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11 March 2016, 06:00
Senior engineers at the Forth Road Bridge should be able to close the crossing "without delay'' if there is an emergency, without having to get permission from Scottish ministers, a Holyrood committee has suggested.
MSPs on the Infrastructure Committee also urged the Scottish Government to consider if there should be a "clearer and more immediate decision-making procedure'' for handling emergency events on the bridge.
They made the call as they published their inquiry report into the closure of the Forth Road Bridge last December after a crack was found in part of the structure.
As a result, the crossing was closed to all traffic for almost three weeks in December, with heavy goods vehicles only allowed back on it in February.
The report highlighted a five-hour delay between bridge operators Amey recommending the bridge be shut and the decision by ministers to to close it, adding that while "this delay did not present any danger to users'' the MSPs felt there is a "lack of clarity as to who is ultimately responsible for closing the Forth Road Bridge and what protocol exists for making such decisions''.
The committee said it "considers that, in circumstances in which senior engineers in the operating company reach a view that the Forth Road Bridge needs to be closed on public safety or other emergency grounds, it should be possible for closure to be implemented by senior engineers without delay, under the terms of the operating company's incident response plan, without a requirement to seek authority from Transport Scotland or Scottish ministers''.
Ministers have been urged to confirm "who is ultimately responsible for making a decision to close the bridge and provide details of the protocol'' for this.
The committee concluded the crack in one of the truss end links on the crossing "could not have been foreseen'', with the report noting there are "no other examples of a similar failure occurring on suspension bridges elsewhere in the world which might have informed engineers and led to enhanced checking of the pins''.
A decision was made in December 2011 to "re-prioritise'' work to address concerns about the truss end link mechanisms, the report said, adding this was a ``direct consequence'' of a reduction in the grant for capital work on the bridge.
MSPs also said the decision to build a new crossing "had an influence on decisions to re-prioritise certain capital projects'' by the previous operators, the Forth Estuary Transport Authority (Feta).
A majority of the committee considered the decision to defer the proposed work on the truss end links was "an appropriate course of action on the basis of both the prevailing financial circumstances and the engineering advice available at the time''.
Committee convener Jim Eadie said all those who had given evidence to the committee "were of the view that the defect which caused the closure of the bridge could not have been foreseen''.
Mr Eadie said: "The committee is of the view that Feta dealt with the challenge of re-prioritising its capital proposals in a professional and responsible manner.''
Scottish Conservative transport spokesman Alex Johnstone said the report highlighted the "true price of the Scottish Government's penny-pinching approach to its responsibilities''.
He said: "While it is the case that the closure of the Forth Road Bridge could not have been foreseen, the Scottish Government's slow response in repairing the bridge has had a catastrophic impact on people and businesses.''
Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: "This report is a big disappointment and doesn't nearly go far enough.
"The Forth Road Bridge is a major artery that closed on the Government's watch.
"They should not leave businesses to pick up the tab.
"Committee has recognised itself that bridge users and particularly hauliers were severely affected by the closure.
"Hundreds of thousands of pounds were lost by businesses.
"My calls for a fund to compensate those affected have been ignored. The Scottish Government needs to act now.''
Transport minister Derek Mackay pledged ministers would "carefully consider the conclusions'' of the report.
He said: "We particularly agree with the finding that the defect, which led to the bridge being closed, has been recognised as 'unforeseen'.
"It is clear the decision to close the bridge was the right thing to do and the efforts in getting the bridge fully quickly reopened were a 'remarkable engineering achievement' given the challenging conditions.''
Mr Mackay continued: "We believe there is a clear procedure in place for the closure of the bridge and we have the same powers as Feta to immediately close it if there is an immediate safety risk.
"Now that the main priority of fully reopening the bridge has been achieved we are already making preparations for a full incident debrief to record what worked well and identify any opportunities to further improve performance. ''
Scottish Labour said questions remain over compensation for businesses affected.
A spokesman said: "It's clear that cuts from the SNP Government to the repairs budget saw vital work cancelled on the Forth Road Bridge which could have avoided the chaos we saw over Christmas.
"Repair works were put out to tender in 2010 and then cancelled because of affordability issues, as the former Bridgemaster Barry Colford said in evidence to the committee.
"We know from emails that the Bridgemaster intended to put in place a restriction to abnormal vehicles until all strengthening or replacement works took place.
"The SNP Government must now outline what compensation will be available to businesses who lost out during the closure.''