Engineer warns Thames construction chaos could end in disaster

Construction delays on London’s new Garden Bridge could lead to a major collision on the Thames on a scale similar to that of the 1989 Marchioness disaster, according to a leading marine civil engineer.

Construction of the controversial 367-metre tree and plant-lined bridge had been due to start this summer, but a series of problems have led to the schedule being put back to autumn at the earliest.

The Garden Bridge Trust has now been granted a construction licence by the government’s Marine Management Organisation (MMO).

As part of a consultation process, however, the head of a leading marine engineering company wrote to say that delays mean the bridge will now coincide with other significant construction work, which will involve large amounts of barge traffic on the Thames.

The Architects Journal obtained a letter from Tim Beckett, the co-founder of leading marine civil engineering consultancy, Beckett Rankine, under freedom of information laws.

His letter warns of a “hazardous juxtaposition of construction activities” between the bridge and projects including the construction of London’s so-called super sewer, the £4.2bn Thames Tideway Tunnel, or TTT, which will take away huge amounts of waste down the river.

Mr Beckett’s letter noted that a previous risk assessment, which was carried out in 2014, had found that the area between Temple and South Bank where the bridge will sit, known as King’s Reach, had seen “significantly more vessel collisions and contacts than any other part of the river”.

He wrote: “The TTT will involve a tripling of large freight movements on King’s Reach while the Northern line extension and Fulham football ground works are due to add even more heavy freight movements. Meanwhile passenger boat movements are at a record level and still rising.

“During this unprecedented level of river traffic Blackfriars [Bridge] No 2 arch will be closed for the TTT works, further increasing navigational risk in King’s Reach.

‘To then add the two Garden Bridge cofferdams on top of all these other increased risks would, I believe, be an unnecessary and reckless risk. The likelihood of a major collision between a passenger vessel and a large freight vessel, such as happened 27 years ago with the Marchioness and Bowbelle, is simply too great.”

Fifty-one people drowned in 1989, when the Bowbelle, a dredger, struck the Marchioness, a pleasure cruiser hosting a party, at night.

Mr Beckett recommended in his letter that the Garden Bridge works be delayed to reduce such risks.

Lara Murray, a health and safety expert with Palmers, said: “Whilst the developers will be keen to progress with the construction of Garden Bridge to try to get this project back on schedule, the Trust has a duty of care to ensure that all river users are properly protected.

“Due warning by a respected, leading marine engineer should not be taken lightly and it is the duty of all construction and engineering companies, who utilise the Thames for plant and equipment transport, to ensure that a thorough risk assessment has been carried out and safe systems of work are in place to ensure the safety of both their workers and members of the public.”

For more information on Palmers health and safety legal advice relating to construction and engineering projects, please contact us.