IT IS Scotland's most famous never-ending task, but painting the Forth Bridge is to be completed sooner than expected, The Scotsman has learned.
Painters are now due to finish coating the structure in just two years' time – a year ahead of schedule.
They are applying special paint which should last for up to 30 years – and enable the enduring myth that the bridge is ceaselessly painted from end to end to be finally laid to rest.
Network Rail, which owns the 119-year-old crossing, said better-than-expected progress had brought forward the completion date to 2011.
The news comes a year after the rail firm increased spending on the project from 13 million to 18.5 million a year to accelerate the end of the work by a year to 2012. It started in 2002.
A 200-strong team is applying a triple layer of new "glass flake epoxy" paint, which is similar to that used in the offshore oil industry.
It creates a chemical bond to provide a virtually impenetrable layer to protect the bridge's steelwork from the weather.
A spokesman for Network Rail said: "2011 is now the preferred date and things are moving towards completing the job then. We have been gradually moving ahead of schedule since the project started in 2002. We have got more work completed than originally forecast, because we are no longer going through a learning process."
The spokesman said while most of the bridge would not need repainting for decades, the most exposed areas were likely to need touch-ups more regularly.
The news was welcomed by the official passenger watchdog, which said it could help boost rail improvements elsewhere.
Robert Samson, the Scotland manager for Passenger Focus, said: "It will be good news if Network Rail is able to complete work ahead of schedule and can turn its attention to other matters that will benefit the passenger railway."
A spokesman for the firm said: "Network Rail and contractors Balfour Beatty have established a strong working partnership, which is delivering on-going efficiencies as the work on the Forth Bridge proceeds.
"We are doing all we can to complete the project ahead of schedule, but there are a number of external factors, particularly weather, which can still affect our estimated completion date."
An earlier repainting scheme should have been completed in 2001, but was abandoned early because of problems. Only about 500,000 a year was spent on painting, with new coats applied on top of existing paint in areas where it was needed, which lasted up to ten years.
The most exposed, weather-beaten sections of the bridge were painted most often. A team of painters were employed almost continually, but rail cutbacks in the late 1970s and 1980s meant the process was interrupted.
Network Rail said there would be no disruption to trains during the remaining work.
CROSSING TO STAR IN TV SHOW
FIONA Bruce, the host of the Antiques Roadshow, is to film part of the BBC show from the top of the Forth Bridge this month.
The sequence will form part of a programme being recorded at nearby Hopetoun House on 25 March.
Viewers attending the event at the mansion near South Queensferry are being encouraged to bring along memorabilia from the bridge, which will celebrate its 120th birthday next year.
The Hopetoun House edition is expected to be broadcast in September or October, while another will be recorded at Abbotsford House, Sir Walter Scott's former home near Melrose, on 2 July.
The programme often attracts 7.5 million viewers.