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Worlds oldest railway structure gets repaired

World’s oldest railway viaduct gets repairs ahead of 200th anniversary

Work is well underway to improve passenger and freight journeys between Manchester and Liverpool over the world’s first railway viaduct.

Worlds oldest viaduct structure  Sankey Viaduct with TPE train crossing over
Worlds oldest viaduct structure Sankey Viaduct with TPE train crossing over

Network Rail is investing £3.8m to overhaul Sankey viaduct in Newton-le-Willows which opened in 1830. Although not as well-known, long or iconic as Ribblehead in North Yorkshire, Sankey is hugely significant as the first major railway viaduct in the world, and birthplace of the modern railway.

Also known as ‘Nine Arches’ viaduct, it was designed by railway pioneer George Stephenson to bridge the 160-metre gap over the Sankey valley and built between 1828-1830.

Looking up at Sankey Viaduct from the valley
Looking up at Sankey Viaduct from the valley

When it opened it connected Manchester and Liverpool to form the world’s first intercity passenger route with a regular timetable as we’d recognise today.

The 193-year-old landmark is now having important maintenance ahead of its 200th anniversary in 2030 to secure its future for decades to come.

Over the next four months a team of 25 engineers and scaffolding specialists will:

Erect scaffolding towers along the span for painstaking repairs to take place

Repoint mortar using specialist heritage mixes to match the existing materials

Carry out extensive brickwork repairs

Paint historic metalwork in heritage colours

Install strengthening anchors to secure any cracks

Remove overgrown weeds and plants

Clean graffiti from the top of the stonework

Fit three new pairs of pattress plates – metalwork which secures the structure

It was given Grade I listed status in 1966, and because of that free-standing scaffolding is being used so as not to interfere with the historic structure.

Commemorative heritage plaques at Sankey Viaduct
Commemorative heritage plaques at Sankey Viaduct

Mark Evans, Network Rail Capital Delivery senior programme manager, said: “It’s a privilege to look after so many significant buildings and structures across the rail network, but Sankey viaduct has got to be one of the unsung heroes of Victorian civil engineering.

“Its 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. This restoration will not only make sure it looks good to celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2030, but will also secure passenger and freight trains for the future too.”

Laser scanners and drones have been used to map every inch of the Victorian viaduct as part of the major restoration project. Worlds oldest railway structure get repaired

A LiDAR survey* was carried out by contractor Commendium in conjunction with heritage consultancy firm Wardell Armstrong. Drone flights also took place as part of the survey taking high-definition photographs of the Grade I listed structure.

The data gathered was then used to build up the 3D computer model by Network Rail’s specialist computer aided design (CAD) team. This detailed digital recreation will help engineers make repairs now and closely monitor areas needing any further attention in the future.

Teams have also worked closely with St Helens and Warrington council planners to ensure all the work complies with heritage guidelines. The major restoration work is expected to take Network Rail four months to complete.

Viaduct stats

  • 193 years old

  • Built between 1828 – 1830

  • Nine arches each spanning 15 metres

  • 160 metres long

  • Between 17 and 21m above the valley floor

  • Carries twin railway lines

  • Used by up to five trains per hour

The Sankey Viaduct – also known as the Nine Arches – was built between 1828 and 1830 and is now a Grade I listed structure as the oldest major railway viaduct in the world.

Stitching a crack at Sankey viaduct
Stitching a crack at Sankey viaduct

It has nine semi-circular arches each spanning 15 metres, which stand on eight supports (piers) up to 21 metres high spanning 160 metres over the Sankey Valley. It carries twin tracks on which major freight and passengers services run every day.

The viaduct was a key component of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway (L&MR) which opened in 1830 between Manchester Victoria and Liverpool Lime Street – the world’s first intercity passenger railway to provide a scheduled timetable.

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