The phrase 'like painting the Forth Bridge', meaning an endless task, should have been struck out of the language in February 1993, when the bridge's owners (then British Rail) decided that continuous painting of the bridge would stop after 103 years because the costs of Scotland's railways had to be cut by a fifth. The painting has never been for decorative purposes.
Paint preserves steel from exposure to air, in this case the particularly corrosive salt-flecked air of the Forth estuary, and therefore from strength-sapping rust. During construction in the 1880s, the bridge's builders were quite particular. Every piece of its 55,000 tonnes of steel was first scraped and brushed free of any rust it might have acquired in transit from the rolling mills of Swansea and Glasgow, then coated in linseed oil 'as hot as possible'. Once erected, the external faces received two coats of red lead paint followed by two coats of oxide of iron paint.
Repainting each piece every four years was considered an imperative; gangs of men did nothing else.
None the less, British Rail decided last year that the bridge could afford to take what it described as 'a maintenance holiday' for a year. In the words of a British Rail director: 'For a single year this is not too serious, except that it stores up the problem for a higher spend in the future.' A year passed but continuous painting did not resume. A new argument emerged: continuous painting was unnecessary. In the words of Paul Prescott, director of Railtrack (Scotland), writing in August to reassure anxious readers of the Scotsman: 'We have changed to a more modern method involving shot-blasting the metal and applying five coats of paint, which is now expected to last from 20 to 25 years.'
Perhaps, therefore, the passengers in the thousand trains a week that still use the bridge have nothing to worry about. Perhaps the millions of people who think of it as the Victorian age's most breathtaking piece of engineering need not fret. I wonder, though. I have seen the Forth Bridge at close quarters several times a year over the past 45 years; for a dozen of those years I grew up beside it and played on summer days actually beneath it, under the north cantilever on the Fife shore. These pictures are of that particular steel. It has never looked so shabby or corroded before, and there are, it seems, no plans to repaint it in the near future.
When I was a boy in the 1950s, the Forth Bridge was simply (but wonderfully) the best connection between eastern Scotland and the south. Trains filled with coal, fish, cattle, linoleum, people, rattled across it through every hour, day and night. Then the road bridge came. Now there are plans for a second road bridge. The railway bridge, meanwhile, has been floodlit since its centenary, listed as a Grade B structure, nominated as a World Heritage Site. Freight trains are few. Perhaps the bridge is destined to preach the finite life of steel, to become the Ozymandias of rust.