The Queen has ceremonially opened many bridges. In 1981 she opened the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge which carries the metro between Newcastle and Gateshead. Then the cable staged bridge in 1991, also called the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge; this one crosses the River Thames at Dartford and transport 130000 vehicles a day.
Even bridges that don’t carry her name, like the Flintshire Bridge in North wales, which she opened in 1998, and is the largest asymmetric cable stayed bridge in Britain, got the royal approval. Who should be honoured with the name of a bridge?
There is another queen with a bridge named after her – The Queen Alexandra Bridge. A double decker bridge in Sunderland that crosses the River Wear. It was designed to carry rail, road traffic and pedestrians and opened in 1909.
The bridge was joint venture between the railway company and local council to help connect the docks with the coalfields. In order to enable the clearance to be sufficiently high for the local shipyards, the bridge was required to be a single arch span. The design chosen was a steel truss. A truss uses triangular units to build a load bearing structure, and the loads were significant. At its completion it was the heaviest bridge in the UK made of 8.5k tonnes of steel, 4.5k tonnes of granite, 60k tonnes of red stonework and 350K bricks. And not only did it transport vehicles, it also carried gas, water and electricity cables.
The upper deck was used by rail to transport coal, but the trade declined and the last freight train ran in 1921. The rail deck was eventually removed later in the 20th century.
The construction of the bridge began on either side of the river bank and connected in the middle. To test if the bridge could take the great weight of coal wagons, the method chosen was to load eight locomotives on top of deck. Each one had to be driven over the bridge, and back again. Modern health and safety laws would never permitted such a perilous test. I hope the engine drivers were paid a good bonus. Although no longer used for trains, the upper deck had its uses during the second world war, when it had search lights mounted as part of its anti-craft use.
The bridge is named after Queen Alexandra, consort of Edward VIl, however, she didn’t open the bridge in 1909. That honour fell to the Earl of Durham, on her behalf. Maybe the bridge should have been called Earl of Durham’s bridge? The name of a bridge lasts long after its construction, a legacy that perhaps should belong to its engineer not its patron, or maybe even the name of the brave train drivers who drove over it for the first time.