Grand opening of the Barrow Bridge 21st July 1906

Today marks the opening of the Barrow railway Bridge and the South West Wexford line. I wrote previously about the planning and construction of the Bridge which was started in 1902 by the firm of William Arrol & Co to a design by one of the foremost engineers of the time Sir Benjamin Barker. The purpose of the railway line was to open up the South West of Ireland to export with England in an efficient and quick manner and speed the crossing times to England and Wales for passengers.  The line’s specific distinction is that it was the last major railway line to be constructed in Ireland.  Barrow Bridge is 2131 feet in length and has an opening span to allow shipping through to the port of New Ross.

A postcard of the bridge not long after it opened

Both the bridge and the line, including the new pier at Rosslare, Co Wexford were officially opened on Saturday, July 21st, 1906.  Five hundred guests traveled on a special event train which started out in Dublin.  The train had twenty-one saloon carriages attached including the royal saloon in which was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Lord Aberdeen, who was to perform the inauguration.  It is said that it was the longest special event train ever seen in the country.  It stopped off at Carlow, Kilkenny, and finally Waterford station to collect further guests including the Marquis of Waterford, and then on to Rosslare via the new Barrow Bridge.  According to Susan Jacob, her grandmother Aggie Power (who lived in Daisybank house) was on that first train, a story handed down through the family. I do recall my father saying that there was some connection between the family and some of the engineers working on the project and Pat Murphy has told me in the past that he understood that some men stayed at Daisybank as lodgers during the construction.

Construction workers working on the opening span, April 1905

Apparently some of the guests fainted with the fear associated with crossing the Bridge.  Well, they might be in awe, for it was by far the longest rail bridge ever built in the country at the time and would retain that distinction (and possibly still should regarding the expanse of water crossed) until Belfast’s Dargan Bridge and related works were constructed in 1994. It might be hard now to imagine the fear that the travelers might have held in such a crossing, but it should be remembered that the designer and builder had only a few short years before completing a project to replace the largest rail bridge in the British Isles – The Tay Bridge, the predecessor of which had collapsed into the River Tay in 1879 while a train was crossing with the loss of all aboard.

A sketch I made (using a phone app) of the bridge recently looking towards the Kilkenny side

The opening span was also a concern no doubt, but passengers need have had no fear.  The opening span was operated from a control tower atop the opening, which was manned and operated via an electrical generator below on the protective pontoon.  (Mains electricity now powers the opening, but this is the only difference made to the operation that I am aware of) The operator couldn’t open the centre span unless and until signal men on both the Waterford and Campile sides acknowledged that there was nothing traveling on the line. 

A recent shot of the bridge looking towards the Wexford side. Note the black ball to the left of the control tower, I love to see such details preserved.

Indeed initially ships would not proceed through the opening until a signal was also raised from the control tower, a black ball.  This would later include a green light when the bridge opening was extended to nighttime.  Many the time I marveled at the nerves of these men sitting atop the span as ships passed through, and I’m sure their nerves were well tested as ships struck the bridge on at least two occasions.

Notwithstanding any guest’s concerns, the special event train proceeded onto the bridge and came to a halt halfway across to give everyone a view of the meeting of the three sister rivers at Cheekpoint. It then continued on its way to Rosslare, where the three-masted schooner Czarina lay at anchor and the steamship Pembroke was at the pier, having sailed earlier from Fishguard with invited guests.  As it crossed into Rosslare a 21-gun salute was fired by the local coastguard.  The new service was inaugurated from the pier by the Lord Lieutenant and this was followed by a party where several toasts were made to the good fortune of the new company.  The freight rail service was the first to start running on the line thereafter, followed by a passenger service which came into operation on August 1st, 1906 and the first cross-channel ferry left Rosslare on Fri 24th August 1906, sailing on the SS St Patrick.

The Barrow Bridge gave over 100 years of loyal service before being closed in 2010.  An event we have also marked. I also wrote about a century of incidents associated with the bridge in my book Waterford Harbour Tides and Tales.

I would like to acknowledge the following sources:
Jack O’Neill, A Waterford Miscellany. 2004.  Rectory Press
Ernie Shepard – The South Wexford Line.  Journal of the Bannow Historical Society (2013)
John Power – A Maritime History of County Wexford Vol 1(2011)

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.

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

I publish a blog about Waterford Harbours maritime heritage each Friday.  
To subscribe to get it to your inbox email russianside@gmail.com 
For daily events/updates https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  https://twitter.com/tidesntales

Barrow railway bridge

111 years ago today a special event train carrying up to 500 invited guests travelled across the the Barrow Bridge to signify the opening of the South West Wexford Line. It would mark a new departure in Irish Sea travel for citizens of the south of Ireland and be a vital link for Wexford in the years to follow. It was certainly a key architectural feature of the harbour in my upbringing and still one of the most amazing structures we have hereabouts.

Built between January 1902 and opened in July 1906 it served the railway faithfully and lived up to the designers and builders earnest efforts. It forded the river Barrow between Drumdowney in Co Kilkenny and Great Island in Co Wexford.  In doing so it connected the railway lines of the south of Ireland to Waterford (via the Suir Bridge) and hence on to Wexford and the new Rosslare harbour and the cross channel ferry service.

Growing up it was a wish of mine to take the train. My mother often got nostalgic when she spoke about it. As a young emigrant to the bright lights of London she remembered passing over the bridge on the way to the boat train in Rosslare. Her last outbound trip was in the winter of 1963. Having come home for the few days of Christmas she returned with her uncle, Christy Moran, and several others from the village including Pat Murphy and Charlie Hanlon and recalled a bonfire lighting in the village, a traditional local custom of farewell, a reminder of where the homefire burned. She returned to Cheekpoint in late 1964 to be married, and never crossed it again.

A postcard of the crossing, from the Great Island Co Wexford side
Initially buses and then cheap air flights started to bite into the viability of the line as a transport option.  But a mainstay was the sugar beet industry.  I worked with a man originally from Thurles some time back. We got talking about the beet trains and the autumn beet campaign that saw trains arriving daily into the town and the entire area a mass of diesel fumes as anything with a trailer was used to ferry beet from the train to the sugar factory. I related how the same trains passed through our lives. Wexford being the centre of the countries sugar beet growing and the beet trains which loaded at Wellingtonbridge had to cross the Barrow to get on to Carlow, Midelton and Thurles. I recalled one day sitting on the back step and a beet train engine almost to the swing section of the bridge before the last beet truck clattered onto the bridge. I lost count of the trucks but it was almost 2000 feet long in my estimation. All this was to change however and the last of the beet factories were shut down in 2006. The question remains though, did the beet factories ever need to close?

With the end of the beet industry and the decline in passenger numbers many fears were expressed for the viability of the line. Trends in sea travel had changed with travellers now encouraged to take a “carcation” Commuter passenger numbers were dwindling too. The car was king. The Passage East Car Ferry which started in 1982 may have also been a contributory factor.
Construction work underway
Finally on Saturday 18th September 2010 the last train crossed over the Barrow Bridge ending the historic link created with the bridges opening in 1906. Another special event train was laid on for the occasion, proving at least, that CIE had some sense of occasion of such a decision. Our neighbour here in the Russianside, Bridgid Power was one of those who made the trip. Another family who made the effort to take the trip was Alice Duffin in the Mount Ave, her daughter Una Sharpe and her grand daughters Emma and Fiona. They got off in Wexford and her dad Brian drove down to bring them home. He drew the short straw! So did my brother in law Maurice, he collected my sister Eileen, his mother Florence RIP and his young family after taking the trip too
A favourite stroll of mine
Although ships still pass through and many is the time we walk it, I never did manage to cross it in a rail car. For now, all I can manage is this virtual roll of the wheels, There have been efforts to revive the line, but it would appear the necessary funds are not forthcoming. Which brings to mind the wonderful Waterford Greenway and surely another viable option for this magnificent architectural gem and related and still accessible railway line. If nothing else it would ensure the route stays open. And the economic argument of the draw of such infrastructure in terms of reviving rural villges and towns is certainly in evidence in Waterford at present.

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.
My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage 
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:  
F https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  T https://twitter.com/tidesntales