectively been made unavailable to those wanting to make a car journey or having no other realistic option.
Bus passengers would appear not to be so badly affected as they at least would have the option of walking over the bridge. Unfortunately for them, things were not as rosy as one might have thought. Just walking from the last stop on the south of the river to the first stop on the north is roughly a seven minute walk which is pleasant in good weather if you are fit and healthy. The diverted bus route takes an absolute minimum of 15 minutes.
For bus users at any rate, things are much worse than might appear. The diverted route by bus can take a lot longer. In practice bus passengers are probably heading to the bus or tube station at Hammersmith and that can easily be a 15 minute walk by the time one has managed to cross the one-way traffic system in Hammersmith. Worse still for the bus passenger, the buses are now much less predictable so extra time has to be allowed for a journey. And, as we shall come onto, it is really hard to find out what buses go where and when they go there.
The only beneficiaries from the bridge closure are pedestrians and cyclists. For pedestrians the bridge crossing is much more pleasant. Cyclists do not only have a safer and more pleasant crossing. The main road leading south, Castelnau, is almost empty giving an amenable cycle route all the way to Barnes railway station.
A ‘Southern’ moment
Word on the street that appears to be subsequently confirmed officially is that the closure is going to last three, maybe four, years. Many people are now openly talking about having to either give up work or change jobs. As well as that, some people are talking about needing to move. The reasons given are the same as in the Southern dispute. People arrive at work late due to unpredictability. They arrive home late which can be tolerated on an occasional basis but night-after-night and week-after-week really affects you.
When public meetings are arranged, they seem to be oversubscribed. These meetings seem to only take place in the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames. This is despite the LBH&F council leader emphasising that the grade II* listed building is dear to the hearts of Hammersmith residents.
If anything good can be said it is that, rather like the Southern dispute, the users are no longer interested in the blame game. It seems to have been replaced by a desire, of the leaders from all parties affected at any rate, to just see the problem sorted. To this end it does seem that the boroughs of Richmond and Hammersmith & Fulham and TfL are all co-operating fully to try and resolve the issue.
A sometimes somewhat fractious public meeting organised by Richmond-upon-Thames council
What has also emerged is a more open description of the engineering issues LBH&F face. An excellent presentation of this (unfortunately from a bad camera angle) can be seen in the video above from around 11 minutes in to around 30 minutes in.
The bad news
The bad news in all this is that LBH&F is somewhat disingenuous when it reports that Hammersmith Bridge is being restored to full working order and its Victorian splendour. Unfortunately that is a statement of intent rather than what is happening now and in any case is it is diverting you from the fact that currently there is no plan yet available to provide the necessary repairs.
Whilst, as we have seen, LBH&F haven’t ignored the issue of Hammersmith Bridge, it seems that their top priority, understandably, was ensuring safety by closing the bridge once it was unsafe rather than striving to keep it open. It is almost as if the number of previous long-term closures over the years have made it seem acceptable to them to close the bridge for a couple of years or so when necessary.
Even if tomorrow LBH&F came up with the money and a plan we are probably looking at an absolute minimum of two years to do the work. Everyone seems to agree that the bridge needs to be sorted out properly. Originally this appeared to be a matter of completely replacing the decking and the chain-links but this now seems complicated by the recognition that the support towers also need attention. Like the Golden Gate bridge in California, it seems it would be much easier just to take the bridge down and rebuild it but, equally like the Golden Gate bridge, this would not be acceptable to do to such an iconic (and in this case grade II* listed) structure.
The one thing that could be done
Inevitably there have been suggestions for a temporary road bridge but these have been quickly deemed as impractical. With the north (Middlesex) bank built-up there is no obvious place to put it even if it were otherwise practical. So we are basically stuck with the current situation for a good three years. The only mitigating measure really possible is to make sure the alternative arrangements are clearly signed and run as well as possible. And it is here that there is really no excuse for what has happened.
The initial cycle confusion
Not surprisingly, when the bridge was initially closed there was a level of confusion and chaos. The three major groups affected were cyclists, bus passengers and motorists. Initially, each of them had their own problems.
Incredibly, initially, the bridge was signposted in a way to suggests that cyclists were no longer allowed on the bridge. Part of the confusion seems to have arisen because cycling has always been banned on the pedestrian footways. The contractor involved seemed to mindlessly put up various confusing notices including ”Cyclists dismount” and appeared not to even grasp that the bridge was closed to motor traffic. In this they were not alone as a noticed displayed at Hammersmith (Hammersmith & City) station seemed not to make this clear.
Even days after the closure some contractors employees could be seen telling cyclists off for cycling on the bridge. The cyclists of course took not the slightest notice. More to the point, pedestrians are not allowed on the main bridge (only the footways) yet there were no signs telling pedestrians not to walk on the bridge (as many were doing) .
The initial bus confusion
It is entirely forgivable that the initial arrangements for bus passengers weren’t ideal. One route did continue to operate using a diversion route via Chiswick Bridge but had its capacity reduced elsewhere which was presumably because of the limited number of buses available. On the south side of the river, routes that normally terminate at Hammersmith terminated at ‘Castelnau (Lonsdale Road)‘. Whilst this was conveniently close to the south side of Hammersmith bridge, one would not be aware of this unless one was very familiar with local geography. A blind stating ‘Hammersmith Bridge (south side)‘ would have been so much more helpful.
Much of the problem with bus arrangements initially, seems to have been that the arrangements didn’t really cater for bus passengers walking across the bridge. For example, there wasn’t (and still isn’t) any pedestrian signposting between the final stop on the south side and Hammersmith station and bus station. Whilst that is not too bad when walking north across the river, it is certainly not obvious to someone unfamiliar with Hammersmith just how to get to Hammersmith bridge on foot and indeed that it isn’t actually very far away – certainly quicker than getting the bus.
The initial confusion also meant there was contradictory and just confusing information being displayed. In homage to Diamond Geezer’s saga narrating ‘Bus Stop M’ by the Bow Flyover we provide our short report on ‘Bus Stop S’. (For the original Bus Stop M saga click here and then click on the links to chapters within that document to read the individual reports.)
Bus Stop S
Bus Stop S is the last bus stop in Hammersmith before buses used to turn off the one-way system onto the approach to Hammersmith Bridge. A visit a few days after closure showed what originally seemed quite impressive documentation on the stop giving closure details. A nice touch was that routes on the bus flag that no longer served the stop were crossed out with a red cross alerting you to the temporary arrangements. But, inexplicably, this was only done on one side of the bus flag and wasn’t done for one route that a the countdown display on the bus shelter told you was no longer running.
There were notices giving details of the revised arrangements but these were quite generic whereas this bus stop, being the last before diversion, really deserved something specific. As stated earlier, part of the problem seemed to be that London Buses seemed to be planning on the basis of passengers taking the bus diversion rather than walking across the bridge.
Motorists tend to lose out with unplanned closures. Sat-navs and route planners won’t necessarily be aware of these and it had to get the message across that the bridge is closed long before motorists are approaching the bridge. No effort, even now, seems to have been made to change directional road signs even though, from the outset, it must have been clear that the bridge would be closed for a long time – measured in years.
Consolidating bus changes
It was soon clear that the bus arrangements could be improved upon. In particular it made sense for London Buses to provide a dedicated link between central Hammersmith and the south side of the bridge This would enable other routes to operate ‘normally’ although somewhat shortened and would also fit in better with the fact that most bus passengers affected by the closure choose to walk over the bridge.
As seems to often be the case with TfL these days, this seems to be firmly in the category of ‘good idea badly implemented’. Regardless of whether it is the idea or the implementation that is the problem, many residents are urging TfL to restore the initial arrangements. The gory details of the changeover will be spared here but you can read a report on them in Diamond Geezer’s lengthy report on the subject. Judging by the situation weeks later, his report is not an exaggeration.
The situation today
Things are slowly improving, signage wise, but remain a bit chaotic. It is now clear that cyclists are allowed on the bridge but not the footways. A ‘No stopping’ sign makes it clear that motorists are not even allowed to drop people off at the south side of the bridge. Pedestrians and joggers are now told to keep off the carriageway and cyclists are specifically told to use the carriageway.
There are, or have been, confusing signs telling pedestrians to ‘keep left’. It is unclear whether this means that northbound pedestrians are supposed to use the upstream footway and southbound pedestrians the downstream one or that they can use either footway but must keep left on it. This wasn’t helped by at least one ‘keep left’ sign pointing to the right.
The road layout at the junction to the south of the bridge could be signposted a bit more permanently given the length of time the current situation is expected to remain.
Yet again, the biggest weakness seems to be with London Buses. The buses do not have appropriate blinds and so have temporary displays at the front that the drivers, inevitably and confusingly, forget to change.
The display for route 33 on one of the bus flags would leave Frank Pick spinning in his grave. It would probably leave Leon Daniels, until recently in charge of Surface Transport at TfL, spinning in his grave too if it were not for the fact he isn’t dead. And this isn’t the only example of highly non-standard signage.
As stated before, this stuff isn’t hard. It does cost money but this is tiny when considered with the rest of the expenditure involved on Hammersmith bridge yet it the one that creates the strongest impression.
It gets worse still. Northbound at Castelnau (Lonsdale Road) bus stop is a large spider map. It is, of course, out-of-date because TfL haven’t been updating spider maps. But an old map at this stop with so many bus changes is worse than useless. This is just one example. Even any expectation that notices on the bus stop are all posted the correct way up would be optimistic.
Perversely and counter-intuitively, one has to go to the southbound stop at Lonsdale Road to catch the replacement bus to go north to Hammersmith. This is something that passengers arriving at the final northbound stop on a terminating bus need to be alerted to – but they aren’t. Worse still the service is only half-hourly and not completely reliable. Yet for those without access to the latest phone technology there is no way of knowing if the shuttle bus will come or not. If ever there were a good case for a countdown screen at a bus stop then this is it. It may be a temporary need but three years is a long temporary time. Meanwhile, if there are any passengers using the shuttle bus, letting them know when it would be quicker to walk would be greatly appreciated. The shuttle bus would appear to be lightly used yet residents clamour for an improved service suggesting that demand would be there if a decent service were provided.
There seems no doubt that the only medium term option is to repair the bridge. However desirable it may be in the minds of some people for it to be motor-traffic free, the overwhelming need to restore the link means that this isn’t really practical. There is also no obvious alternative alignment.
There is talk, in the really long term, of a replacement tunnel that could be part of network of tunnels involving the replacement of Hammersmith Flyover with a tunnel which in turn would release prime redevelopment land. Such a thing is decades away and completely unaffordable in the present financial climate.
TfL has agreed that the £25 million set aside continues to be available to get the bridge re-opened. They are keen to be able to once again run double-decker buses over the bridge. Although not officially coupled to them providing the cash, it is suspected that they will be looking for confirmation of that before handing it over. Even with the £25 million and what LBH&F are able or willing to provide (and maybe London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames too) it seems there is still a shortfall on the expected cost and we all know how expected costs have a nasty habit of rising when the detail is worked out. So currently there is neither a technical solution nor a financial one.
To make matters worse still, electric vehicles at the moment are much heavier than their ‘gas-guzzling’ equivalent. This is true for buses as well as cars. And the trend in the car-buying world is for heavier bulkier SUVs anyway. So by the time the bridge is repaired or rebuilt it will have to deal with greater loads than ever before just to handle the same level of traffic.
Hammersmith Bridge is not the most important bridge over the Thames and its closure does not affect that many people. But the people affected are affected hard. And if you want to see the problems of transport in London first quarter of the 21st century played out on a small scale then look no further than all the issues with Hammersmith bridge.