Forth Road Bridge closures highlight ageing UK infrastructure issues

The news that structural faults on the Forth Road Bridge will result in closures until early 2016 is going to have a huge impact on the surrounding area, both socially and economically, says Graham Hill.

Graham Hill, Arcadis

As a crucial transport link for Scotland, closures in the lead up to Christmas will be devastating for many businesses and the disruption to festive travel plans will be significant.

Although the New Forth Road Bridge is edging closer to completion in late 2016, it will still be a year too late for the 70,000 cars that use the existing bridge every day and the passengers who will undoubtedly be impacted by its closure.

Lessons to be learnt along the M8 corridor

People in the wider Edinburgh region will be looking enviously at their neighbours in Glasgow who have recently had the green light to revisit a potential rail link to the airport. If Edinburgh had pushed on with its original vision, then the impact on direct rail access to Edinburgh Airport, and therefore beyond, would have been significantly mitigated.

This is yet another example of the problems associated with our ageing UK infrastructure. With more than half the world’s population now living in urban areas and relying on our road and rail network to navigate towns and cities, the current problems with the Forth Road Bridge illustrate the severe impact of failing infrastructure when not adequately addressed. 

Further investment and consistency is essential

Our urban connectivity relies on big infrastructure, but chronic underinvestment in recent years has created an infrastructure funding shortfall close to £500 billion in the UK; significantly more than the £411 billion set aside for projects in the National Infrastructure Pipeline back in July.

Although this represents a step in the right direction, we need to see a more consistent UK-wide approach to investment from Government if we are to ensure that our infrastructure network remains fit for purpose. The economic climate has had a significant effect on investment in the UK, forming a very cautious environment. Without infrastructure investment, which is a key driver of growth, confidence reduces further resulting in even less investment and reduced economic stimulus.

However, optimism is starting to rise. As interest rates are low and balance sheets healthy, more should be done to connect investment to fundable infrastructure projects. There was a clear commitment in the recent Autumn Budget to protect the £15 billion already approved by the Road Improvement Strategy, although the 37% cut in transport budget for the remainder of this parliament will have a dramatic impact on the delivery of day-to-day activities, such as road maintenance.

Lack of options increases strain

Equally, an over-reliance on one form of transport can also place undue strain on the physical infrastructure. While the Forth Road Bridge closure is unique, it shows how disruptive any failures can be.  Although Fife Council has been quick to respond with alternative travel options, the already busy road network around Kincardine is going to be put under huge strain, while the scaling up of rail services has resulted in The RMT citing a chronic lack of spare rolling stock. This shows the huge knock-on effect caused by the failure of just one link in the chain. 

Instead, a sustainable urban environment depends on our ability to readily shift the emphasis from one form of transport to another. Many of the most successful cities feature ‘transit-hubs’, where interconnected transport infrastructure can help optimise and accelerate social and economic development.

The situation at Forth Road Bridge highlights just how essential it is for a city to embrace the full range of mobility options available – from walking, cycling and bus, to metro and aviation. 

Graham Hill is a partner for Arcadis in Scotland 


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