On this day in history : 28th December 1879 – The central section of the Tay Rail Bridge, Dundee, Scotland, collapses in a violent storm, as a train is passing over it…. All onboard are killed….

Illustration of the Tay Bridge disaster – unknown artist – Public domain

It was a Sunday evening at around 7.15pm and a storm estimated at 10 or 11 on the Beaufort Scale was raging…. Trains crossing the Tay Bridge, across the Firth of Tay, were restricted to one at a time…. It was the turn of the train from Burntisland in Fife – a train that consisted of one locomotive, its tender, five carriages and a luggage van…. Onboard were around 75 people….

The gale was blowing down the Tay Estuary at right angles to the bridge – suddenly without warning the central navigation spans, which the train was travelling over at the time, collapsed into the Firth below – taking the train with them…. All onboard were lost….

Fallen girders – Image : National Library of Scotland – Public domain

The disaster was to shock Victorian engineers – and it is still today regarded as one of the worst structural engineering failures….

The original Tay Bridge had been designed by Thomas Bouch; he was a well-respected engineer, having much experience…. As well as the design he was also responsible for the construction and maintenance of the bridge…. Having opened in February 1878 it had only been operational for 19 months – its design had won Bouch a knighthood…. So, what went wrong?

The bridge, at nearly two miles long, consisted of 85 spans – making it the longest bridge in the world at the time…. 72 of the spans were supported on spanning girders below the track – whereas the remaining 13 spans, forming the centre section, were above the track and consisted of bridge girders above the pier tops forming a through tunnel…. This gave an 88ft clearance above the water surface, enabling ships to pass beneath…. It was these high girders that fell….

Original Tay Bridge looking from the north – Unknown author – Public domain

At the following inquiry it was concluded : “The fall of the bridge was occasioned by the insufficiency of the cross bracing and its fastenings to sustain the force of the gale”…. The report went on to say if the wind bracing had been properly constructed and maintained the bridge could have withstood the storm…. All of the blame was placed on Bouch….

Fallen girders with remains of a wooden carriage – Image : National Library of Scotland – Public domain
The locomotive – which was recovered and returned to service – Image : Dundee Central Library – Public domain

Bouch died less than a year after the disaster, his reputation in tatters…. A second Tay Bridge opened on the 20th of June 1887 – this time a straight forward pier and lattice girder construction….

The current Tay Bridge – Image credit : Ross2085 via Flickr CC BY 2.0

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