Tay Bridge Disaster – 1879

It took engineer Thomas Bouch 20 years to persuade the operators of the east coast London-to-Scotland railway line to commit the funds for a great bridge to cross the Firth of Tay in Scotland. When the bridge was completed in 1877 it was, at over 3 km (2 mi), the world’s longest by far. Bouch was only able to use brick piers at the southern end of the bridge where the foundations were in solid rock; for most of the bridge’s 85 piers he had to resort to the lighter alternative of piers composed of cast-iron columns. The bridge also had a central raised section of 13 piers over the estuary’s deep channel so that shipping could pass beneath; the clearance was further enhanced by the expedient of placing the bridge’s trusses for that section on top of the track, creating in effect a latticework tunnel.

On December 28 1879, little more than 18 months after the Tay Rail Bridge had opened for passenger traffic, the mail train from Edinburgh was heading for the city of Dundee on the north bank. Approaching the south end of the bridge the driver slowed down; a storm was raging and there were vicious cross-winds in the estuary. As he eased his engine gently over the high section the piers gave way, spilling the entire train into the turbulent waters below. There were no survivors.

The official inquiry cited the extreme weather conditions as a major factor in the disaster but also castigated aspects of the construction method and the materials deployed, in particular the use of cast iron. Although this had also been at the root of the Dee bridge collapse 30 years before, it was still another dozen years before the British government banned the use of cast iron in bridge construction.

When was the Tay Bridge Disaster: December 28 1879

Where was the Tay Bridge Disaster: Firth of Tay, Scotland, UK

What was the Tay Bridge Disaster death toll: 75

You should know: William McGonagall, the 19th century poet dubbed the worst in the English language, was a native of Dundee. His most famous – or infamous – poem is devoted to the disaster and begins with the line ‘Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tayi’

The bridge collapsed in a storm, killing the entire crew and all the passengers on a train that was crossing at the time.

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