While a certain English nursery rhyme hasn’t exactly turned out to be prophetic in contemporary times, a small handful of London’s 35 bridges that span the River Thames are indeed currently in rough shape. Two are partially closed to traffic and a third has been fully and urgently sealed off because of an “increased risk to public safety due to a sudden deterioration in key parts of the suspension structure.”
As detailed in a new report by The New York Times, the deteriorating bridges in question are the Vauxhall Bridge (temporarily closed to vehicular traffic while undergoing emergency repairs), London Bridge (partially closed until October while undergoing planned repairs), and the Hammersmith Bridge (closed indefinitely to both vehicles and pedestrians while it awaits major needed structural repairs). The Tower Bridge has also recently shown its advanced age after its drawbridge malfunctioned last month, prompting a two-day closure.
Per the Times’ reporting, the Hammersmith Bridge, a 700-foot-long suspension bridge completed in 1887, is the worst off of the bunch having been closed to vehicular traffic since April 2019 after significant cracks were discovered in its heavily corroded pedestals. Three weeks ago, the closure was expanded to include pedestrians and cyclists after it was discovered that the structural damage had worsened during a summer heatwave. Transportation officials have been unable to give a clear indication of when it might at least partially reopen. Even boat operators on the Thames have been instructed by Port of London not to pass under the cast-iron Victorian landmark due to concerns about its imminent collapse. It’s that bad.
The Hammersmith Bridge is also perhaps the most emblematic of London’s long-neglected Thames crossings, with the Times calling it an “apt metaphor for all the ways the country has changed after a decade of economic austerity, years of political wars over Brexit, and months of lockdown to combat the pandemic, the last of which has decimated already-stressed public finances.”
As reported by the Times, fully repairing the Hammersmith Bridge would cost in the ballpark of $187 million—funds that neither Transport for London nor the bridge’s owner, Hammersmith & Fulham Council, have or will likely have in the near future due in large part to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. So the shuttered bridge, a vital transport link between the district of Barnes in Richmond Upon Thames and the rest of London, remains the collective source of a Grade-A, Grade II-listed headache for those forced to find alternate and presumably less convenient ways to cross the Thames. The debacle has prompted large-scale, socially-distanced demonstrations staged by local residents demanding something be done.
As of now, that something remains somewhat of a vague and far-off reality. Temporary stabilization efforts that would allow the bridge to reopen to pedestrian traffic, and boat traffic beneath it, have been floated but would be costly and time-consuming. The same goes for a new, temporary pedestrian- and bike-only bridge that would be erected next to the closed one. A bank-to-bank ferry route and shuttle service have also both been suggested by local residents who depend on crossing the Thames at Hammersmith but nothing yet has come to fruition.
Securing significant government funding to repair and reopen the bridge is also looking to be an uphill battle. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has been alerted by local officials to the potential for “catastrophic failure” if basic emergency stabilization work goes ignored, remains primarily focused on shepherding flashy new additions to the national transportation network, not repairing century-old cast-iron bridges.
“The national government is afraid of spending money in London because it would threaten its ‘leveling up’ agenda,” Tony Travers of the London School of Economics told the Times. “Promising to build shiny things for the future is more attractive than fixing road surfaces or mending bridges.”