When John Smith saw Tadcaster Bridge collapse he experienced physical pain; he felt sick.
As North Yorkshire County Council’s bridges manager he could foresee the distress ahead in a flash: a town cut in two; the loss of a much-loved historic landmark; the complex, Herculean task of reconstruction.
It wasn’t so much the loss of the stonework as it collapsed into the river. Replacing that would be the easy bit. It was the damage you couldn’t see that was alarming him.
Bridge engineers will tell you that people don’t think about the effect of a bridge on the highways network until they close it. Then there’s hell to pay and you need broad shoulders to bear the brunt of people’s frustration.
Pride and Joy: John Smith in his element
Mr Smith closed Tadcaster Bridge due to the rapid rise and speed of the flood water two days before it tumbled into the River Wharfe. Even then people carried on crossing it, so John asked for barriers to be placed at either end with police on duty. When the footpath on the bridge began to dip John ordered his own men off the structure as well. He knew it was going to go.
The turbulence of the river was so great it had scoured the riverbed right under the bridge piers, causing them to give way.
The moment of collapse was filmed on a phone and relayed globally via YouTube. An icon of devastation from last year’s winter floods. A defeated structure that soon disappeared behind scaffolding and cofferdams, piling machines and arch supports.
In the end, both main river piers had to be stabilised with drilled concrete piles before the damaged arches could be rebuilt.
Mr Smith is used to projects being in the limelight and is braced for the pressure that results whenever a bridge is out of action.
'Every time you close a bridge you will upset somebody,' said Mr Smith.
'If you try to do things quickly, things can quickly go wrong. You have to keep calm and you have to do what’s right.'
As a bridge engineer for North Yorkshire County Council for more than 30 years and head of bridges since 2000, he has experienced his fair share of dramas and has developed a sure-footed, can-do approach.
Two and a half weeks after the Tadcaster collapse, his team moved onto the site and have moved flat out to complete what would normally be a two year job in little more than a year.
During his first year in charge as the bridge manager, Mercury Bridge in Richmond, which the County Council had recently taken over from Network Rail, partially collapsed during a major flood.
Mr Smith had closed the 19th century bridge for safety and three days later 55 tons of masonry fell into the River Swale. That restoration, he said, was his toughest job because it was his first dealing with a collapse.
He was in charge when in 2007 Helmsley and the surrounding moors flooded under torrential rain, sweeping away Shaken Bridge at Hawnby and damaging 26 other bridges in a day. Within eight weeks nearly all of them had been repaired.
The rebuilding of Shaken, a traditional masonry structure, became a work of art, winning an Institution of Civil Engineers award.
North Yorkshire has about 1600 bridges, 800 of them are listed and Mr Smith has been responsible for all the feasibility studies for new bridgeworks since 1988. He has strengthened 425, and rebuilt bridges that have succumbed to flood water or been damaged by vehicles that are too wide, too heavy or going too fast. There are around 300 accidents causing bridge damage a year with repairs averaging £10,000.
Mr Smith has also built dozens of new ones and his teams have won many ICE awards for bridge design.
At Egton Bridge he won an award for designing and building England’s first masonry bridge for a century. For Mr Smith, aesthetics are important, connecting the bridge with its surroundings. He worked closely with the masons and oversaw the stone quarried in Glaisdale, so that even the sandstone kerbs and paving were made to complement the bridge structure. Egton has been cited as one of the best looking bridges in the country.
He has a soft spot for bridge folklore like Devil’s Bridge near Hawes, which has never had the last stone laid for fear the devil will claim the stone layer. 'I’ve sometimes been tempted to lay it to see what would happen', said Mr Smith, 'but then I don’t want to run out of luck. Bridge engineers are a superstitious bunch; we need all the luck we can get'.
His career in civil engineering spans 45 years but from the first he wanted to be a bridge engineer. Working on bridges, he says, brings together all his interests in design and materials:
'The satisfaction you get from completing the job is second only to the satisfaction you get from holding your child in your hands after birth. I know that’s soppy, but that’s how it is. It’s about team work – the contractors, the masons, the materials, the divers the engineers, - it’s bringing all that together.'
He chose the stone for rebuilding and widening Tadcaster – a particular, lower fine grained Permian limestone from a quarry near Doncaster. He designed the widened bridge and like every historic bridge he has ever worked on, he has enjoyed the research to do the job well.
Rebuilding Tadcaster has enabled him to walk in the footsteps of the famous 18th century bridge and house designer John Carr who was superintendent of works for West Yorkshire. Mr Carr built the bridge in two halves, the first in 1732 alongside an earlier wooden bridge. He then won the contract to replace the wooden bridge with a stone one in 1791. It is Mr Carr’s later bridge which sustained the brunt of last year’s flood damage.
North Yorks: 300 accidents a year cause £10k bridge damage
'Our job on this repair has been to ensure that the bridge can’t be damaged again by a flood of that magnitude', said Mr Smith.
The work has cost £4.4m (£3m from the Government and £1.4m from the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Local Enterprise Partnership) and taken over a year - longer than hoped for due to the complexity and vagaries of the job. Even then it’s been a swift operation given the extent of the project.
Nevertheless John has had to put up with the occasional haranguing in the street; impatient onlookers wanting to know why it has taken the County Council so long when the Japanese can repair a giant sink hole in Tokyo in seven days. He is resigned to the brickbats. It takes as long as it takes to get the job right he tells them; you need to understand the cause of the problem before you can fix it.
So what next after Tadcaster Bridge? 'The next job is always the best job any engineer will tell you that'. The fascination never ends.
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