NICOLA Sturgeon has categorically denied that cuts to maintenance budgets led to the closure of the Forth Road Bridge.
The First Minister’s remarks came as opposition parties called on the Scottish Government to hold an independent inquiry into the maintenance of the structure and the cause of the fault that has forced its closure until the new year.
Tens of thousands of commuters are braced for weeks of travel disruption, while businesses face potentially crippling losses as a result of the bridge’s extended closure.
On a visit to Forth Road Bridge yesterday, the First Minister admitted it is likely to be late December or early in January before it re-opens after a 20mm crack was discovered in a steel truss below the south carriageway.
Ms Sturgeon met engineer Robert McCulloch, who spotted the crack, and thanked him for his vigilance. He told the First Minister: “I just saw it out of the corner of my eye and I said to myself, ‘I hope that isn’t what I think it is’.”
Asked about claims that maintenance budgets had been cut on the bridge ahead of the opening of the new Queensferry Crossing at the end of next year, Ms Strugeon said: “The maintenance that has been required to be done on the bridge has been done.
We have seen two senior engineers resign over the bridge and a third claim that key maintenance work was mothballed five years agoAlex Rowley
“There is a repair, before this fault was spotted, that has already been under way to the same part of the bridge. The fault that was spotted last week and that we are now working to repair is completely unrelated to the fault that was already being worked on.
“This crack that has resulted in the bridge being closed was, as I am told by engineers, unforeseen and unforeseeable. ”
At Holyrood, opposition parties raised concerns about maintenance shortcomings and “privatisation” of staffing after a series of engineering concerns came to light in the aftermath of the bridge closure.
Labour, the Conservatives and some SNP backbenchers led calls for an inquiry as transport minister Derek MacKay made a statement in Parliament yesterday.
The minister offered a technical briefing to MSPs on the closure, but he rejected claims of lapses in maintenance and said the crack that emerged could “not have been predicted”.
It emerged in recent days that key maintenance was cancelled on the bridge in 2010, while two senior engineers who worked on the bridge resigned earlier this year. Furthermore, repairs identified in 2007 by Transport Scotland were not carried out.
Labour deputy leader Alex Rowley said a parliamentary inquiry should be established.
“We need full and frank answers on what has gone wrong here,” he said. “There appears to be a string of issues around the Forth Road Bridge going back years.
“We have seen two senior engineers resign over the bridge and a third claim that key maintenance work was mothballed five years ago. This is a serious issue that we need answers from. No stone should be left unturned.”
Conservative enterprise spokesman Murdo Fraser, a Fife MSP, said the priority must be to fix the problem and get the bridge open. But he added: “We also need to have a fully independent inquiry into what went wrong, and that has to report early in the new year.
“There has been a great deal of speculation that the bridge closure was the result of inadequate maintenance. With such an inquiry, we can find out the truth of the matter, and make sure vital lessons are learned.”
Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “I want to find out the truth about these issues. I want to find out what’s gone wrong in the past, if anything has gone wrong, but also make sure that for the rest of this bridge’s life, we’ve got a proper management and inspection regime in place.”
MSPs heard that thousands of commuters have been hit by the closure of the bridge. Businesses are also likely to lose millions of pounds, according to industry experts.
Mr MacKay insisted that the specific part of the bridge where the crack appeared “was not predicted to fail”, adding that engineers have concluded that the crack has “only occurred in the past few weeks”.
The transport minister added that the impact of staffing under the new arrangements means that there are now “more people working at the bridge than was the case before”.
Mr MacKay also said not enough people are using buses laid on as diversion routes have become heavily congested and people are being turned away from packed trains.
Rush-hour buses were leaving Halbeath and Ferrytoll with nine-tenths of their seats unoccupied, while 70 passengers were left on the platform at Inverkeithing train station and 25 were left at Rosyth yesterday morning.
Mr Mackay said his transport contingency plan “depends upon the choices people make”.
The bridge is expected to reopen after the New Year holiday, but Mr Mackay warned that repair work is “weather dependent”.
He added: “With 100,000 people using the bridge every day, delays and longer journeys are inevitable. So it is important that everyone – workers and employers – are flexible in working arrangements during this period.”
He said an additional 8,000 train seats and 11,000 extra bus seats have been laid on.