Government launches task force to REOPEN Hammersmith Bridge

Government launches task force to REOPEN Hammersmith Bridge as Transport Secretary Grant Shapps slams ‘lack of leadership’ in capital to fix 133-year-old crossing after it closed to traffic in April 2019

  • A Government task force has been launched to reopen Hammersmith Bridge
  • The task force will open the bridge to pedestrians and cyclists before motorists 
  • Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said there has been a ‘lack of leadership’
  • It comes after the bridge further closed to pedestrians after a 34C heatwave 

A Government task force has been launched to reopen Hammersmith Bridge after it closed to motor traffic last year due to structural problems.

The 133-year-old cast iron suspension bridge in west London was closed ‘indefinitely’ to motorists in April last year after ‘critical faults’ were detected.

The iconic bridge further closed to pedestrians and cyclists last month after a heatwave made the cracks ‘significantly increase’, causing fury among residents.

The new task force will be responsible for opening the bridge ‘as speedily as possible’, first reopening to cyclists and pedestrians at a ‘minimum’.

The news was announced today by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who slammed a ‘lack of leadership’ in the capital to fix Hammersmith Bridge.

A Government task force has been launched to reopen Hammersmith Bridge as ‘speedily as possible’, Transport Secretary announced today (above)

The 133-year-old suspension bridge in west London was closed ‘indefinitely’ to motorists in April last year after ‘critical faults’ were detected in the ironworks

Residents gathered to protest after Hammersmith and Fulham Council announced that the bridge would be further closed to pedestrian and cyclists due to the heatwave

Mr Shapps said: ‘There has been a lack of leadership in London on reopening this vital bridge.

‘It’s stopped Londoners moving about easily and caused huge inconvenience to everyone, adding extra time to their commute or journeys.

‘We won’t let hard working Londoners suffer any longer. The Government is setting up a task force to establish the next steps in opening the bridge as speedily as possible.

‘We’ll be decisive and quick to make sure we can take steps that’ll be good for commuters, good for residents and good for business.’

The task force will be led by transport minister Baroness Vere and the priority is initially trying to reopen the bridge for cyclists and pedestrians, before moving on to motor traffic.

It has been confirmed that the Department for Transport has commissioned its own engineering advice on the condition of the bridge.

The Department will also continue to work with local groups and stakeholders to consider all the options for a solution to the structural problems.

This could include temporary crossings being could brought in to help with local traffic pressures if it cannot be made safe as quickly as possible.

The task force will be led by transport minister Baroness Vere and will initially try to reopen the bridge for cyclists and pedestrians, before moving on to motor traffic

The task force will be led by transport minister Baroness Vere and will initially try to reopen the bridge for cyclists and pedestrians, before moving on to motor traffic

Residents have previously demanded a temporary bridge to be put in place as anger has increased around a year-and-a-half after the initial closure in 2019.

Micro-fractures were discovered in the structure in 2014 when the council leader commissioned a structural integrity review of all aspects of the bridge’s suspension structure, which began in 2015.

WHAT IS THE TASK FORCE’S JOB?

The Government task force will be responsible for opening Hammersmith Bridge bridge ‘as speedily as possible’, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said.

The task force will be led by transport minister Baroness Vere and will initially try to reopen the bridge for cyclists and pedestrians, before moving on to motor traffic. 

It has also been confirmed that the Department for Transport has commissioned its own engineering advice on the condition of the bridge.

The Department of Transport have said the situation needs to be resolved ‘as soon as possible’. 

The Department will also continue to work with local groups and stakeholders, and consider all the options for a solution. 

This could include temporary measures that could be brought in to help with local traffic.  

The bridge originally remained open to pedestrians and cyclists but closed after Hammersmith and Fulham Council said the 34C heatwave had caused the cracks in the bridge to ‘significantly increase’ and widen.

It led the local authority, which owns the bridge, to close the crossing to all users and ban vessels from sailing underneath it on August 13.

The bridge was estimated to be used by around 16,000 pedestrians and cyclists a day before the additional closure.

August’s announcement led to protests from residents who were furious at the lengthy journeys they were forced to take, rather than walking across the bridge.

Pedestrians, including hundred of schoolchildren, have been forced to divert via Barnes Bridge, with traffic having to use Chiswick and Putney bridges instead. 

There have also been concerns from eco-enthusiasts that it would discourage people from cycling and walking, leading to further traffic build-ups.

A statement from Hammersmith and Fulham Council said: ‘Hammersmith Bridge is closed to pedestrians and river traffic from 5pm today (13 August) because of an increased risk to public safety due to a sudden deterioration in key parts of the suspension structure.       

‘Specialist engineers have been undertaking 24/7 monitoring of the structural integrity of the bridge throughout using an extensive network of sensors on the 19th century structure. 

‘The deterioration in the structure was exacerbated by the recent heatwave which caused cracks to significantly increase – despite measures taken to mitigate the heat.

‘The bridge will remain closed until the engineers are confident that it is safe to re-open to pedestrians and river traffic.

‘It means that pedestrians and cyclists must now cross the river elsewhere, while all river traffic under the bridge will also be stopped – including the pedestrian walkways under Hammersmith Bridge – while engineers examine the extent of the damage.’

The Department of Transport could introduce temporary measures to help with local traffic pressures and will continue to work with local groups and stakeholders

Pedestrians, including hundred of schoolchildren, have been forced to divert via Barnes Bridge, with traffic having to use Chiswick and Putney bridges instead 

The council wrote a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson later that month stating the estimated cost to make it safe and ‘avoid a potential catastrophic failure’ is £46million.

The letter said: ‘No local authority has that kind of money available. We therefore write to ask that the Government funds this work as a matter of urgency.’

Upon closure in 2019, Hammersmith Bridge had been about to undergo a full refurbishment, which engineers estimated at the time would cost £120million and take three years to complete.

Transport for London then provided £25million for preparatory repair work.

The council said in February there had been ‘good progress’ on the refurbishments. 

The latest news comes after months of arguments about who should pay for the bridge’s repair bill, which has been estimated to cost more than £140million.

Hammersmith Bridge, designed by civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette and opened in 1887, is made from cast iron and is one of two of its kind in the world.

Why IS this a bridge too far? It says everything about modern Britain’s paralysis: an iconic bridge across the Thames shut even to boats passing beneath it… because squabbling officials can’t agree who should pay to fix it, writes ROBERT HARDMAN

Standing by the Thames, enjoying one of London’s prettiest views, I can’t help humming the tune from that children’s classic, We’re Going On A Bear Hunt. As the characters find their path blocked by a river, they all sing: ‘We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. Oh, no! We’ve got to go through it.’

And that, I am afraid, is the real-life situation here at Hammersmith. The grand old green and gold suspension bridge, familiar to millions of viewers of the annual Boat Race, is not merely closed off to traffic. 

It is closed to everyone and everything, following a major panic three weeks ago when the bridge’s owner, the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, was suddenly informed that it might collapse at any minute.

Hammersmith bridge is closed to everyone and everything, following a major panic three weeks ago when the bridge’s owner, the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, was suddenly informed that it might collapse at any minute

All traffic had been banned a year earlier. Now, overnight, this 133-year-old link between Barnes, on the south side, and Hammersmith, to the north, was sealed off to pedestrians, cyclists — even dogs.

And because it could now fall into the Thames without warning, the authorities have also decreed that nothing shall pass underneath either — not even a kayak.

As a result, all river traffic is banned — indefinitely. It means that for the first time since the reign of George III, when the river last iced up in the Great Freeze of 1814, the Thames is now shut.

Nothing west of here can head for the open sea unless it is small enough for a complex detour through the Middlesex canal system. Nothing can come in from the North Sea and head upriver, by order of the Port of London Authority. If Oxford and Cambridge held the Boat Race today, they would be arrested.

And tens of thousands of people for whom the bridge is a vital route to school, hospital or work must now make a five-mile detour. Those attempting it by car or bus face delays of up to an hour and a half each way.

Walkers and cyclists face a choice of unlit paths and a road that floods at high tide or a pavement next to a six-lane highway. There is no indication of when life may get back to normal. That is because three separate local authorities and the Government have been unable to agree on who is to blame, who is in charge and who should foot the bill.

Yet it is part of a much greater problem. To follow the Thames through London is to witness a metropolis gradually being sawn in half. For, one by one, London’s bridges seem to be falling apart. At the same time, the Mayor of London’s solution is not to free up the city’s blocked arteries but to clog them with more cycle lanes and ‘safe’ pavements.

Most of the city’s office space is still unoccupied. For the first time in history, airports in Frankfurt and Paris carry more passengers than the once-mighty Heathrow. Britain is being bypassed.

And our rivals are thrilled. This week, the New York Times — which loves any tale of UK hubris and decline — has run a piece painting Hammersmith as emblematic of terminal decay in Brexit Britain.

It’s an easy case to make. Drive east along the Thames from Hammersmith and you will soon come to Wandsworth Bridge, now reduced from four lanes to two. Four miles further on, Vauxhall Bridge has just been sealed off to everything except foot traffic for ’emergency repairs’. It also marks the boundary of London’s Congestion Charge zone.

Overnight, this 133-year-old link between Barnes, on the south side, and Hammersmith, to the north, was sealed off to pedestrians, cyclists — even dogs

In his latest salvo against the motorist, London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan has just increased the charge to £15 and extended it to evenings and weekends. At a stroke, millions of casual visitors now have a good reason not to bother with Central London at all.

Keep going and you will pass Waterloo Bridge — Mayor Khan wants to make it a pedestrian zone — and then London Bridge. Sorry, no cars here either. It is shut for ‘essential works’.

Even dear old Tower Bridge has not escaped the bridge plague. The other day, it got stuck in the upright position for over an hour, causing gridlock.

This is not merely a London problem. Nothing is going to improve in the rest of country if the capital — with its £26 billion annual surplus — grinds to a halt.

And nothing symbolises the malaise at every level of government — from town hall to Cabinet table — than the shambles here at Hammersmith.

Hence I am standing at the southern end of the bridge in an early evening downpour as a crowd cheers an impassioned William Blackshaw. ‘I am angry,’ he says. ‘We need more rallies like this — more rallies until someone on high makes our voices heard!’

William is 11. He is still in his new school blazer fresh from starting at his new state school on the other side of the river. Week one of big school should be an exciting moment. Instead, it has been a grim experience.

‘He was so pleased to be going. But instead of a 700-metre walk or scoot to school, it’s an hour extra each way by bus,’ says his father, property manager Tim Blackshaw, 44. I hear numerous tales of people left waiting for an extra hour on top as one emergency bus after another turns up full.

Although the bridge belongs to Labour-run Hammersmith and Fulham Council on the north side, most of the 16,000 pedestrians and 22,000 drivers who once crossed it each day would come via the Liberal Democrat-run Borough of Richmond to the south.

The councils both argue, not unreasonably, that since it is a vital piece of London infrastructure, it should be adopted by the (Labour) Mayor and his Transport for London team. However, TfL, in turn, say they can do nothing until the (Tory) Government writes out a very large cheque.

All the residents want is some sort of temporary crossing. But TfL say they can’t consider this until the Government promises them cash for the whole project.

In the meantime, lives are thrown into chaos. I hear miserable tales of pensioners who can no longer visit their surgery across the bridge, of local businesses on the cusp of bankruptcy. The nearest pedestrian route is a mile and a half away, via the rail crossing at Barnes Bridge. On one side, the stairs are right next to a very narrow, very busy A-road. On the other is an unlit muddy path through woods.

Drive east along the Thames from Hammersmith and you will soon come to Wandsworth Bridge, now reduced from four lanes to two. Four miles further on, Vauxhall Bridge has just been sealed off to everything except foot traffic for ’emergency repairs’

I arrive one breakfast time and find it heaving with people lugging bikes or children (or both).

The locals have now given up with the councils and are shouting at the Government. Certainly, the costs involved are way beyond any local authority. The Conservative MP for Chelsea and Fulham, Greg Hands, has compiled a dossier on the bewildering sums.

Between 2015 and 2019, TfL spent £5.3 million on ‘monitoring’ the structure. By 2016, a repair plan budgeted at £27 million had been agreed but TfL never quite got round to starting it. Last year, a few days after the Boat Race, engineers suddenly noticed that things were much worse and so the bridge was closed overnight to all traffic. By then, the repair bill was put at £40 million. Now, it is £140 million.

Mr Hands has submitted a Freedom of Information request to find out why. Hilariously, that has just been rejected on grounds of ‘national security’. Hammersmith Bridge has, indeed, been the target of three failed IRA bomb attacks — in 1939, 1996 and 2000 — but can’t we be told why the repair bill has rocketed by 400 per cent?

All sorts have turned up at this demo in Barnes, from schoolchildren holding ‘London’s Bridges Are Falling Down’ banners to a former Buckingham Palace aide, a former Coalition transport minister (Baroness Kramer of the Lib Dems) and a retired engineer with a plan for a £5 million temporary road bridge.

A popular refrain is: ‘Send in the Army.’ After all, the Royal Engineers managed to put up pontoon bridges over the Rhine — under enemy fire — in a matter of hours 75 years ago.

Sarah Olney, the local MP on the south side, tells me that she has written to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps without reply.

The leaders of Hammersmith and Richmond councils have just written jointly to the Prime Minister. ‘What a terrible metaphor it would be if we allowed this achievement from a high point in British history to simply crumble away,’ they say, adding that the bridge needs a minimum of £46 million just to make it safe for pedestrians. No reply has been received.

The councils are now exploring an emergency ferry service thanks to a local businessman who has lent his wharf for free and a team of marine experts who handled the boat scenes for the last Bond movie (that could make for a fun school run).

TfL says it wants ‘an urgent solution’ but is pleading poverty. ‘The ownership of London’s bridges varies, and there is no coherent national strategy for how to fund the maintenance of such critical infrastructure,’ says a spokesperson. ‘Hammersmith Bridge is a strategically significant river crossing, whose much-needed repair is heavily reliant on Government funding.’

At the very moment the demo is taking place on the bridge, I learn from Department for Transport insiders that Grant Shapps has summoned his officials for an emergency meeting. TfL and Hammersmith council have since been summoned and told that this is now a national matter. Expect further details in days.

‘London is stuck,’ says Shaun Bailey, the Tory nominee for next year’s mayoral election. ‘If businesses and residents aren’t being hit by Sadiq Khan’s congestion charge hike, they’re being hit by traffic jams and closed bridges.

‘Residents and businesses have a right to safe, reliable roads. If the Mayor won’t deliver them, then the Government unfortunately needs to step in.’

Back in the 19th century, Hammersmith Bridge was seen as a masterpiece. It was the model for one of the jewels of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — the ‘Chain Bridge’ across the Danube uniting the twin cities of Buda and Pest into the single metropolis we still see today.

Sadly, our capital seems to be going the other way. How long before the residents of Lon- find themselves completely cut off from -Don?

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