• Transport infrastructure asset management aims to ensure that key assets function 100% of the time. The closure of the Forth Road Bridge is not just a highly unusual event, but also a good time to reflect whether or not we have systems in place to ensure that critical failures do not occur.

    Clearly something very serious went wrong with the transport asset management systems. There is clearly a need to change these systems so that this type of failure does not happen again on any key transport asset: road, rail, sea or air.

    One key principle of good design is to allow sufficient redundancy to ensure component failure does not lead to system failure. Where a component is so critical that it cannot fail then it needs to be replaced well in advance of the point of failure to protect the system. Simulated analysis of the life of steel components combined with monitoring of stresses in bridge components can predict with a high degree of accuracy when components will fail. However, time and again, investigation into system failure shows that the most common critical failures are administrative, managerial and political, rather than technical. Not all engineers include political and managerial parameters in their analysis, or even user behaviour responses.

    Yet in response to the closure of the Forth Road Bridge the political, managerial and user behaviour responses have been superb. Perhaps the question we should be asking is how to turn the positive energy we can find at a time of failure into a commitment to deliver better asset management performance on a day to day basis.

    The current debate whether or not the failure on the Forth bridge was predicted, illustrates that some people predicted the failure but there will always be a wide range of views on any topic. How do asset managers and politicians know what advice to listen to?

    There will inevitably be calls for inquiries but perhaps there is no need for that. Implementing the findings from previous inquiries into management system failure could be a quicker fix. Last month the Institution of Civil Engineers published a report highlighting the huge backlog of maintenance on Scotland’s roads and bridges. A good starting point might be to start by implementing the recommendations of the engineers charged with keeping the roads open.

  • Michael Russell MSP has been having a tough time in his role as cabinet secretary for the constitution minister, so could have done without the continuing saga of the A83 landslips at the Rest and be Thankful in his constituency. He announced on Twitter in August his relief that the hillside was now stable, alongside Transport Scotland’s promotion of their unique international expertise in stabilising the hillside. Most casual observers can see very well that the hillside has never been stable with rocks from the last few hundred years having found their way down from the steep scree that forms much of the hillside. With the road again closed for much of the autumn, and the costs growing past the £80m already spent trying to stabilise the hillside, the frustrated communities in Argyll affected by the road closure can only hope that the ‘world leading’ efforts to stabilise the hillside will be abandoned soon. Local campaigners highlight that common international practice is to build short sections of viaduct and/or tunnel past unstable sections of steep hillside for a fraction of the cost so far expended in the Arrochar Alps. Transport Scotland’s long term plans however look to be much more expensive with a wide ranging consultation on potential corridors published in October.

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