A swing bridge could be operated by electric motors to avoid "significant risks" of disruption across the region's roads if it breaks down.

Cross Keys Swing Bridge, close to the Norfolk - Lincolnshire border at Sutton Bridge, carries the main A17 across the tidal River Nene.

The structure, built in 1897, was designed to open by pivoting across the river to allow ships to access the Port of Wisbech. It originally also carried a railway across the river.

Now a report to Lincolnshire county councillors recommends spending £1.6m replacing its aging hydraulic machinery with electric motors, instead of a previously-planned overhaul.

"Its failure to operate would cause major disruption to road and river traffic, which would have significant local, regional and potentially national consequences," it warns

"The latter would be due to the A17 over it being a key route for the agri-food industry based in Lincolnshire and Norfolk."

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The report says use of the bridge to allow shipping through has increased significantly in recent years, with several openings taking place each week.

It says converting it to electric operation would make it cheaper to maintain and reduce wear and tear on the structure, leading to "an overall longer life and improved preservation of the historic asset".

And it adds the move would lead to "significantly reduced reliance on ageing elements of the bridge, which would present an ongoing inherent risk of failure if their use remained".

The modification would also remove the environmental risks of operating hydraulic systems over a waterway, which could cause a pollution incident if they failed.

The costs of operating the electric motors would be more than offset by the savings made by not having to electrically heat the existing system’s hydraulic oil in order to operate it.

A decision is set to be made by the council's leader, Martin Hill, under delegated powers.



The Grade II listed bridge was built in 1897 at a cost of £80,000 to carry both the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway and a road across the Nene.

Since the railway closed in 1965, it has carried the main road between Norfolk, Lincolnshire and the north.

Pivoting on a pier in the tidal river, slightly off centre of the main channel, the bridge is driven by a hydraulic mechanism installed when it was built.

It opens to allow ships serving the Port of Wisbech, including two port-owned vessels Baltic Arrow and Baltic Express which transport timber from the Baltics.

The port is also used by pleasure craft and fishery protection vessels.

While drivers face tailbacks on the A17 when the bridge opens to allow boats to pass, they face diversions when one or both carriageways are closed for maintenance.

The next nearest river crossing is at Wisbech, meaning a 10-mile diversion.