Monday, 29 December 2014

The Tay Bridge rail disaster, 135 years on

It was, said the Glasgow Herald on a Monday morning exactly 135 years ago, a catastrophe of the most appalling description.

The night before - Sunday, December 28, 1879 - the central span of the Tay Bridge, at that time the longest bridge in the world, had collapsed during a violent gale estimated at Beaufort force 10/11.

A northbound ferry train from Burntisland had the misfortune to be on the bridge when the collapse happened. The six-carriage train plunged 130ft into the freezing waters of the Tay killing 75 people.

The wind was blowing hard that night, bringing down chimney pots and roof slates. The iron girders of the Tay Bridge, opened in June 1878, should have been strong enough to withstand any winds. But a half-mile span of the bridge collapsed just as a train was crossing.

A court of inquiry ruled that the collapse was due to an “insufficiency of the cross bracing and its fastenings” to withstand the gale.

However, the inquiry did not hear the testimony of one witness, engineer WB Thomson, who reported seeing “two luminous columns of mist or spray”, perhaps 100 metres tall, travelling across the river. The spray from one column struck a nearby house with hissing sound, leaving the windows caked with salt. A second witness, William Robertson, also described the columns.

Researchers at tornado research organisation Torro believe these columns were waterspouts – tornadoes over water made visible by the water droplets they carry. They believe the impact of one or more tornadoes brought down the bridge after it had been weakened by the wind.

After the disaster rules were introduced requiring new bridges to be built stronger. As McGonagall observed: “For the stronger we our houses do build / The less chance we have of being killed.”

Monday 29 December 2014


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