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.

“Warping” the Barrow Bridge

Before ever the Barrow Railway bridge was constructed to allow the trains run from Waterford to Rosslare, New Ross Harbour Board had concerns for its positioning.  The Bridge would block access to the port and to get around this an opening span wasintroduced.  Procedures were also agreed to facilitate safe opening and closing procedures in an attempt to avert accidents(In this they can be proud as there was never a rail incident with the opening).  Another procedure which I was
unaware of until recently was a procedure called “Warping” which was aimed at facilitating a smooth passage for sailing vessels.  The procedures value was underlined, even before the bridge was officially opened.

The bridge with the opening span under construction only two months after the incident.  Note the buoy below the bridge and possibly two another above close to the cylinder stanshion
The Barrow Bridge officially opened on the 12th July 1906 facilitating a connection between Waterford and Rosslare by fording the River Barrow between Drumdowney in Co. Kilkenny and Great Island in Co. Wexford. But of course it did much more than that, as it allowed a passenger board a train in Tralee and in relative comfort get to a ferry boat for a short crossing of the Irish Sea and hence to London.  For those with an aversion to sea journeys it sure beat boarding a steamer at Limerick or Cork.
But the port of New Ross lay above the bridge and it required safe access and egress for ships serving the port. The designers facilitated this by a swing opening span.  This
presented its own problems to the ships that passed through a narrow, tidal passage.  A warping procedure was developed circa 1904, aimed specifically at sailing vessels[i] as they were at the mercy of the winds and tides. Sailing ships were required to heave to on reaching the bridge and to run a rope through two buoys, each with an eye atop.  A rope was passed through each eye by a hobbler crew and retaken aboard, effectively doubling the rope and as one was tied off the slack was released by the crew.  Then using the tide, they drifted through the opening span, controlling their speed with the rope, which because of the loop could be easily retrieved once the operation was completed.
On Monday the 13th of February 1905 however two sailing ships struck the opening span in the one tide, both apparently because they failed to employ the warping procedure.  Each had a New Ross pilot officer aboard. The Schooner Conniston of
Barrow was sailing down on an ebb tide under pilot Whelan (sometimes referred
to as Phelan) when she struck a glancing blow at a gangway which was being used
in the construction.  Following her was the schooner Ethel of Preston under pilot
Kearne.  She however struck the opening span twice.  Both incidents were reported
by the builders, William Arrol & Co., who although describing the incidents as “trifling” also expressed concerns that it could be potentially more serious.[ii]

Although the Conniston incident seems to have passed off without repercussions, the Ethel was another matter.  Her Captain, McGuirk, through the ships brokerage firm of Betson & Co of Dublin wrote to the New Ross Harbour Board to seek damages.  His position was that his ship was in the “charge of the pilot” when considerable damage was done.  One stanchion was broken and parts of the main and top gallant rails were broken too.
Pilot Kearne did not lie down under the matter however.  He submitted a written report to the harbour master, Captain Farady, confirming the incident and the damage to some extent, but argued that he was not “in charge”. Kearns explained that while coming down on the ebb tide at the White Horse Reach he told Captain McGuirk that they needed to warp through the bridge. The Captain refused however, stating that
the wind was favourable, his ship was answering her helm and he had confidence
in the wind carrying them through.
However on approaching the opening span, the wind dropped away, and the schooner no longer “answered the helm”[iii]  The Captain order the Mate to drop anchor and
as she swung on this against the tide, first the stern hit the pier head, and subsequently the bow struck one of the bridge piles.

Whether Captain McGuirk ever got compensation is not clear, certainly he got little sympathy from the Board.  At this meeting and at a subsequent one[iv], it was
considered that he had not “properly stated the case” to the ships brokers and
that the Captain was really responsible.  The pilots (four are said to be then employed) were to be warned to use the procedure whatever ships captains might say.

Needless to say that would not be an end to the incidents that befell the tight opening span of the Barrow Bridge.  I’ve written about a century of them before.
The blog will move to a new address in the coming weeks.  Stay tuned for further details. If you want to ensure you do not miss one please email me at tidesntales@irelandmail.com

Want to see the majestic structure that is the Barrow Bridge as it is today? Check it out here from Waterford Epic Locations; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osxp6UyMV0g

Following publication John Aylward mentioned in a comment that a similar procedure was used at Timber toes in the city.  Presumably similar took place at Redmond bridge and at the Red Iron Bridge.

[i]
I’m open to correction on this point but I’ve not read of the procedure being
required for steamers
[ii]
New Ross Standard 3/3/1905. P.7 (much of the subsequent detail is taken from
the report of the harbour Board Meeting)
[iii]
A nautical term used to describe a situation when a ship cannot be steered
[iv]
New Ross Standard 4/8/1905. P.2

Barrow bridge toll

This week sees a significant local anniversary, for on the 21st July 1906 the first official train crossed the Barrow railway bridge.  The infrastructure was the last significant piece of railway network constructed nationally and it linked the west of Ireland with Rosslare and via ferry to the UK.
The railway bridge proposal had a troubled start.  Several plans were considered and rejected, including a railway link to Passage East and either a ferry or bridge crossing to Wexford.  When plans were suggested for crossing the Barrow River, linking Kilkenny and Wexford, New Ross Harbour Commissioners were also wary.  Any infringement to navigation would impact the port.  This was allayed by providing an opening span, allowing ships access and egress.  Other engineering problems remained however such as the distance between the Kilkenny bank and the Wexford side of the Barrow river, and the depth that had to be dug to, in order to meet solid foundation for many of the bridges supporting spans.
The bridge, showing the opening span, under construction.
Taken from the Kilkenny side, looking upriver. April 1905
Construction commenced in January 1902 from a depot on the Wexford side at Wellington Bridge.  Finally on Saturday 21st July 1906 a special event train departed Dublin, calling to Carlow and Waterford to mark the official opening officiated by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the end of the line; Rosslare. When the line finally closed in Sept 2010, many wondered what would become of it.  Recently we have heard murmurings of a Greenway link, building on the stunning success of the Waterford Greenway.  But did you know an alternative use was proposed before? Ireland’s first toll road bridge!

Community Notice Board

Walk leader is Ray McGrath, and assisted by Michael Farrell, John Burke and yours truly
Plans were first mooted in late 1976(1) when CIE complained that the line was no longer economically viable and their board had made a decision to close the line and were looking for an option for its use.  In early December(2) “…Mr. J. A. O’Connor, C.I.E. area manager for the south-east…stated that the service withdrawal had resulted from scheduled…trains…being uneconomic…” He was quoted as saying “…Proposals have been received from private interests for the conversion of the Barrow viaduct to a road bridge and the use of the permanent way as approach roads to the bridge.” the paper continued “… It is further understood that the viaduct may become Ireland’s first toll road…”

Later in December(3) we learn that “A new company, Barrow Bridge Ltd., of which the principal partner is Roadstone Ltd., has applied to both Co. Councils for planning permission to convert the viaduct into a road toll bridge….The proposal to close the line has caused many protests in the southeast area….A committee representing trade unions catering for workers in the Thurles sugar factory, which is fighting the closure, said it was quite apparent that the board of C.I.E. had decided to withdraw passenger and freight services…”
A Munster Express article (4) seems positively disposed towards the project in the new year when we read that the project “has now taken on a new and hopeful turn…A company has been incorporated, with Waterford control, consisting of Mr. Max Fleming, Chairman; his son Mr. David Fleming, Managing-Director, with Mr. M. M. Halley, solicitor, as Law Adviser, and they have taken a lease from Coras Iompair Eireann (Irish Transport Company). Messrs. McCarthy, Engineering Consultants, Dublin, have already applied to Kilkenny and Wexford Co. Councils for planning permission”  I’m not sure what happened to Roadstone over Christmas, or were the three gentlemen mentioned connected to it?

The paper went on to outline a proposal to build a two lane roadway on either side of the bridge, with a traffic light controlled single lane crossing of the bridge. Interestingly no mention was made of Drumdowney tunnel. A toll will be charged to pay for the upkeep, and the system will be controlled, we are assured, by close circuit TV.  (As an aside, and in the context of present plans for turning it into a walk and cycle path, the article mentions that the bridge is acknowledged to have a existing to right to walk, no mention is made of tolling the walkers!)
JJ Walsh, the Munsters owner and editor hadn’t grasped the public mood however.  Taking a contrary view to the newspaper, unions, farmers, businesses, locals and public representatives swung into action in the new year.  January seems to have been a hot month for meetings, lobbying and general awareness raising. The issue made all the local and national papers and the last mention of the process I could find was from the Munster Express of February 4th(5). In this we learn that the Minister for Transport and Power, Mr Tom Fitzpatrick, is flatly denying that any decision has been taken by the Board of CIE, and that any decision would only be considered if or when the respective County Councils made a decision on planning.  I’m guessing that was when the proposal ran out of road! To be frank, given the engineering issues with altering the bridge and negotiating Drumdowney tunnel, its hard to take the proposal serious on any level.
The bridge is still one of the finest pieces of engineering in the south east, and if you have never seen it, here’s a wonderful piece of footage of the opening span in action via Joel 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMPaYGEAHQI  
If you like the video you might give him a comment for feedback

I’ve a weak spot for the Barrow Bridge. I’ve previously written about:
Constructing the Barrow Bridge
The grand opening of the line
Closing the line in 2010
A century of Barrow Bridge incidents

(1) The earliest mention of the toll bridge I can find was October when a gentleman named Alan French had a letter published in the Irish Times drawing attention to it.  Intriguingly Mr French claimed that the reason CIE were pushing a road bridge, was that they were obliged to ensure SW Wexford had a viable transport link maintained. As they wanted clear of the line, they had run with a “ridiculous” alternative.  The closure would be a “scandal” Irish Times. October 2nd 1976. Page 13
(2) Irish Independent Friday, December 03, 1976; Page: 9
(3) Irish Press, Sat Dec 18th 1976 page 3
(4) Munster Express Jan 07 1977 page 2
(5) Munster Express Feb 4th 1977 page 2

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The Cheekpoint “cowboys” who lassoed a floating mine

As children in the 1970’s one of our favourite games was Cowboys and Indians. Everyone wanted to be John Wayne, or indeed Clint Eastwood as it was the era of the spaghetti western. On one occasion we were making a lasso out of some rope in the yard when my father fell to telling us about the Cheekpoint fishermen who had lassoed a floating mine. He had our eyes ‘out on sticks’ as they say in his embellished telling.

My Father of course was Bob Doherty, sometimes known as the Hatter, and considered by many to be as mad.  He was renowned for his stories, many of them tall indeed, but a recurring theme in my blog stories in which he features is that he like all great story tellers based his best on facts.

“The lads were coming down the barrow from fishing eels when they spotted the mine, a remnant of the just finished WW II, floating towards the Barrow Bridge.  As they rowed around the mine, they realised that the tide was taking it towards the opening span wharf and that if it hit it, the whole bridge could go.  Well as they debated it, they heard the noise of an approaching train. In a flash they fashioned a lasso out of some rope aboard, and getting as close they dared, they managed after a few attempts to get the line around the mine and then rowed it away.” “Jesus” said someone, “that was close one”. “Close” said me father, “As the train came across the bridge the driver blew the whistle the whole way to the tunnel, several passengers fainted, while the other roared and cheered”
The opening span of the Barrow Bridge allowing access and egress
from the port of New Ross
Lassos were all the rage after that, and it was all we could talk about for weeks. I often heard the story retold, but my fathers version of course bet all. Needless to say as an adult it became a more sober telling, and there are several contemporary versions in the newspapers, including the Munster Express, Kilkenny People, Irish Independent and Cork Examiner.
The men of course were Jack Heffernan and Jack O’Connor, both of the Rookery, Cheekpoint.  The year was 1946 and the second world war (or Emergency as we called it) had just finished.  As a consequence many dangerous experiences were had with floating mines.  What we can gleam from the newspapers (which contain several accounts of the same story) is that the men spotted the mine, and managed to alert the Guards at Passage.  It doesn’t say how.  And I can’t say whether they managed to call from the phone box in Molly Doherty’s shop at the cross roads, or if that was not there at the time did they run to Passage itself. The authorities alerted, a bomb disposal unit from the Curragh Camp was dispatched.
Barrow Bridge, the mine was located to the left at Drumdowney
Meanwhile the mine grounded between Snow Hill Quay and Drumdowney Point (known locally as the Point of the wood) as the tide went out and once settled on the mud, a rope was tied around it, to prevent it floating away. I can’t say if this was by the same duo or not.  But whoever done it, it was a risky act, but it proved essential in containing the issue. Although the boat train departed from Waterford that evening, it was decided to close off the bridge to rail and shipping on the Saturday and both the morning train to Waterford (6.50am) and the 9.40am market train from Waterford stopped and departed from Campile Station in Co Wexford. Bus transfers were used to get around the situation.  
A sense of what the mine may have looked like
The bomb disposal unit, under Comdt. Fynes, had to wait for the tide to go out before they approached the mine on the Saturday.  It was described as 5′ 4″x 3’4″ and was encrusted with rust and barnacles.  It was thought to have been a floating mine, deployed with an anchor and chain that had broken away.  The opinion of the army was that it had been deployed on the sea bed several years before,  There was no information provided about it’s origin.  The unit managed to make safe the mine by 4pm that evening, allowing the 5.30pm boat train depart Waterford in safety.
Although the facts in these cases are all important, I presume the younger reader would still enjoy my fathers telling even more.
Why not join us on Monday for our free bank holiday ramble departing Faithlegg House at 11am, where these and other stories will make up part of our walk.
Other stories about mines or the barrow bridge you might enjoy.
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