Update from Andy Slaughter MP on the Hammersmith flyover
This morning’s statement from Transport for London (TfL) that Hammersmith Flyover will remain closed for at least another week is serious and disappointing, as traffic flows increase with the return to school and work after the holidays.
The official line is that tests continue and until TfL is certain every part of the structure is safe they will not consider even a partial re-opening (eg to cars and/or for one lane only).
I had a very frank discussion with TfL managers on Thursday about all aspects of the closure. Of course, the priority is to get it open. I was convinced that TfL are doing everything they can to do this, and that they have a solution to restore it to full operation in reasonable time. I was not persuaded however that we need to be in this situation, or that there is a long-term future for the structure.
The Flyover’s method of construction is relatively rare in the UK, and there are few other similar structures – for which TfL and the Department for Transport (DfT) should be grateful. It was built in 1961 by the family company of the then Minister of Transport, Sir Ernest Marples, who passed his shares on during his time in government – to his wife!
Its strength is provided by bunches of twisted metal rods that link separated sections of the concrete together. The tension in the structure is such, I was told, that a simple demolition job would result in parts of the Flyover being fired into the Thames. But water, aided by salt during gritting, has rusted the cables which have begun to snap. The surface heating that should have negated the need for gritting apparently never worked.
The decay is exponential: as each rod weakens or breaks more stress is put on the remainder and so more break, and so on. TfL inherited the Flyover from DfT, with all its obligations, in 2000. They say they inspected it regularly, but as the rods are encased in concrete used ultrasonic rather than visual observation. Last summer they concluded it had about a year of useful life without repair and started looking for ways to prolong this. On 22 December, uncovering a bunch of rods showed significant damage where the ultrasound had indicated little or none. This begged the question, had this happened throughout the half mile structure and was it in fact so decayed as to be in danger of imminent collapse? Hence the emergency closure.
I accept all this – my initial suspicion was that there had been a convenient closure at one of the least busy times of year. I also accept that TfL are working to check each section of the flyover to ensure the earliest possible safe opening. But I do not think TfL should have been taken by surprise in the way that they were two weeks ago. Knowing the history, significance and particular problems of the structure I think they have been complacent in not diagnosing both the degree of damage and a solution before now. This must be fully and independently investigated.
The cost, not just to motorists and freight transport, but to local businesses, will run into millions, aside from the huge inconvenience to both local and through-commuters. Mistakes like this by TfL are neither victimless nor blameless, and unless the consequences are fully itemised they will happen again.
TfL is a peculiarly unaccountable body. While I have been an MP they have closed Shepherds Bush Central Line for a year, closed Olympia tube station permanently on weekdays, and are in the process of destroying (through their development arm) both Shepherds Bush Market and West Ken.
So where now? The good news is that TfL have, under pressure, come up with a workable solution to restoring the Flyover to full weight-bearing capacity. This involves threading new rods into the concrete, which can be done over a period of weeks and months (concluding before the Olympics) with night time only closures.
There are two caveats. Firstly, we will not know for some days how much renewal will need to be done before the Flyover can be re-opened during the day. I will continue to press TfL for an answer to this.
Secondly, the renewal will only extend the life of the structure by seven to ten years. I realise that those waiting in a half mile queue to get onto the Broadway will not see this as a priority, but given the time and cost it takes to achieve civil engineering solutions in this country, we had better start thinking now what will replace the flyover. In the process I have urged TfL to look at the whole issue of trunk road traffic coming into Hammersmith. There are still too many fatal pedestrian accidents on the A4 and A40. Both roads run through residential areas and give too much priority to road traffic which often exceeds speed limits by 20 or 30 mph.
The Flyover is one of Hammersmith’s most recognisable and iconic structures. It has given good service and we must now replace it with something to serve both local and strategic transport needs for the next 50 years. But first let us support and pressure TfL in getting West London moving again.
Andy Slaughter, MP for Hammersmith