Maintenance work on the Forth Road Bridge could be limited to the summer months to prevent a repeat of the “chaos” brought by closing the Queensferry Crossing.
Transport secretary Michael Matheson said a five-point action plan had been drawn up in the wake of last week’s closure, which caused misery for thousands of commuters across Scotland.
Falling ice, which had accumulated on the wires which hold the bridge steady, smashed windscreens on several cars on February 10.
Fortunately no-one was injured, but criticisms were made of the government’s handling of the issue after the problem was flagged up last March.
The Scottish Parliament debated the closure on Tuesday afternoon.
To prevent congestion in Fife and South Queensferry in future, the Transport Secretary has suggested work to repair the old car crossing – the Forth Road Bridge – could be limited in winter.
He conceded ice sensors will not be in place for some months.
“Winter is not over”
Conservative MSP Jamie Greene said: “The decision to close the bridge for safety reasons was the right one, but several vehicles were damaged prior to that decision being made.
“It is, frankly, a miracle that nobody was injured or worse. Winter is not over.
“Considering the severe consequences of falling ice, what reassurance can the cabinet secretary give to motorists who use the crossing that they can cross the bridge safely and without fear or risk to themselves or their vehicles during similarly inclement weather?”
“Issue known since last March”
Labour MSP Colin Smyth asked why if the issue had been identified in March last year, the sensors are still not in place.
He said: “The issue was first identified last March, and the cabinet secretary advised the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee in May that contractors had been ‘appointed to monitor the issue, identify the exact source of it and look at what mitigation may have to be put in place’.
“If work has been going on since the spring, what exactly have those mitigation measures achieved? Why was there not full mitigation in time for this winter?”
Mr Matheson responded saying there had been a procurement process put in place, but noted physical checks would still be carried out first.
He said: “Expert advisers have been engaged with and advice has been taken worldwide on the particular problem and ways in which it can be more effectively addressed.
“A number of points that relate to enhancing the weather forecasting for the bridge and looking at the introduction of weather sensors and ice sensors have arisen from that.
“That work was all finalised last November. There has been a procurement exercise and the award of the contract is due to take place in the next couple of weeks, the plan being to install the sensors in the coming months.
“All the expert and international advice is that human observation is the critical element in identifying whether there is any ice on the bridge’s structures.
“The incident that occurred last March involved an unspecified area of the bridge — at that time, the engineers were not able to identify where the ice had come from. The incident that occurred last week clearly involved the cables.
“That information will inform the approach that will now be taken with ice sensors and the installation of any other equipment that will be necessary to monitor the issue.”
The minister added: “There was a very quick decision taken to close the bridge…taken for safety reasons recommended by the operators Amey and supported by Police Scotland.
“My understanding is engineers did seek to engage with Fife Council…and public transport providers to find what enhance public transport measures could be made.
“I do understand attempts had been made to make contact with Fife Council in a very definitive period of time, between the decision to close and the diversion being put in place.
“Of course the debrief on February 24 is an opportunity to see what further measures can be put in place to improve communication.”
He added: “Given that major refurbishment work was taking place on the Forth road crossing, one of the actions that I have asked my officials to consider is minimising works on the crossing in future winter periods so that it can be used as a diversion route should that be required.
“That would reduce the need for the extended diversion route through places such as Kincardine.”
Greens call for more public transport options
Speaking afterwards, Mid Scotland and Fife Green Party MSP Mark Ruskell said: “Last week’s bridge closure was for understandable reasons, but it surely exposed our reliance on the private car.
“We were told the Queensferry Crossing would kick-start a shift to public transport. Instead, it has led to a million extra car journeys over the Forth.
“Now Michael Matheson tells me the answer if the bridge closes again might be to put cars back on the old bridge.
“Moving polluting traffic jams from Kincardine to Queensferry is not a solution. The Scottish Government needs to put their promises on public transport into action and embed an overall modal shift away from private cars and on to public transport into a resilience plan for the bridge.”