Runcorn Railway Bridge

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Runcorn Railway Bridge
Runcorn Railway Bridge.jpg
Runcorn Railway Bridge
Coordinates 53°20′48″N 2°44′18″W / 53.34676°N 2.73835°W / 53.34676; -2.73835Coordinates: 53°20′48″N 2°44′18″W / 53.34676°N 2.73835°W / 53.34676; -2.73835
Carries Liverpool branch of the West Coast Main Line
Crosses River Mersey
Manchester Ship Canal
Locale Runcorn, Cheshire, England
Other name(s) Ethelfleda Bridge
Queen Ethelfleda Viaduct
Britannia Bridge
Maintained by Network Rail
Design double-web lattice girder
Material wrought iron
Width double track
Longest span 305 feet (93 m)
Clearance below 75 feet (23 m)
Designer William Baker
Opened 1868

The Runcorn Railway Bridge, which is also known as the Ethelfleda Bridge or the Britannia Bridge, crosses the River Mersey at Runcorn Gap from Runcorn to Widnes in Cheshire, England. It is situated alongside the later-built Silver Jubilee Bridge, the bridge is recorded in the National Heritage List for England as a designated Grade II* listed building.[1]

During 1861, Parliamentary approval for the construction of a railway bridge at this site was obtained by the London and North Western Railway (LNWR). The design was produced by William Baker, the company's chief engineer, during 1863, preparatory work for the bridge and its sizable approach viaducts commenced. By 1868, the Runcorn Railway Bridge had been completed and it was formally opened for traffic on 10 October. The first goods traffic crossed the bridge on 1 February 1869; it was followed by the first passenger train to traverse the structure on 1 April of that year.

Since entering service, the Runcorn Railway Bridge has received few alterations, during 1965, the pedestrian footway running alongside the railway was closed to the public, but retained for maintenance access. It continues to serve rail traffic traversing the Liverpool branch of the West Coast Main Line; both of the lines traversing the structure currently have 25 kV AC overhead lines installed for use by electric traction. During the 2010s and 2020s, the bridge was subject to an extensive in-depth maintenance programme for the purpose of enabling the structure to continue in its role for another 150 years.


During 1846, the Grand Junction Railway company obtained an Act of Parliament which authorised it to construct a bridge to cross the River Mersey at the Runcorn Gap; however, a time limit of 7 years was imposed. Shortly after the passing of the Act, the Grand Junction Railway amalgamated with several other companies to form the London and North Western Railway (LNWR). As multiple other projects of the newly-combined entity were deemed to have precedence over the envisioned Runcorn Railway Bridge, work was not carried out on the project for some time, the 7 years time limit passed by without any construction activity having taken place, and thus the original powers which had been granted for the building of a railway bridge at this site quietly lapsed.[2]

During 1861, Parliamentary approval for a railway bridge at this site was obtained by the LNWR as part of a proposal to construct a line from Aston to the southeast of Runcorn, where it would joined with the existing line from Crewe to Warrington at Weaver Junction, located to the west of Widnes, where it met the line from Warrington to Garston at Ditton Junction.[3] This new line was 8.5 miles (14 km) long and reduced by more than 8 miles (13 km) the distance between Liverpool Lime Street and the stations south of the River Weaver.[4] The design of the bridge was the responsibility of William Baker, the chief engineer of the LNWR.[5]

View of the Southern end of the Runcorn Railway Bridge, 2008

During 1863, preparatory work for the bridge commenced at Runcorn, leading to the first stone of the structure being laid in 1864; in addition to the bridge itself, the approach viaducts were considered to be major structures in their own right as well.[6] By 1868, the Runcorn Railway Bridge had been completed and on 21 May, there was an introductory opening journey, during which the contractor's locomotive Cheshire drew a train of 20 wagons over the bridge.[7] It was formally opened for traffic on 10 October. The first goods traffic crossed the bridge on 1 February 1869; it was followed by the first passenger train to traverse the structure on 1 April of that year.[5]

During the early 1890s, the Manchester Ship Canal was constructed along the riverside, passing directly underneath the railway bridge,[8] the footway was closed to pedestrians in 1965, however it remains intact and has been maintained, both for access use by railway personnel and to carry an 11kV electrical cable between Widnes and Runcorn.[9][6] The bridge remains in use through to the present day for rail traffic on the Liverpool branch of the West Coast Main Line; both of the lines traversing the structure currently have 25 kV AC overhead lines installed above them, which allows for electric traction to made use of the route.[6]

During the 2010s, the bridge was subject to an extensive maintenance programme to address in excess of 150 years of wear and tear for the purpose of enabling it to continue to serve its role for another 150 years,[6] this programme is being carried out in three distinct phases. Phase One involved a series of intrusive surveys, including several bores into the main deck, in preparation for the following phases.[6] Phase Two involved mechanical repairs and waterproofing of the east and west bottom cords along all three spans. Phase Three shall involve performing the replacement of the structure's main bearings which is set to involve jacking up the span structures gain access to the bearings.[6]


Ground view between the Runcorn Railway Bridge and the Silver Jubilee Bridge, 2004

The Runcorn Railway Bridge carries a double-tracked railway across the River Mersey; it has been recognised as a Grade II* listed structure. The tracks themselves are situated upon a metal deck supported by a mixture of top and bottom box-girder chords, which are carried upon 8.5 metre-high trusses.[6] Additionally, as the structure had superseded a centuries-old ferry, a pedestrian footbridge set alongside the main girders was provided on its eastern side,[4] on its completion, the bridge was the longest of its time.[10] An engraved stone plaque on the northerly portal, located above the running lines, records that the main contractor was Brassey & Ogilvie and the ironworks were manufactured by Cochrane Grove & Co. Over time, large portions of these original ironworks have had to be restored or entirely replaced via new castings.[6]

As originally built, the bridge consists of three wrought iron spans of 305 feet (93 m), each located on top of two sandstone abutments with foundations at a depth of about 45 feet (14 m) below water level.[6] These trusses are used to support the metal bridge deck, which in turn carries the pair of railway lines, the erection of the lattice girder spans was unusual, because instead of floating them down the river and lifting into position, each was built up piece by piece in situ.[6] There are a total of 6 lattice girders, two of which for each span; each girder contains around 700 tons of iron and is fastened by 48,115 rivets. During the first half of the twentieth century, some of the original wrought iron girders were replaced by steel counterparts during maintenance activities.[6]

There is a clearance of 75 feet (23 m) above the high water mark that allowed sailing ships to pass beneath it, this height had been specifically stipulated as the Admiralty had insisted on a clearance of at least 75 feet.[6] The design of the approaches to the bridge on both side had to accommodate for the bridge's considerable height; as such, a gradient of 1 in 114 was used to obtain the sufficient shipping clearance height of 22.8 metres above the high-water mark underneath the central spans.[6] From the north side of the river, the bridge is approached by a viaduct of 49 arches, then a short piece of embankment, followed by 16 more arches. From the south, it is approached by a viaduct comprising 33 arches.[11] All of the viaduct piers, the bridge abutments and the bridge central piers are of sandstone, while the viaduct arches are composed of brick.[6]

The bridge has posed some challenges in its maintenance; being relatively exposed to the frequently-high winds, activities have to be performed with deference to, and significant attention allocated to the monitoring of, the prevailing conditions of each day.[6] Access to the site is also difficult as a result of the limited space available, particularly along the narrow walkway, resulting in the occasional use of suspended scaffolding and climbing ropes. More elaborate methods of moving supplies and equipment on and off the structure have included bespoke trolleys and lifting frames, as well as helicopters.[6] Due to these conditions, maintenance staff typically wear harnesses and are tied onto elements of the structure; on occasion, hired rescue boats have been kept on standby to rapidly respond in the event of personnel falling from the bridge.[6]

During the 2010s and 2020s, various elements of the bridge were subject to extensive repairs and modifications,[6] the cantilevered walkway saw considerable attention, such as the removal and restoration of its cast iron parapets across all three main spans, the grit-blasting of its cantilevered beams and bottom chords, the removal and replacement of the end plates for greater strength, and the application of a two-pack epoxy paint, including a polyurethane top coat coloured to match the rest of the structure.[6] Substantial attention was paid to restoring drainage and waterproofing the structure, especially in regards to the castellated turrets and the timber fenders used to protect the piers from damage, both of which having deteriorated over time. Work on the bridge requires authorisation not only from Halton Borough Council's planning authority due to its listed status, but also the Marine Management Organisation due to the potential impact upon shipping.[6]


Britannia shield on the western face of the bridge showing an LNWR loco and train crossing the linked viaduct.

The "official" name of the bridge is somewhat uncertain and has been a subject of debate. Locally, it has been commonly called the Queen Ethelfleda Viaduct,[12] however, the structure is more widely referred to as being the Britannia Bridge. It has been claimed that the structure has been named after Ethelfleda, a ruler of the historic Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, and that the southern abutments and pier of the bridge have been built on the site of the Saxon burh that had been erected by her in 915.[7] This connection is alleged to be the reason why LNWR had opted to have elements of the structure castellated.[6] There are three shields above the footway showing, from the southern end, the Coat of Arms of the City of London, Britannia (from the crest of the railway company) and the Liver Bird of Liverpool.[9] Because of the presence of the crest, the bridge is also known as the Britannia Railway Bridge.[7]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Historic England, "Runcorn Bridge railway bridge over River Mersey (1130418)", National Heritage List for England, retrieved 23 June 2013 
  2. ^ Cowan 1990, p. 5.
  3. ^ Starkey 1990, pp. 168–170.
  4. ^ a b Holt 1986, p. 65.
  5. ^ a b Cowan 1990, p. 11.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Marsh, Stewart. "Restoration work on the Runcorn railway bridge." Rail Engineer, 27 April 2018.
  7. ^ a b c Starkey 1990, p. 170.
  8. ^ Starkey 1990, pp. 186–187.
  9. ^ a b Cowan 1990, p. 17.
  10. ^ West Bank Promenade Conservation Area, Halton Borough Council, p. 10, Archived from the original on 28 September 2007, retrieved 14 September 2013 
  11. ^ Cowan 1990, pp. 5–6.
  12. ^ "Lady of the Mercians.", Retrieved: 18 May 2018.


  • Cowan, C. A. (1990), Runcorn Railway Bridge, Crossing the Runcorn Gap, 3, Halton: Halton Borough Council 
  • Holt, Geoffrey O. (1986) [1978], The North West, A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain, 10 (2nd ed.), David St John Thomas, ISBN 0-946537-34-8 
  • Starkey, H. F. (1990), Old Runcorn, Halton: Halton Borough Council 

Further reading[edit]

  • Anon (1978), The Bridging of Runcorn Gap, Widnes: Halton Borough Council 
  • Cowan, C. A. (1990), Runcorn Ferry and Hale Ford, Crossing the Runcorn Gap, 1, Halton: Halton Borough Council 
  • Cowan, C. A. (1992), Early Bridging Proposals, Crossing the Runcorn Gap, 2, Halton: Halton Borough Council 
  • Thompson, Dave (2000), Bridging the Mersey: A Pictorial History, Zaltbommel: European Library, ISBN 978-9-028-82640-3 

External links[edit]

Next crossing upstream River Mersey Next crossing downstream
Silver Jubilee Bridge  Runcorn Railway Bridge Mersey Railway Tunnel