Visitors will be able to climb the Forth Bridge on foot or in a glass lift under bold £15 million plans to open the engineering marvel up to the public for the first time.
A state-of-the-art visitor centre will be built into the base of the bridge’s northern Fife tower and connected to the remarkable lift taking
people up to a platform offering breathtaking views from 110 metres above the River Forth.
The centre – as these drawings show – would offer amazing views of the red-coloured span.
A second centre will also be opened in South Queensferry and act as a base for guided walks to the top of the bridge’s south tower.
The Evening News can reveal these artist impressions showing how the bridge will be turned into a world-class visitor attraction in time for its 125th anniversary.
The project is expected to cost up to £15m, with Network Rail aiming for at least some of the facilities to be open by 2015.
Interest groups believe the plans could bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Forth Bridge each year, providing a major economic boost for South Queensferry and Edinburgh.
The northern visitor centre would include a cafe and shop. An exhibition and education space would also give visitors an insight into the bridge’s history and the lengths gone to in repairing and maintaining the structure.
A step-free ramp would connect the building to two existing goods lifts that would be upgraded to carry tourists.
Officials are likely to incorporate glass walls into the lifts.
The views on a clear day from the aerial platform will extend as far north as Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park and as far east as North Berwick.
“We are hugely excited by these proposals and believe that they have the potential to be developed into an important new visitor attraction for Scotland,” a spokesman for the project said.
Guided walks for up to 15 people at a time will run from the bridge’s southern end. The tours will leave from a separate centre located directly underneath the train line and within walking distance of the historic Hawes Inn and Dalmeny railway station.
The building will run from existing Network Rail offices accessed by a wooden flight of stairs running off Hawes Brae, near the town’s ferry landing.
Those climbing the bridge will stride along an existing walkway underneath the bridge’s southern span.
They would then hike to the top of the southern Queensferry tower via gantries and catwalks within the top cantilever traditionally used by maintenance workers. Safety options for climbers are still being assessed, with clipping visitors onto the bridge using safety harnesses or mobile platforms two of the options.
The length of tours and the cost of guided walks is yet to be decided, although Network Rail said pricing would be accessible and would be based on charges for other tourist attractions across Scotland.
The plans have been released as the railway bridge, built in 1890 and considered one of the world’s greatest feats of engineering, seeks world heritage listing with Unesco.
The public consultation process over a bid to obtain world heritage site status for the bridge closed earlier this month.
Network Rail route managing director David Simpson said: “After ten years spent restoring the bridge to its full glory, and in advance of the application for world heritage listing, these plans will offer the public the chance to visit the bridge and see it ‘close-up’ for the first time.
“While these plans are still at development stage, we believe that the options we have revealed today can be delivered without impacting the well loved view of the bridge. Any infrastructure on the bridge will be less visible than the existing scaffold platform and all buildings designs will be of premium quality.
“It’s an ambitious target, but we’d love to see these plans at least partially realised by 2015 to coincide with the bridge’s 125th anniversary.
“Any profits from the two facilities would be reinvested into the upkeep of the bridge. The bridge remains a key part of Scotland’s railway infrastructure, linking Edinburgh with Fife and the north, and carrying over 200 trains per day.”
The decade-long renovation of the bridge that ended in 2011 cost £130m.
Plans to upgrade existing buildings to create the two visitor centres – rather than building facilities – is expected to keep project costs down.
The area that will become the North Queensferry visitor centre is a Network Rail compound.
A Network Rail spokesman said: “If you spend the money on it, I don’t think there’s any doubt that there’s a market for it. Over the longer term, any money that we spend on it will come back to us and that’ll then get reinvested in the railway.”
Scotland has five Unesco world heritage sites. Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, New Lanark, the Antonine Wall, Neolithic Orkney and St Kilda hold the status north of the Border.
Efforts to transform the structure into a tourist mecca will be realised a year before the £1.6 billion Queensferry Crossing – the third bridge connecting Edinburgh to Fife – is due to be finished.
Transport Minister Keith Brown welcomed the “exciting and ambitious plans”, adding: “One of the key roles of the Forth Bridges Forum, of which Network Rail is an active partner, is to promote the Forth bridges and the surrounding area as a globally unique attraction for visitors. This announcement by Network Rail is the first stage of that aspiration.”
Diane Brown, project manager of pro-business group Queensferry Ambition, said: “We are thrilled that there’s going to be a visitor opportunity on the south side of the bridge as well as the north. Anything that brings visitors to South Queensferry and has a positive impact in the town is much appreciated.
“I really think it will put us on the map and not just with the two bridges, but with the third bridge coming as well.
“With the possibility of world heritage status, we’re hoping we can leverage in funding that will help with looking at the whole signage and tourism elements of Queensferry.”
Ms Brown said the one main hurdle was the need for extra parking to cater for a predicted influx in tourists.
She said of potential prices to climb the bridge: “Anything between £30 and £100 is what people have spoken about in various forums. I don’t know if there would be various levels of admission, but I would think it’ll be on par with the Sydney Harbour Bridge.”
Network Rail is planning on using existing parking in both South and North Queensferry to cater for extra visitors.
A spokeswoman for Historic Scotland said: “We have seen Network Rail’s initial ideas and look forward to working with them as their proposals develop.”
INSPIRED BY AN AUS-SOME IDEA
BOSSES of the amazing attraction will no doubt hope it emulates the success of another bridge tourist magnet.
Since it opened nearly 15 years ago, three million people have completed the hike to the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge, making it one of Australia’s top tourist attractions.
With trips to the top costing between £115 and £179 it has become a major money spinner, earning millions for its operators, and has seen £2.6 million gifted to schools and charities.
One Edinburgh resident who has been to top of it said: “It’s a major tourist draw and massively popular with unbelievable views from the top. This plan for the Forth Bridge sounds even more dramatic, so I can see it being a huge success.”
At Sydney, visitors can take an express climb or a guided treks around the bridge. There have been more than 4000 marriage proposals at the summit and couples have the option of tying the knot on a section some 439ft above the harbour.
Tower-top climbs have also been opened on the Auckland Harbour Bridge in New Zealand.
Other world famous crossings such as San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City have pedestrian walkways, but do not allow public access to their highest points.
Bridge by numbers
• The three cantilever structures are 361ft [110 metres] tall;
• More than 200 trains cross the bridge every day;
• The rail level is 150ft [46 metres] above high water;
• It was built using 53,000 tonnes of steel and 6.5 million rivets;
• It took seven years to complete and cost the lives of more than 70 men;
• The bridge cost £3 million to build and employed a workforce of 4600 men at the height of construction;
• Painters needed to cover an area of 230,000 sqm – though the last repaint completed in 2011 means it should not require a full paint for at least 20 years;
• The bridge famously stars in the 1959 version of The Thirty-Nine Steps.