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.
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
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:
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?
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.