Balfour Beatty ends idiom at a brush stroke

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Balfour Beatty, the UK civil engineering group, has set a date to finish painting the Forth rail bridge in Scotland – putting paid to the bridge’s constant redecoration as an analogy for a never-ending task.

“Painting the Forth bridge” even found a place in the Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms.

The UK group, which has been working on refurbishing the bridge since 2002, aims to complete the job by 2012.

Ian Tyler, group chief executive, said the bridge would be “fully restored to its original condition”. Once completed, it should not need repainting for at least 20 years.

The Victorian-era bridge, completed in 1890, spans the River Forth and carries the east coast main line railway north of Edinburgh. It is now owned by Network Rail, the state-controlled owner of the UK’s rail infrastructure, and is regarded as one of the great feats of British engineering. It stands beside the more modern road bridge, opened in 1964, which also needs repair.

Iain Coucher, chief executive of Network Rail, said the refurbishment “will preserve the steelwork for decades to come”.

The work began in 2002, but only now has it been able to set a completion because the scale of the task was unclear. The annual investment is being raised from £13m to £18.5m ($36m), with “the aim of generating long-term savings”.

The contract, worth £74m in total to Balfour Beatty, involves removing layers of old paint and taking the structure back to the original steel to repair defects. Three protective coats are then applied, including a glass-flake epoxy paint similar to that used in the offshore oil industry.

The colour, called Forth Bridge red, which is often mistaken for rust, is the same as its Victorian shade.

The surface area to be painted totals 18 hectares, or 45 acres.

The Forth Bridges Visitor Centre Trust, which also looks after the road bridge, says that, for the first 100 or so years of the bridge’s existence, painting was undertaken on a continuous basis along the 1½-mile rail bridge. However, under the ownership of British Rail, the former state-run railway operator, Network Rail said that years of under-investment meant that the painting was undertaken only on a patchwork basis.

The bridge now carries between 180 and 200 trains a day.

It is the second largest cantilever bridge in the world, its centre span being 28m shorter than that of the Quebec bridge in Canada constructed in 1918, but 161 metres longer than the Queensboro bridge in New York that was built in 1908.

Sixty-three men died during the building of the bridge. Network Rail said there had been no serious accidents since the refurbishment began in 2002.

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