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Canal Bridge, Leicester

Volume 526: debated on Monday 12 April 1954

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Studholme.]

10.12 p.m.

I wish to draw the attention of the House and of the hon. Gentleman representing the Ministry of Transport to a danger spot in my constituency caused through the inadequacy of a canal bridge. I fully appreciate that the Ministry of Transport is not fully responsible. The Ministry is perhaps responsible from the safety angle, but the responsibility for the replacement or modification of the bridge lies with the local authority.

This canal bridge in Coalpit Lane, Leicester, was probably built when the canal was first cut, and, at that time, was quite adequate to carry the small volume of traffic that would pass along what was then no more than a country lane between the villages of Aylestone and Braunstone. The position today, however, is very different. The country lane no longer exists. It is now quite a good wide road, serving the growing populations from two housing estates, and is actually on the perimeter of the city.

While the city boundary has changed and the road has also changed, the bridge has not. It is still a hump-backed, single traffic bridge of a type of which there are many thousands in this country. It has to serve a road the traffic on which is increasing each year, so that the picture is completely different from that of the time when the bridge was first built. A hump-backed bridge is well known to be very picturesque. It looks very nice, but is not very helpful to motorists. When it is a single-track bridge as this is, it is a positive menace.

In this case, the bridge is absolutely useless for modern traffic. The road on both sides rises quite steeply, so that in a sense the bridge is perched on the apex of two roads. It is almost impossible for motorists to see each other when approaching the bridge from either side. I have tried an experiment myself. One can occasionally see the rooftop of a car coming from the other direction, but it is not always as clear as that. It depends very largely upon the size of the car and the driving position of the drivers concerned.

On 8th August, 1952, in reply to a Question from me, the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation informed me that in his view, based on the experience of people who had carried out tests for him, visibility was reasonable for drivers on this bridge. I can only assume that the observers in question must have been in a bus and that the approaching vehicle must have been a large lorry. Then they would see something of each other approaching.

It is the habit of drivers who know the bridge to approach it cautiously. They must do so. If they took the bridge at 35 miles or 30 miles an hour many of them would not survive to tell the story. When two drivers approach the bridge cautiously at the same time, one from either side—and this happened only yesterday—the first they know of each other is when they see the nose of the approaching car coming over the apex of the bridge. Then, being courteous, as most motor drivers are, each one signals the other car forward and reverses down a hill. They can go on doing this all day, unless one or the other takes the initiative and comes over first. This has a very tantalising effect, which is not helpful to road traffic at that spot.

A frightening thing, which I have seen, is mothers with perambulators containing young children afraid to push their perambulators over the top of the hill because of traffic that might be coming up on the other side. Mothers stand there hesitant, almost afraid to move. There was a bus service that used this bridge once or twice a week during weekends. The buses used to stop before they reached the bridge and decant the passengers, who would walk over the bridge. The bus would follow and afterwards the passengers would be taken back on to the bus. I am not sure whether that bus service is still using the bridge.

An added danger is caused by the fact that the bridge is at a favourite beauty spot for walks in that part of the City of Leicester. During the weekend many families enjoy themselves by walking along a pleasant lane, near the bridge, and many of them then congregate upon the bridge. Others walk along a canal path that verges upon the bridge. Thus there is a dual stream of pedestrian traffic. The people have a habit of standing about the bridge to watch the traffic coming up from each side. I am not sure that this is not part of the weekend entertainment. Some pedestrians try to be helpful by signalling to the drivers.

It is a dangerous spot, and absolute care has to be taken by drivers. It may be that, so far as I know, there have been no fatal accidents yet at this spot, but that is not a reason why something should not be done to obviate this danger and deal with it in one way or another. On Saturdays additional traffic use the bridge to carry football teams to neighbouring playing fields, and we also see heavily-laden coaches carrying teams and supporters going over one after another.

The bridge itself would not prove particularly dangerous if there were complete visibility of the road on the other side. Such visibility is not obtained, and despite warning signs of "narrow bridge" and "humped bridge" which are very clearly displayed it is still extremely dangerous. I shudder to think what would happen if two drivers, strange to the district approached the bridge at speed from opposite sides at night or in semi-darkness or in the twilight. There could be nothing but a bad accident at that spot. As I say, there have been accidents, but I know of no fatal accidents—that I consider to be a matter of luck.

I am not asking that the Minister should advocate traffic signals here. I thought of that, but the volume of traffic does not seem to justify it. The traffic is heavy at some times on some days, particularly at weekends in the summer, but not during the week. I think that the authority could do something, at comparatively low cost, to widen the bridge. My constituents, the local residents, ask that the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation shall hold an independent inquiry to verify whether in the light of the cases I have quoted, the bridge is really dangerous. They ask further that if the Ministry do so find that the local authority shall be approached either to take steps to widen it or to demolish it and replace with a more modern bridge.

Finally, I think that, pending the holding of that inquiry, the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation might persuade the local police to patrol the bridge more frequently, more particularly at weekends when traffic is heaviest.

10.22 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation
(Mr. Hugh Molson)

The hon. Member has raised tonight the case of a bridge which is old and inadequate, as we fully recognise, for the traffic which it now has to carry. What he has said is, I think, entirely correct. Since he gave notice to raise this matter, I have had a report from the divisional road engineer, and I have been provided with photographs of the bridge from various angles.

It is quite true that the bridge was built at the same time as the canal—a very long time ago—when the volume of traffic was very much less than now. It is humpbacked and narrow. The road at the end is 19 feet 9 inches wide but narrows to only 11 feet 9 inches in the middle. There are no footpaths and I therefore fully understand the hesitation and nervousness of women who desire to cross the bridge with a perambulator or with children.

The roads on each side are 22 feet wide and we recognise that drivers of vehicles have an extremely limited opportunity to see, as a result both of the curvature of the road on one side and of the hump of the bridge on the other. Therefore, we fully accept the desirability of the replacement of this old bridge by something more up to date. That, however, can only be justified on the grounds of danger.

The question is whether this is one of those black spots to which we have to give extreme priority. As the hon. Gentleman very frankly admitted, whatever one might expect on looking at this bridge, in point of fact the incidence of accidents has so far really not been anything to cause any great concern. There were two serious accidents in 1949, two in 1950, one in 1951, two in 1952 and there were none in 1953. This, we think, is due chiefly to a cause which he quite frankly admitted himself. It is that, on the whole, the lane and bridge are used mainly by local traders who are aware of the dangers of the bridge and, therefore, drive with care.

In announcing the general programme of the Government for large-scale new construction and improvement of roads, my right hon. Friend indicated that priority was to be given first to cases where it was necessary from an industrial point of view. He also mentioned cases where a road or bridge had been undertaken but not completed, and priority would also be given there. Also a large proportion of the sum of money available would be devoted to the removal of black spots, where there have been a series of serious accidents.

I am afraid that this Coalpit Lane bridge really does not fall into any one of those categories, and the reconstruction of the bridge would be really very costly. The drawings have been prepared, and it will cost £20,000, half of which would have to be provided by the Leicester City Council. At the present time the bridge is the property of the British Transport Commission, but while they are under an obligation to maintain it, they are not under any obligation to improve it, and therefore arrangements have been made that when it is to be improved it will be conveyed to the Leicester City Council. When it is done, the appropriate grant payable by my Department will be 50 per cent.

There is in Leicester also the Belgrave Gate bridge, which is a weak bridge, which is a link in a trunk road but is, in fact, part of a Class I road within the city. It is a matter of the utmost urgency that that weak bridge should be replaced by a new, better, strong and up-to-date bridge. We do not feel that it would be possible this year to substitute for the rebuilding of the Belgrave Gate bridge the rebuilding of this smaller bridge which is not of the same importance to the industrial traffic of the country.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied with what I am saying, that we are prepared to make a substantial grant towards the rebuilding of the Belgrave Gate bridge at a cost of £40,000. That must have first priority. We do recognise, however, the extreme desirability that something shall be done as soon as the funds are available for the replacement of this old and rather dangerous smaller bridge to which the hon. Gentleman has been referring, and I can give him an undertaking that we recognise that it stands high on the list of priorities, and that as soon as it is possible to fit it into the programme, it will be included, provided, of course, that the Leicester City Council makes an application.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Ten o'Clock.