Thursday, July 28, 2016

Battle For the North: The Tay and Forth Bridges and the 19th Century Railway Wars, by Charles McKean

So as I've already said numerous times on this site and will probably say again, I'm a little bit obsessed with trains. The result is that I ultimate spend an inordinate amount of time reading books about trains and then blogging about them here. Anyway, this week I'm looking at another railroad history book, in this case Battle For the North, which specifically talks about the railroad rivalry between the Caledonian and North British Railways in Scotland in the mid to late nineteenth century. At the center of this narrative, however, is the Tay Bridge Disaster, which McKean focuses a lot of his resources upon. In a way, it feels almost like two books that have been welded together rather than one.

For those of you that aren't familiar with the history, the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879 was a horrible accident where the bridge across the Tay Estuary in Scotland collapsed on a windy December night while a train was crossing it. Somewhere around seventy people died as the train plunged into the icy water below and it became sensational news at the time, seen as Victorian engineering being brought down for its hubris. There has been significant debate afterwards, of course, as to what exactly caused the bridge to collapse. The engineer who designed the bridge, Thomas Bouch, was condemned by a minority report from the Board of Trade Inquiry, which became the popular explanation. In this book, McKean seeks to explain why the bridge collapsed and rehabilitate Bouch.

The biggest problem I had with this book was that McKean tries to place the Tay Bridge's construction, collapse, demolition, and reconstruction, into the larger context of the fierce competition between the Caledonian and North British Railways, who sought to become the railway operating in Scotland. Although the competition between the lines explains why the North British decided to bridge not only the Tay but eventually also the Forth Estuaries, no small feats in and of themselves, I feel like the Tay narrative is almost a story apart from the competitive story between the North British and the Caledonian. I respect and appreciate McKean's efforts to place the entire story into context, but the preceding and following chapters feel somewhat unconnected.

The Tay Bridge gets the most focus in the book, with chapters on its construction, its fall, the inquiry into its collapse, and the eventual reconstruction. McKean's main effort, as I said, is to rehabilitate Bouch who has been castigated for the bridge collapse and provide alternate explanations for the disaster. McKean does bring up a good point that if the bridge design and construction had been completely inadequate, why did only the thirteen High Girders, the central part of the bridge, collapse when the rest of the bridge remained intact through the gale? If Bouch's design had been entirely inadequate for wind resistance, or the materials used inferior, shouldn't the entire bridge have collapsed? These are excellent points, but McKean fails to provide a satisfactory explanation for the facts. It cannot be refuted that the materials utilized for the bridge were inferior, with numerous severe problems recorded at the foundry where the cast iron parts were produced, which reflects badly on Bouch as he at least failed to place competent administrators in charge of the foundry work. Inadequate and improper maintenance was perhaps partially to blame, but that's more the fault of the North British administration who oversaw the maintenance of the bridge. But what caused the collapse?

McKean advances the theory, which Bouch himself supported, that the second class passenger carriage of the train jumped the track and with the guard van jumped the track and slammed into the girders, causing the structure to topple over. McKean argues that one of the high girder piers, which had actually collapsed in a storm during construction and had been re-erected, had been fatally weakened and warped, allowing the second class carriage to jump the track in the first place. Although this is possible, the evidence that McKean is able to marshal for this hypothesis is circumstantial at best, perhaps most critically pieces of wood with tell-tale grooves left by the wheels of the passenger carriage which are reported by eyewitnesses, but were burned as fuel within hours of being recovered from the ocean leaving no solid evidence. As I'm not an engineer I'm not really able to provide my own hypothesis. I have a vague idea that maybe the High Girders, which had their girder truss on top of the bridge rather than below to provide more clearance for ships, were too top heavy, but I have no evidence or skill to prove this beyond a vague supposition. Ultimately because the evidence was recovered hastily with a view towards reopening the shipping channel rather than forensic investigation, the answer will probably remain unknown.

By contrast, the construction of the Forth Bridge, a massive truss and cantilever edifice which still stands to this day, receives only one chapter. It certainly seemed to be plagued by less problems than the original Tay Bridge construction and as it has withstood the elements for over a century there has been no scandal of its collapse. The book ends with a strange chapter on races between London and Aberdeen taken between the Caledonian and North British Railways, but it's an event that occurred over a few summer months and ended just as abruptly. McKean condemns the competition as ultimately wasteful because it resulted in little more than a tie.

Overall this book is...okay at best. It's an interesting look into railway practices in the nineteenth century and I rather enjoyed the revelation that British railways weren't necessarily run any better than their American counterparts. However in trying to talk about railroad competition and the Tay Bridge, it feels like McKean pushed two potentially separate books together into one. Finally I find McKean's efforts to excuse Bouch of any and all wrongdoing is protesting a little too much and I think we may never know for certain why exactly the bridge collapsed.

- Kalpar

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