Penny wise, Pound foolish: A further threat to the Barrow Railway Bridge

This coming September marks the 11th anniversary of the last passenger train to use the SW Wexford railway line and the Barrow Railway Viaduct.  The bridge is Irelands longest rail bridge but it would appear that this September may see another regressive step taken on the railway line – plans are afoot to close off the bridge and allow a span for shipping to remain open.

The Barrow Railway Viaduct crosses the river Barrow between Drumdowney in Co Kilkenny and Great Island in Co Wexford, a distance of 2131 feet.  The bridge which opened in July 1906 was the final piece that connected the railway lines of the South of Ireland via Waterford to Rosslare Harbour and the cross channel ferry service.

The opening span and the bridge nearing completion

Plans for the bridge were drawn up by Sir Benjamin Barker and work commenced in 1902 after a tender of £109, 347 was won by Sir William Arrol & Co of Glasgow. The initial stages of the work went well.  However, the twin pillars onto which the spans were placed had to be laid on a foundation of the river bedrock.  As they proceeded out into the Barrow (from the Great Island side) the depths they had to dig to reach bedrock got ever deeper and in some cases workers had to dig to 108 feet below the mean water level. Such extra work added a cost of £12,000 to the bridge

A ship transiting through on the way up to New Ross. The opening mechanism is housed in the building at the top of the swivel section, and operated by an operator using techniques very similar to changing tracks on a rail line.

Due to the needs of New Ross Harbour Commissioners, a swivel opening span was created to allow entry and egress to the inland port. This span was constructed on 4 pillars and originally turned with an electric motor (now mains), situated on the pontoon around the pillars.  The opening pivots with an 80 foot clearance allowing ships to pass.

On completion, the bridge was 2131 feet long. It consisted 13 fixed spans mounted on twin 8-foot diameter cast iron cylinders filled with concrete. 11 spans are 148 feet long and the two closest to the opening are 144 feet. The bridge is 25 feet above high water on the spring tides. The railway is a single-track steel line, built within the protective casing of a mild steel girder frame with cross trusses to provide stability.

On the 18th of September 2010, a final special event train traveled the line before closure. The end of the sugar beet trade spelled the end, passenger numbers were already low. Many argued at the time that it was the timetable that was the issue. In the intervening years, a plan was put forward to turn the line into a greenway to try to mirror the success of other areas, not least in Waterford. Another group South East On Track has argued that there are compelling reasons to maintain the line for rail.

However recently I read that I read with disappointment an exchange between Wexford TD Verona Murphy and Minister of State Colm Brophy on the Barrow Railway Bridge, and specifically the opening span. It would appear that for pragmatic reasons the span is to be left in the opening position as a means of reducing costs on Iarnród Éireann.  Subsequent to an all Island of Ireland rail review, this may be reversed.  However, my concern is that this is misguided as a cost-saving measure for the following reasons:

Sundown on the Barrow Bridge, but hopefully not literally

1.  The opening apparatus is virtually unchanged from the system first employed in the construction in 1906.  To my mind, notwithstanding how clever such engineers were, and how remarkably resilient the turning mechanism is, will the lack of use of this may lead to its decay?  If this were to happen the cost would surely be significant, perhaps outweighing any perceived savings.

2. The opening span was never designed to be left open.  When closed it is securely fastened or locked into position on either side to the existing bridge, ensuring the optimum position for holding it in place.  If allowed open the weight will no longer be displaced but directed downwards onto the foundation, and also leaving it at the mercy of tides and wind.  Again, any shift in this swinging arm, will incur a massive cost to repair.  Has there been any independent engineering assessment of this? And if it proceeds could not some extra support be provided to each side of the track to hold it in place securely?

A recent video I shot of the ships Rose and later Eems Exe passing through the opening span of the Barrow Railway Bridge on a journey up to New Ross Port.

Barrow Bridge is still a fully functioning piece of transport infrastructure, an architectural gem, and a heritage feature. But as a country that seems to be awash with money for the right kind of project, have we progressed so little as a state that a building such as this could be threatened with such an act of sheer vandalism because it saves a few quid? The Poolbeg chimneys in Dublin, built in the 1960s, are considered a treasure worth millions to preserve. Surely a unique and functional piece of transport infrastructure deserves more consideration by a state agency and its citizens. “Penny Wise, Pound Foolish” comes to mind.

Update post-publication. As of 10 am this morning 27/8/2021, IE staff are on the bridge installing gates on the Kilkenny side, also men with hi-viz jackets on the opening span and on the dolphins below.

17 Replies to “Penny wise, Pound foolish: A further threat to the Barrow Railway Bridge”

  1. This decision to needs to be taken away from pound foolish Irish Rail.
    Your blog point 2 regarding safety of the permanently open section of the bridge is paramount to the need for due and proper maintenance in perpetuity whether it be for commercial usage, for fundays and holidays as a tourist attraction or as an architectural treasure to behold.

    1. Apologies for plagiarising your use of the “pound foolish” bit of your blog into my reply. LOL

    2. I agree Kev, I’m not an engineer and I would hope those with the knowledge of such things have been consulted

  2. An excellent article. While leaving the bridge open will allow Irish Rail withdraw operators it is very likely that, over time, the bridge mechanism will be compromised and that the structure itself may be fatally damaged.

    The dramatic modal shift from sea to air for cross-channel passenger traffic, the abandonment of sugar production in Ireland and woeful schedules left the line vulnerable to cost saving following the economic crash of 2008.

    The Waterford to Rosslare line still has the potential to provide a useful and efficient transport link between South Wexford and Waterford for local traffic. If nothing else the section of line containing the bridge could facilitate a very useful shuttle service between Waterford and Campile. The line should also form part of an integrated regional service linking the South East to Waterford, Limerick, Galway and Westport. That would be the case in most countries with a green agenda but requires a pro-active policy to encourage traffic and provide a useful pattern of service, something which Irish Rail and the NTA never had any interest in doing.

  3. Andrew you need to send that blog to all the Waterford, Wexford and Kilkenny TDs and councillors. Its so well written. It breaks my heart to see them do this to the bridge. It is a slow death. The short sightedness of everyone making these decisions makes me cry. This rail line and this bridge could have a wonderful future as a tourist attraction as well as serving the people of the area

    1. Thanks Nora, I did that earlier in the week, I wrote the blog piece in the hopes that others might be aware of the situation. I know that many are supportive of the line being retained, but IE and NTA seem to be of very different opinions

  4. I think all elected representatives should be contacted by everyone and asked to have this decision reversed

    1. Thanks Trish,

      I was in contact with several TD’s and they seem very much aware, and some are very active on this which is good to hear. IE seem to be a law onto themselves however

  5. Excellent piece. I’m convinced that in decades to come generations will ask themselves what were we thinking when it comes to closing this line.

    Rosslare is awash with container traffic yet none go by rail. At the same time, climate change means we need to find ways other than roads to move freight.

    1. I think Joe that what we have is too much short term thinking in so many areas of Irish life. We need to look 20 or 40 years ahead and try to plan accordingly. Housing, transport, food etc. I guess I’m as guilty as any one, but I can’t for the life of me understand how a transport body can be so intent on ridding itself of its assets, except its just a calculation on balance sheet to them

  6. Great article Andrew, hopefully this monument of our history won’t end up like, the last of its kind in Europe the dredger Portláirge. An unforgivable directive from the Authority !

    1. I think the Red Iron is a good comparison here too Joe, remove the opening and no one is responsible for the upkeep. A sad sight that is too.

  7. Andrew, This iconic bridge means as much to me and the local people as does the Eiffel Tower means to the people of Paris, if the Eiffel Tower was treated like the Barrow Bridge, the guillotine would be used, it is a good job that Irish Rail has nothing to do with the Eiffel Tower.

    1. that’s a good comparison Nicholas, having grown up with it, I think I have written more about the Barrow Bridge than any other topic, except perhaps the salmon fishing. I just can’t understand how a state agency can get away with such an action. It’s a national monument for a reason…I suppose its not in Dublin

  8. Well done Andrew on compiling this story on an important piece of transport infrastructure and a local landmark. The inclusion of your video showing it “in full swing” was excellent. As you highlighted in the article, recent decisions at national level are likely to result in the deterioration of the structure despite assurances to the contrary. It is critical that the 3 counties involved should come together now and fight to protect this masterpiece of engineering and ensure its viability for use in the future. It will be too late to do so when down the road the barge cranes arrive to remove the opening span on the grounds of health and safety and the prohibitive cost of restoration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *