IT was in this week of 1964 that the Forth Road Bridge was opened. Though much less revered than its railway neighbour the Forth Bridge, and surpassed as a modern bridge by the Queensferry Crossing, nevertheless the Forth Road Bridge set records when it was built and became a vital part of the country’s infrastructure.

Following the success of the Forth Bridge, plans began to be made after World War I to replaced he ferry service across the Forth between North and South Queensferry with a bridge able to carry cars, lorries and buses. By the 1950s, the ferries were handling 40,000 crossings a year carrying an estimated 1.5 million people in 200,000 goods vehicles and 600,000 cars. The ferries were a notorious bottleneck in either direction and the alternative route via the Kincardine Bridge involved a round trip of 40 miles. The road planners wanted to build a bridge or tunnel to extend the A9 but this was rejected and the A90 was designated as a link road.

The planners were still not definite about whether the new Forth crossing would be a bridge or a tunnel, and it was only in 1955 that the latter plan was rejected on grounds of cost – the many people who have seen their plans disrupted by high winds on the bridge will no doubt reflect that the tunnel would have been a better option.

It took years to plan the bridge as it was going to involve a construction project on a scale that had only been tried in the USA before. It was the Labour government of Clement Attlee that started the process in 1947 by setting up a Joint Board to build and manage the bridge but it was the Conservative government of Harold MacMillan that gave the go-ahead in 1958.

How it was built

A consortium of builders was appointed, led by Sir William Arrol & Co, the Cleveland Bridge Company and Dorman Long. The main designs were by Mott, Hay and Anderson and Freeman, Fox and partners. The man effectively in charge of the project on what was then Europe’s largest construction site was John King Hamilton, the resident design engineer.

A constraint on the design was the necessity for clearance under the roadway to allow shipping to navigate up and down the Forth. That’s why the central span is 163ft above the river.

Work on the bridge took six years, and involved not only the bridge itself but all the many approach roads including some 24 minor bridges. Some 39,000 tons of steel were used to build the bridge, and a further 38,000 miles of steel wire weighing almost 8000 tons was used for the suspension cables – it was corrosion of these wires which led to the necessity for the Queensferry Crossing to be built.

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Bad weather disrupted the building work but it was completed largely on time and on budget which had been revised upwards to £19.5 million.

A total of seven workers died during the project, a huge improvement on the 73 killed during the construction of the Forth Bridge at the end of the 19th century. By the time the Queensferry Crossing was complete, just one worker had died, proving that tighter Health and Safety regulations really do work.

At the time of its completion the Road Bridge had the longest single span of any suspension bridge outside the USA, and the fourth longest in the world, with the Golden Gate Bridge at San Francisco the longest. The Forth Road Bridge was soon overtaken and is now not even in the top 30.

The whole span of the bridge including the entrance roads was 1.6 miles long, with the central span at 3300 ft.

The controversial political side

There was a political controversy when the government announced that a toll would be charged for use of the bridge, despite the fact that it was funded by taxpayers’ money through a loan from the Treasury and a government grant of about £5m. The initial cost was entirely recouped from tolls by 1993, but it was a further 15 years before the SNP government at Holyrood scrapped the tolls completely.

There were predictions that the bridge would soon be carrying traffic in excess of its capacity and with hindsight we can see those predictions were correct, though no one knew that the maximum weight of vehicles on British roads would be increased to 44 tonnes.

The Conservative government unashamedly decided to have an opening ceremony that emphasised their Unionist culture, and dressed the whole royal occasion in the Union flag.

The day of the £25,000 opening ceremony, September 4, 1964, proved a dud weather-wise with a thick mist on the Forth. Two of the 25 naval vessels attending the opening collided in the fog but only pride was injured.

After declaring the Bridge open at the south end, Her Majesty the Queen made the first crossing in the royal limousine, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, and for their return journey the royal couple also made the last ferry crossing across the Forth. Prime minister Alex Douglas-Home and a host of dignitaries were present as well as hundreds of local schoolchildren.

Newsreel footage shows a symbolic link-up between a Highland Regiment and a Lowland Regiment across the bridge.

Within days the Forth Road Bridge was carrying large numbers of traffic, and it was declared a huge success, not least by motorists able to avoid the ferries which had ceased to operate.

A little known fact is that a documentary film on the entire construction process that was directed by Gordon Lang was nominated for an Oscar, although it didn’t win.

Probably the only sad faces that day were those of the 70 workers on the four ferries that were scrapped. Less than half were re-employed on toll collection and they had to take a wage cut.