The history of the Runcorn-Widnes Bridge

The Silver Jubilee Bridge, popularly known as the Runcorn-Widnes Bridge, crosses the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal at Runcorn gap at Halton, connecting the Cheshire towns of Runcorn and Widnes.

The bridge is owned and managed by Halton Borough Council, but as of October 2017 it is closed for maintenance works expected to take 12 to 18 months.

A through arch bridge, it has a main arch span of 361 yards (330 metres). It was completed in 1961 to replace the Widnes-Runcorn Transporter Bridge. In 1975, after the bridge was widened, it was officially renamed the Silver Jubilee Bridge in honour of the Queen’s 25 years on the throne, but locals still refer to it as the Runcorn-Widnes Bridge.

Vehicles on the A533 travel on the bridge to cross the River Mersey and Manchester Ship canal, and there is a cantilevered footway. The bridge is a Grade II listed building.


In 1905, the first bridge to carry vehicles across the Runcorn gap was the Widnes-Runcorn Transporter Bridge. This carried vehicles on a moving platform suspended from a steel structure that spanned the river. The journey took 2.5 minutes and only a few cars could be transported at a time, making it a largely inefficient way to carry heavy traffic over the water.

In 1946, it was agreed that the transporter bridge should be replaced. Many designs were considered, including a swing bridge. The problem with many of the proposed designs was that the bridge needed to be high enough to allow the passage of boats. A swing bridge would have allowed boats to pass, but it was considered impractical as the length of time taken swinging the bridge would cause traffic delays.

It was decided that a new high-level bridge should be constructed upriver from the transport bridge location. Several designs for the bridge at this location were submitted, including a truss bridge and a suspension bridge. The final design was for a through arch bridge with a 10-yard single carriageway spanning 361 yards.

Construction of the first phase of the bridge started in 1956 by builders Leonard Fairclough of Adlington, who cleared the site and constructed the foundations. The second phase was the main and side arches, and this was completed by Dorman Long of Middlesbrough. Leonard Fairclough was sub-contracted to build the bridge deck, viaduct and side spans.

The bridge was officially opened on July 21, 1961 by Princess Alexandra. At this time, it was the longest vehicular span bridge in the country, but this record was superseded by the building of the Tamar Bridge in South West England. Still, it remains the third longest span arch bridge in the world and is probably the longest local authority-owned highway bridge in the UK.

The bridge has transformed the town of Runcorn. Previously, most through traffic avoided Runcorn because of the length of time it took to use the transporter bridge. After the bridge was built, it provided a route between north Cheshire and south Lancashire, and it is estimated that trade in the town shops increased sixfold after the bridge was built. Traffic density trebled too, which is why the bridge was widened in 1975 to cope with the increases in traffic.


The bridge cost around £2.4m to build. The main arch is cantilevered steelwork, while the carriageway is suspended from the arch by 48 lock-cell wire ropes. To save costs, the steel was riveted instead of welded, with about 720,000 rivets holding the bridge together. Around 5,900 tons of steel were used in the bridge’s construction, along with 7,500 tonnes of concrete.

The arch is a two-pinned bowstring construction designed to withstand the oscillations generated by the adjacent railway bridge. The bridge is 22.9 metres above the River Mersey and 24.4 metres above the Manchester Ship Canal.

The skewback piers are concrete on soft sandstone. They are designed to stand 3,000 tonnes of thrust, which is enough to carry the heaviest traffic. The deck is concrete on steel beams.

Between 1975 and 1977, the road was widened to 13.5 metres. The footpath at one side of the carriageway is 1.7 metres wide.

In 2004, 10 expansion joints were replaced and the carriageway resurfaced with asphalt. Further refurbishment took place in 2009 to protect the steel from corrosion.

The bridge needs constant painting and requires 6,000 tons of paint to completely cover it.

As well as carrying traffic, the Runcorn-Widnes bridge has been used for charity fundraising. In 2014 a zip ride was attached to the bridge and riders used it to cross the River Mersey to raise funds for Target Ovarian Cancer. At £43 a ride, it was not the cheapest way to cross the River Mersey, but it was for a worthy cause.

The present and future

Just as the transporter bridge was inadequate to carry the increased volume of traffic, the Widnes-Runcorn bridge was considered insufficient when traffic volumes increased to 80,000 vehicles a day. To relieve congestion the Mersey Gateway, a six-lane toll bridge was built to the east of the bridge and opened on October 17, 2017 at a cost of £209 million

The Runcorn-Widnes Bridge is currently closed and is due to reopen in Autumn 2018 at the earliest after major refurbishment. When it reopens, it will be a toll bridge.

The project illustrates how bridge designers need to plan for the future. When the Runcorn-Widnes transporter bridge opened in 1905, there were not many vehicles on the road, so the bridge was adequate for the few that need to get to and from Runcorn each day. The planners in 1905 did not foresee how the growth in traffic volumes would make their bridge obsolete.

In the 1950s, the design for the Widnes-Runcorn bridge was enough for the traffic conditions at that time, but no one predicted that traffic would rise to 80,000 vehicles a day and the bridge would need replacing.

The Mersey gateway bridge is six lanes wide, which should manage traffic for the next few decades at least.

Posted by Mark
March 19, 2018

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