World’s oldest railway viaduct in multimillion pound restoration
It has carried Victorian-age freight trains through to the Carolean age expresses. Now, the almost two-hundred-year-old Sankey Viaduct is to get a makeover befitting the oldest viaduct serving the mechanised railway in the world. With a budget of 3.8 million pounds (4.41 million euros), this iconic part of the British railway network is set for restoration ahead of its 200th anniversary. The railway still carries a daily procession of mixed traffic, so this is more than a celebration for the Newton-le-Willows landmark. It’s an entirely necessary maintenance project.
The British infrastructure agency, Network Rail, has embarked on something more than a restoration project for the Sankey Viaduct, also known as the ‘Nine Arches’ viaduct. Built between 1828 and 1830, this is not just a critical part of the railway network connecting Liverpool and Manchester; it is a Grade I listed structure, placing it among the most highly regarded historic monuments in the British Isles. Such is the distinction of being the oldest major railway viaduct in the world. The structure was built to carry the world’s first purpose built city to city passenger railway over the equally innovative Sankey Navigation canal, dating from 1757.
Fame and grandeur of the age
Spanning 160 metres over the Sankey Valley, the viaduct is an engineering marvel of its time. The structure comprises nine semi-circular arches, each stretching fifteen metres and supported by eight towering piers reaching heights of up to 21 metres. It currently accommodates a twin-track railway, with up to five trains per hour.
While the Sankey Viaduct may not boast the same fame and grandeur as other stone viaducts of the age – such as its Yorkshire counterpart, the Ribblehead Viaduct, or the Royal Border Bridge on the East Coast Main Line – its historical significance as the birthplace of modern railway infrastructure is immeasurable. Designed by pioneering engineer George Stephenson, this viaduct played a pivotal role in connecting Manchester and Liverpool, effectively establishing the world’s first intercity passenger route with a regular timetable and a vastly improved freight route between the powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution and the foremost seaport of the time. The bridge is still serving that role today.
Huge significance for the railway as we know it
To ensure the viaduct’s longevity for decades to come, a team of engineers will execute an extensive overhaul over the next four months. As well as the comprehensive restoration, the structure’s metalworks will be repainted in heritage colours. A LiDAR survey and extensive drone flights captured high-definition imagery to support the project.
“Sankey Viaduct’s huge significance in the creation of the railway as we know it today is perhaps not so well known, but we’re hoping to change that”, said Mark Evans, Network Rail Capital Delivery senior programme manager. “This restoration will not only ensure it looks good to celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2030 but will also secure passenger and freight trains for the future too.”