Politician slams ‘chaos’ caused by Menai Bridge closure as high winds could see contingency plans tested today
A politician has slammed the “chaos” caused by the closure of the Menai Suspension Bridge.
The comments were made by Welsh Conservative MS Natasha Asghar as a deputy Welsh Government minister revealed contingency plans for the other crossing over the Menai Strait could be tested today.
With high winds expected, use of the Britannia Bridge connecting Anglesey and the mainland could also be restricted.
Speaking in the Senedd yesterday, Lee Waters said it meant caravan drivers and motorcyclists would be urged not to travel.
The Menai Bridge was closed for essential maintenance from 2pm on Friday following safety recommendations from structural engineers.
It’s been estimated that maintenance work could take up to 16 weeks, but the government said it was working to reopen it as soon as possible.
There was criticism of the decision over the weekend as Conservative MP Virginia Crosbie said it had left her “shocked and appalled”.
Providing an update on the situation, Mr Waters said: “As part of the last principal inspection in 2019, a concern about the resilience of hangers that support the suspension bridge were identified and led to a weight restriction being imposed on the bridge while further studies were carried out.
“The latest inspection was reported to the Welsh Government last Wednesday, and it unexpectedly highlighted an immediate concern around the brittle failure mechanism of the hangers.
“As is standard practice, officials reviewed and challenged the findings. However, based on very clear advice from structural engineers, it was considered that there was no other option but to close the bridge while further checks on the analysis are undertaken by an independent consultant.
“This was not a decision that was taken lightly, and I fully appreciate the implications that this has for local people, especially without any advanced warnings.
“We did initially plan a communications campaign in advance to give people warning, but on further conversations with the police and based on the advice, we decided that it was prudent to close the bridge with immediate effect.
“The safety of our network and the travelling public is paramount, and the decision has been based upon the safety recommendations from numerous structural engineers, amongst the best in the world.”
The findings that led to the recommendation to close the bridge are currently being reviewed. The initial review is expected to take up to two weeks.
Mr Water said officials were assessing all available options to reopen the bridge as soon as possible.
He said temporary hanger-strengthening measures may need to be installed to ensure the safety of the bridge, and this programme could take between 14 and 16 weeks
It would mean the bridge would reopen to vehicles up to 7.5 tonnes early next year.
Mr Waters said: “I am acutely aware of the inconvenience that this is causing.
“Clearly, the Menai Bridge is a vital link for the people of north Wales and beyond, and I’d like to thank local people for their patience and understanding whilst this urgent work takes place.
“And I want to reassure them that the Welsh Government is working with UK Highways and all stakeholders, including emergency services, to ensure that this can be done as quickly and safely as possible.
“All vehicular traffic is now being diverted to the Britannia Bridge, and Welsh Government officials are urgently working on further contingency plans in the area and will continue to monitor the congestion to inform future changes.
“They are also developing further strategies to increase resilience on the Britannia Bridge to mitigate the risk of both bridges being closed in exceptional circumstances.”
Ms Asghar then spoke to outline her concerns over the situation.
She said: “The scenes we’ve been seeing play out in Anglesey over the last few days are completely unacceptable and, dare I say it, avoidable.
“I must say, from the moment the bridge suddenly closed late on Friday afternoon, there has been complete chaos in the area, with drivers, pedestrians and cyclists left stranded. My inbox has been inundated with messages over it, and I’m based in south-east Wales.
“Closing the bridge at the last minute without prior warning for what could be potentially four months will not only hit residents, visitors and commuters, but also hard-working businesses in the area.
“Of course, safety is paramount—I’m not going to deny it for a single second—but how on earth are we only now aware of structural weaknesses here today?
“A 200-year-old bridge, which is used by nearly 50,000 vehicles every day, should be regularly inspected, not every six years.
“If this problem had been picked up sooner, advance warning could have been given and the people of Anglesey would have been able to make alternative arrangements.
“Motorists are now expected to use the Britannia Bridge while the Menai is closed. This is simply not going to work, especially now as we’re heading into winter, when the Britannia Bridge is regularly closed due to high winds. What happens if the Britannia bridge is forced to close while the Menai is closed?”
Mr Waters responded by highlighting that there are regular inspections of the bridge to industry standard.
He said it was through the regular inspection process that the initial problem was flagged up.
Ongoing monitoring work is said to have occurred since then, which identified the potential for further failure and led to immediate action.
Mr Waters said: “We could have waited till the end of the weekend and given advance notice that the bridge would be closing on Monday, but, on reflection, we thought that would be imprudent; had something happened, that would have been unforgivable.
“Given the weight of the advice we were getting from the structural engineers, it was clearly the right thing to do to act immediately, in the full knowledge this would cause distress and inconvenience, which we deeply regret, but we felt this was the responsible thing to do.”
Ynys Mon MS Rhun ap Iorwerth said he believed Ms Ashgar’s comments downplayed the seriousness of the situation.
However, he challenged the deputy minister on several points, questioning the steps being taken to keep traffic flowing, how the situation was allowed to happen in the first instance and the response needed to ensure long-term resilience.
The Plaid Cymru MS also reiterated his long-standing calls for an extra crossing to be created over the Menai Strait.
He said: “I and others have warned on this for a long time. We need a new crossing.
“The Welsh Government had pledged to deliver a new crossing, and it still hasn’t happened.
“There’s a price to pay for delay—a price in pounds, when inflation is so high, but also a community price too.
“I almost got the Welsh Government’s agreement to get a three-lane peak-flow system, but government engineers ultimately decided that the bridge was too narrow for that, particularly given that traffic joins the Britannia Bridge at a high speed. Perhaps we could look at implementing something like that on a temporarily basis now.
“But the reality is that we need a permanent solution, a resilient solution. It’s one thing to be an island, it’s another thing to be isolated, and that is the reality that’s been highlighted now.
“I look forward to hearing a renewed commitment to restart, as a matter of urgency, the work of developing a new crossing.”
Mr Waters replied: “I think the overall questions, ‘Was enough done?’ ‘Are there lessons learned?’, are fair questions, and those are questions we’re asking ourselves, and we shall be reviewing what has happened to get us to this stage.
“I think it’s fair to say that our officials were surprised when we had the report last Wednesday that urgent work needed to be done.
“I was told about it Wednesday and initially told that it is not unusual for concerns to be raised, but the process is to challenge and to test them, given the consequences of closing, to make sure we were absolutely certain.
“Given that their advice was so clear, it was felt that this had to be done right away, but it wasn’t something we anticipated.”
Mr Waters described the risk of a catastrophic event happening to the bridge as “low” but still too high for risks to be taken.
He said a total of 40 of the hangers on the bridge were replaced in 1990s, but there are over 200 remaining that are much older.
He added it was possible that the checks that will happen over the next two weeks will find that the decision to close the bridge was “an overreaction” and it could reopen much sooner. However, officials have advised that this outcome is unlikely.
In relation to the possibility of the Britannia Bridge closing, he said: “In terms of the contingencies for what should happen if both bridges are closed— and just some reassurance on this as this has tended to happen something like no more than twice a year.
“It’s a rare event and, when it happens, it generally happens for a matter of hours. It clearly causes huge disruption, and I’m not minimising it; I’m just putting it into context of how often. I think it’s closed 10 times since 1987, the Britannia Bridge.
“As it happens, there are high winds predicted for tomorrow, so it allows us to immediately put in place plans to inform drivers of the conditions and to urge those with vulnerable vehicles, like caravans and motorbikes, not to travel while those high-wind conditions are in place, and those that do so do so at their own risk.
“The officials are working with the North Wales Trunk Road Agency on a new high-winds strategy for the A55 Britannia Bridge to review wind gusts against the speed of vehicles, and the option to reduce the speed limit to 30 mph could assist with allowing the most vulnerable vehicles to cross at high-wind gusts.
“There are also contingency plans being drafted, and initial options in this plan would include the options to increase park-and-ride facilities, create potential stacking site options, and review the rail use to and from the island.
“In terms of the long-term resilience of the bridge, as Rhun ap Iorwerth mentioned, work has been going on to look into a third crossing.
“It would cost somewhere in the order of £400 million. That’s the current estimate. So, it’s a significant decision to make and investment to make.
“It’s been reviewed as part of the roads review panel, along with all other schemes in Wales, and we’ll also be asking the Burns review in north Wales to look at what contingencies could be put in place in the short term.
“Even were we to start to build it now, the process takes somewhere around seven years. These things are expensive and slow. So, we will be asking Burns to address the issue of resilience in the longer term, and that report will be available next year.”
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