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The council ought to bridge that gap
And sell this bloody thing for scrap.
- Lauri Say, 'All Together on the Floating Bridge'
Floating Bridge No. 6 is a floating bridge1 chain ferry to operate between Cowes and East Cowes, transporting pedestrians and vehicles across the River Medina. Although it looks nice, it is largely useless. Although it has not actually sunk at time of writing, it has broken down on numerous occasions, broken World Health Organisation and Maritime and Coastguard Agency regulations, collided with numerous yachts, broken car bumpers and exhausts, been blamed for the collapse of local businesses and so can certainly be classed as a metaphorical shipwreck.
Floating Bridge No. 6 was built to replace the Isle of Wight built Floating Bridge No. 5 which had been in service since 1975. It is the ninth floating bridge on the route, which has been operating without issue since 1859, but is called Floating Bridge No. 6 as the first three bridges were operated by private companies. When it works the sixth council-run bridge is operated by the Isle of Wight Council. Unlike crossings on the old bridge, which were free for pedestrians and cyclists, a fee is charged for all passengers and vehicles.
Why is a Floating Bridge Needed?
East Cowes, one of the three vehicle ferry ports on the Isle of Wight, is a town which only has road access along one road. The only other way for a car to get into and out of East Cowes is by crossing the River Medina to Cowes on the floating bridge. As this area has very strong river and tidal currents, chain guidance is considered essential for safe crossing at Cowes, despite the potential risk of the chains snagging the heavy yacht traffic.
Consideration was given to building a conventional bridge with a clearance of 200 ft to allow craft to pass underneath, however as both Cowes and East Cowes are highly built on there is not room for a road ramp to achieve such a height in a convenient location unless it is built a distance out of town, where it is unlikely it would be of much use to pedestrians. In 2015 it was projected that acquiring the land and building such a bridge would cost at least £65 million. A swing or other opening bridge would also cost too much and as river users would have priority, would spend most of its time closed to road traffic and so be of little benefit. Building a tunnel beneath the river between the two towns was also considered, however based on the 2011 Hindhead Tunnel it was estimated that the cost of a tunnel replacement for the Floating Bridge would be £150 million.
Before Entering Service
The controversy began when the Isle of Wight Council announced that they would replace the existing - and perfectly working - Floating Bridge with one that would be built in Wales2, rather than with one built on the Island, such as by Wight Shipyard who had successfully built high speed ferries Red Jet 6 (2016) and Red Jet 7 (2018) as well as recent Thames Clipper ships in London. The old floating bridge was removed from service in January 2017 and the council announced the new one would not enter service until May that year. Floating Bridge 5 was put up for sale and, after a lack of interest, it was announced that it would be turned into razor blades. Although a pedestrian launch was used to ferry pedestrians across the Medina, vehicles had no choice but to make a 12-mile detour via the Island's most congested point at Newport to get from Cowes to East Cowes.
It should be noted that in the May 2017 elections the Island Independents lost control of the Isle of Wight Council, having held it since 2013, and the Conservatives regained a majority. This change in council coincided with the period that the floating bridge came into service.
Name and Shame
In March 2017, hoping to generate a sense of pride and interest in the new vessel, the Isle of Wight Council announced a competition to name the new ship. This was not the first time that a public competition had been held to name a ship. In 2016 there had been a nationwide public vote to name a £200m polar research ship. The overwhelming choice, Boaty McBoatface, was overruled and the ship named RRS Sir David Attenborough3 instead, although automatic yellow submarines the ship carries are called Boaty McBoatface.
Predictably the runaway popular choice of name for Floating Bridge No 6 was Floaty McFloatface, with Blyskawica a second choice. The Isle of Wight Council at first announced it would veto that name, then rescinded the veto following an outcry, and then announced they would postpone announcing the final decision for at least a month. They have not made any announcements concerning the floating bridge's name since, with the decision not so much swept under the carpet but sunk without trace.
Since the vessel has come into service and its unreliability has become apparent, it has become unpopularly known as Floaty McFloatfarce.
A number of requirements were listed for the new Floating Bridge:
- Provide direct pedestrian access between the two town centres of East and West Cowes, to ensure their future vitality and competitiveness in a global tourism market.
- Allow for continued river access upstream for commercial and private vessels with an air draft of up to 200 ft and maintain the existing water draft of up to a minimum of 1.3m.
- Improve reliability in operation.
- Minimise congestion on the local road network, particularly where this negatively impacts the economic potential of town centres.
- Ensure affordable fares for a population that experiences high levels of deprivation.
- Safeguard and enhance the value for money of the substantial delivery of the East Cowes Project Masterplan, adopted in 2006 and subsequent planning permission in October 2007.
- Enhance environmental sustainability, through reduced operational energy requirements and carbon emissions.
Burness Corlett Three Quays were appointed as the Naval Architects tasked with designing the bridge. In preparation for the bridge coming into service it was advised that a 30-metre section of the River Medina be dredged by an additional 1.5 metres to allow a greater depth. This was not done, although work was carried out on the chain pits, chains and both slipways in preparation for the new vessel's arrival.
Floating Bridge No 6 was built to have an expected lifespan of 40 years like its predecessor, (which considering it broke down within 24 hours of coming operational seems incredibly optimistic) and 'around twice the carrying capacity of previous vessel, Floating Bridge No. 5'. Which seems an odd definition of 'twice', as 20 is not twice 15, however average car size has increased since Floating Bridge No. 5 was launched.
|Specification||Floating Bridge No 5||Floating Bridge No 6|
|Length of prows (ramps raised4)||34.4 metres||37.4 metres|
|Length of Hull||26.7 metres||29.7 metres|
|Vehicle Deck Breadth||12.8 metres||14 metres|
|Depth moulded||2.59 metres||2.65 metres|
|Hull weight||234 tonnes||262 tonnes|
|Passenger Capacity (no vehicles)||400||400|
'Be a complete, disastrous laughing stock' was not one of the official requirements, which is a shame as that would have been the only requirement that could reliably be met.
Service Record Timeline
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in Peril on the floating bridge.
Please note that this does not include the numerous yachts that the floating bridge has collided with or snagged with the chain, nor the cars that have had damaged bumpers and exhausts disembarking from the vessel.
- 13 May 2017 – Floating Bridge 6 launched.
- 14 May 2017 – Broke down. Photographs in the News show adult passengers wading from the middle of the river carrying their children on piggyback.
- 15 May 2017 – Service suspended by order of the Maritime and Coastguards Agency.
- 5 June 2017 – Floating bridge service allowed to resume.
- 7 June 2017 – Floating bridge runs aground
- 9 June 2017 – Floating bridge runs aground again.
- 9 June 2017 – The Isle of Wight Council announces that it has cleared the silt build-up that caused the floating bridge to ground and that therefore it wouldn't ever run aground again.
- 10 June 2017 – Runs aground a third time.
- 12 June 2017 – Service suspended due to 'wind'.
- 13 June to 3 July 2017 – No service able to be provided during low tide due to high likelihood of running aground.
- 30 June 2017 – First time ferry breaks down due to electrical fault.
- 21 July 2017 – Withdrawn from service at night due to noise levels being 'well above World Health Organisation guidelines'.
- 4 September 2017 – Withdrawn from service indefinitely until the builders have fixed problems.
- 26 October 2017 – Freedom of Information Request reveals that 12 car drivers had successfully claimed compensation for damage to their cars caused by using the floating bridge.
- 11 December 2017 – Service resumes as part of an extended trial.
- 30 December 2017 – The Isle of Wight Council's sloping shouldered report claims the problems were caused by the crew not being familiar with the vessel and absolutely nothing to do with the Isle of Wight Council.
- 2 January 2018 – BBC film crew travel to the Island to film some stock shots of the floating bridge. Amusingly as soon as they start filming, the bridge struggles to dock without colliding into everything.
- 2 February 2018 – Broken prow chain, ferry taken out of service.
- 14 April 2018 – Council leader Dave Stewart praised the ferry whose design he had authorised, saying it was providing 'nearly a good and reliable service'. The ferry promptly runs aground again. By now the floating bridge's grounding is such a common occurrence that it no longer is considered news.
- 30 April 2018 – the Isle of Wight Council announce that they cannot berth the floating bridge without crashing it into a wall.
- 15-16 July 2018 – Floating Bridge out of service for more 'improvements'. Well, surely they can't make it any worse…?
- 1 August 2018 – Councillor Ian Ward announces he wants to provide Cowes Week's visitors 'a good floating bridge service during the period of Cowes Week'. This is considered a snub to Islanders, who want a good floating bridge service all year round.
- 8 August 2018 – Out of service due to grounding.
- 9 August 2018 – Out of service due to prow lifting mechanism failure.
- 11 August 2018 – Only allowed to operate during Cowes Week when accompanied by two 'Safety Boats'.
- 13 August 2018 – It is announced that the floating bridge will need to be assisted by a barge during strong ebb tides for the foreseeable future. Hiring a barge to push the bridge against the tide costs £192 an hour.
- 4 September 2018 – Out of service to allow matting to be placed on the slipway while the ship's ramps are covered in 'shoes' to reduce the noise and vibration problems when the ship docks each side.
- 11 September 2018 – The Isle of Wight Council announce that the floating bridge is 'a reliable craft as it stands'. Islanders, though pleased that the floating bridge has reliably mastered the ability to stand still, would prefer a reliably moving floating bridge.
- 26 September 2018 – Pulled from service for 24 hours following an accident in which a member of staff fell unconscious below deck in the engine room. Paramedics, the Bembridge Coastguard Rescue Team, Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service, Isle of Wight Ambulance and East Cowes firefighters were called and the man was airlifted to Southampton General Hospital. No further details were released at this time.
- 25 October 2018 – Out of service following a snapped prow cable.
- 7 November 2018 – Out of service due to high tide. It is revealed in a Solent Local Enterprise Partnership report that the floating bridge's failure to date has cost £6.4 million.
- 12 November 2018 - A petition calling for the floating bridge to be sold off and replaced is handed in to the Isle of Wight Council. This campaign demands the council either sell, scrap or give the bridge to Lake Windermere5 and build a smaller replacement to the older bridge's specification.
- 6 December 2018 – The corner of one of the shoes, which the Isle of Wight Council spent £8,106 on in September, is crudely cut off in a bodge-job aimed at preventing the prow from hitting the railings and chain anchor point.
- 8 February 2019 – The Isle of Wight Council announces an intention to pursue legal action against the bridge's designers Burness Corlett Three Quays.
- 15 March 2019 – Floating Bridge out of service due to 'combination of wind direction and low tide'. A spokesperson declares that Brexit will be fixed before the Floating Bridge...
- 21 March 2019 – Floating Bridge out of service due to trials focussing on maintaining a minimum depth water over the vessel's chains at all states of the tide.
- 3 April 2019 – Following a Freedom of Information request regarding September's accident the Isle of Wight Council's report of the incident is released. It states that the risk assessments were inadequate and 'failed to identify or control' 'significant hazards'. It was revealed that there had been a leak and, on being informed that it would take at least three hours for an engineer to call, the ferry was kept running which 'exacerbated the problem'.
- 13 April 2019 – the East Cowes councillor describes the Local Enterprise Partnership's summary report on the bridge to be a 'catastrophic failure' that 'cannot represent any kind of perspective on which policy or future actions are based.' Councillor Karl Love announced, 'We submitted several hundred pages demonstrating that the floating bridge has hurt the economy and that the Council appears to have provided deceptive information to the LEP in their business case.' Yet the report states it only received 14 responses to its consultation from the Isle of Wight, grouping the many hundreds of responses from members of public on the Isle of Wight together and summarily dismissing them with the words 'one response was received from a stakeholder group'.
- 3 May 2019 – Out of service due to repairs to south-east prow hinge.
- 9 May 2019 – Out of service due to 'mechanical problems'.
- 12 June 2019 – A new Floating Bridge Service Charter was published. In this the council stated it would 'operate a high-quality service focussing on passengers' requirements irrespective of nationality, gender, race, language, religion, political opinion, wealth, social and psychophysical characteristics', but without mentioning the passengers' need to get to the other side of the river. However to be fair one of the charter's aims was to 'protect the environment' and by being a bridge that doesn't actually move, there can be no denying that in one way the bridge has been environmentally beneficial, although for each crossing cancelled up to twenty cars have driven an additional 12 miles.
- 8 July 2019 – Isle of Wight Council announced the Floating Bridge will be out of service to have its chains replaced for a week from this date and then announced they had accidentally given the wrong dates. Shockingly, it actually wasn't out of service. They later clarified the bridge will be out of service from 9 July with no resumption of service date initially given, with estimates ranging from three to five days. The new chains are expected to last three years.
- 10 September 2019 - Broke down. Notice stated that the ferry would be out of service for a week due to prow and hinge assembly needing repair.
- 18 September 2019 – while Floating Bridge still out of service, the East Cowes Counsellor calls for the bridge to be scrapped.
- 20 September 2019 – Conservative Isle of Wight Council Leader replies to East Cowes Counsellor's comments by saying, When I say to people it is good and reliable, I do believe it is good and reliable. If people say to me, 'yes, but it breaks down,' I say, 'so does the 'Red Jet'. People need to understand we, as an administration, inherited the floating bridge the previous administration had ordered. We are about to embark on some major roadworks though Newport. Now our goal is to make sure that the floating bridge is available so people can use it. We have got it, we have paid for it and now we have to make it run.
- 20 September 2019 – Announced that additional repairs were needed to the ferry's prow and hinge mechanism on both the Cowes and East Cowes to prevent the problem from recurring. The ferry is back in service on 30 September.
- 26 September 2019 – Former Isle of Wight Council Leader Debbie Andre, Leader of the Isle of Wight Independents, replied to the Conservative leader's comments by saying, The Independents were responsible for accessing and securing the funding to replace the floating bridge, and not involved in the procurement, design or building of the vessel that was delivered. This was carried out by a project board that included stakeholders and senior council officers, but not any councillors... councillors are not, nor should they be, involved in operational matters. The Conservatives took delivery of the vessel and brought it into service without completing full trials. Then they blamed public pressure as the reason they did not complete necessary trials and tests. It needs to be asked why yet more money is being poured into modifications when the design is so obviously not fit for purpose. Floating Bridge users look on in envy as blame regularly goes back and forth and wish that one day the floating bridge will be able to do the same.
- 30 September 2019 - The main road between the towns of Newport and Cowes is dug up in a controversial scheme to remove a roundabout, with disruption expected until December 2020. With the main road to Cowes out of action, concern over the consequences should the floating bridge break down are high. Residents wonder if, were they to put the current Isle of Wight Council on one side of the Medina and the former Isle of Wight Council on the other, whether the resulting hot air shouted between the two would part the seas like in that old Charlton Heston film.
- 1 October 2019 – Proposals are announced that paying for tickets on the Floating Bridge itself will become cashless, using contactless card payments rather than physical money. Members of floating bridge staff do already allow cashless payments, but in keeping with the spirit of the floating bridge this doesn't really work due to connectivity problems, with discrepancies in cash takings and sales recorded ranging from an excess of £2,538.81 to a loss of £368.33. Onshore ticket machines either side of the Medina will still allow tickets to be bought with money.
- 23 October 2019 – A Freedom of Information request reveals that the 'new, more efficient Floating Bridge' has, between May 2017 and September 2019, resulted in costs of £149,115.33 for hiring MV Seaclear as pushboat barge to assist during crossings against the tide, plus £181,189 to hire passenger launch when the bridge is out of action as well as £110,760 on chain depth surveys.
Floating Bridge No. 6 is far, far noisier than its predecessor. The sound can best be described as like a blue whale in labour with the only available midwife being a wailing banshee assisted by the heavily-chained ghosts of Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge, only much, much worse.
January 2018 Report
The January 2018 official report stated,
It remains impossible to assess whether Floating Bridge 6 will achieve all of the required outcomes provided to the Naval Architects that designed the vessel, until such time as the council has resolved the two principal issues in relation to the clearance over the chains at an ebb tide and the noise of the vessel… the report itself presents a number of findings in an open and transparent way - so that the local community, local interest groups and the wider Island are all able to understand how a new vessel, costing over £3.7 million pounds of public money to build, has failed to provide the service expected.
Since then the ferry has operated for 89.5% of schedule in September 2018, 79.4% in October 2018 and 88.0% in July 2019.
November 2018 Report
In November 2018 it is revealed that to date the floating bridge has cost £6.4 million:
|Superstructure (construction, fit out)||£3,031,249|
|Professional Fees (naval architect etc)||£328,764|
|Superstructure (contract variations)||£431,412|
|Chain survey, works, fees||£114,603|
|Noise mitigation works||£31,441|
|Known additional works||£169,200|
|Remedial options design work||£500,000|
|Replacement Launch Costs (2017-2018)||£439,281|
|Operative Employment costs||£114,000|
|Other operating incurred costs||£33,000|
|Savings in Floating Bridge 6 out of service||-£47,000|
The Isle of Wight Council report also said,
Some observers have said the design of the bridge means it will never be able to operate to its full specification.
Declining Vehicle Numbers
One of the aims of Floating Bridge 6 was to 'double passenger capacity', however although the ferry is much larger than its predecessor, it has been revealed that the number of vehicles carried has dropped 53% since Floating Bridge 5 operated on the route. Although exact numbers were not recorded as before Floating Bridge 6 came into service foot passengers were not ticketed, it is believed foot passenger numbers have fallen by over 40% in the same period.
The following table shows the number of cars carried on the route between August to July each year. 2015/16 was the last full year in which Floating Bridge 5 operated. In 2016/17, Floating Bridge 5 was in service between August and January 2017, with Floating Bridge 6 not entering service until May, and so a dip in numbers was to be expected then. However even fewer vehicles used the ferry in its first full year of service, 2017/18, than in the year when there wasn't a ferry for half the year.
Independent councillor Karl Love commented on the report by saying,
It's disgraceful. People don't have the confidence to use the floating bridge - they don't trust it. It's affected tourism, investment and the community's ability to interact.
2019 Freedom of Information Request
Unlike the previous floating bridge which made a steady annual profit, the 'new, more efficient' floating bridge has cost the Isle of Wight Council money each year it has been in service, diverting money away from other vital services. A Freedom of Information Request revealed the following figures:
|Profit/Loss||£120,452 Profit||£36,388 Loss||£547,991 Loss||£301,293 Loss|