When I was a kid, I remember seeing a picture of a transporter bridge in an encyclopædia. We didn’t have anything like that where I lived, and I was intrigued. What a bizarre contraption! A bridge that has only a small section of roadway that shuttles to and fro, suspended from a gantry far above. It looked so… complicated. I was used to bridges that just got built and stayed put – and generally didn’t require operators, or engines.
It’s not surprising that I’d never seen a transporter bridge, as fewer than two dozen of the things ever got built, and just six of them survive in use today; one each in France and Spain, and two each in Germany and the UK. The Spanish one was the original, completed in 1893 and now a World Heritage Site.
It was only recently that I finally got to see a transporter bridge for the first time: the Tees Transporter Bridge that looms over the large industrial town of Middlesbrough, in the North East of England. Local people view it with considerable affection, and I loved it because I’d been wanting to see one for decades… but I have to admit that it dominates the skyline rather like one of the terrifying Martian fighting machines in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
The transporter bridge is a strange hybrid of several very different kinds of transport system. The gondola looks rather like a boat, complete with ‘wheelhouse’ and life preservers… and a schedule of regular crossings that’s more like a ferry than a bridge. Up above, the gondola is suspended from a wheeled dolly that runs on rails like a train, or more accurately like the trolley on a gantry crane. Its motive power comes from cables connected to a winding-house, which makes it seem more like a cable car, a funicular railway, or even the pithead gear at a mine. Most bridges of this kind also serve as a footbridge, although the Rendsburg High Bridge in Germany actually has a rail bridge on the top.
Transporter bridges actually make a kind of sense… or did, back in the 1890s and early 1900s, when rivers were still being navigated by sailing ships. A low bridge couldn’t be allowed to block the way for frequent river traffic, but a high bridge would require tremendously long approach ramps if road traffic were to ascend and descend. So what do you do? You build a bridge that only has a small obstruction at water level, that shuttles back and forth.
The 20th century wasn’t kind to transporter bridges: road traffic increased in importance and transporter bridges could only convey cars in batches, in a world where constant flow was becoming the norm. An unusually late transporter bridge appeared in Stalingrad, Russia, completed in 1955: while the widespread use of automobiles rendered the transporter bridge impractical in the free world, it appears to have still been worth trying under communism.
With space for nine cars on each crossing, Middlesbrough’s transporter simply didn’t have enough capacity to serve the industries that became established on far bank. A more conventional bridge can be found a little way upstream, and today that has left the Transporter as a wonderfully quirky way to reach a minor industrial estate, or to visit the village of Port Clarence. I think they make more money from bungee jumps than they do from river crossings nowadays. To make a bridge 259m long, in order to span a gap of 180m; to make a bridge that consumes energy with every crossing, and requires careful maintenance; to make a bridge that only operates part of the time; it was bizarre. It was a daft way to cross a river, but at £68,026 6s 8d (in 1907 money) I think it was an absolute bargain. It’s magnificent, even if inefficient. How dull the world would seem, if everything was optimised!
We crossed the bridge, did a three-point turn, and drove straight back for the return crossing. If that sounds like a silly way to expend £1.30 (each way) it’s no more pointless than any other piece of tourism that sees you return to your point of origin. As Heraclitus of Ephesus said, “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” When you’ve crossed on a transporter bridge, you’ve experienced a rare, impractical, somewhat steampunk and entirely unforgettable mode of travel.