DW: How safe are the bridges in Germany?

Could the tragedy in Italy be repeated in Germany?

The collapse of a bridge in the Italian city of Genoa has sparked concerns about the structural integrity of bridges elsewhere.

The findings of ADAC motorists’ specialists in a 2014 test were disastrous: out of a total of 30 bridges tested, seven did not meet the criteria and only four received a positive assessment. 19 bridges, about two-thirds, were rated “adequately”. In 2016 a bridge under construction on a motorway in Bavaria had collapsed partially. 14 people were injured and a worker lost his life. The metal columns did not withstand the weight of the bridge. There have therefore been serious defects. This incident makes many in Germany wondering whether a tragic accident similar to what happened in Genoa could happen in their country.

“This can not happen in Germany,” says Baltassar Novak, a civil engineer. He is a member of European boards responsible for meeting the safety standards of bridges. “Germany has its own norm for the safety of bridges – DIN 1076. According to this, the bridges are always examined by two people. Possible damage is also recorded by this record, which then shows the assessment of the state of the bridge, “explains Baltasar Novak.

Bridges and roads were neglected

Bridges are scrutinized in Germany every six years. Engineers carry out the so-called primary test. Every three years there is a simpler control, and every year companies specializing in road and bridge construction control the bridges again. Every six months there are still simple inspections to detect apparent damage. These are in theory because practically they are not always applied. “There are municipalities that do not meet these criteria in order to reduce their costs,” says Heinrich Beckham, chairman of the Chamber of Engineering in the construction sector in North Rhine-Westphalia. “As there is no binding law but simple recommendations, the bridges are checked periodically. Every municipality does it differently”, he says.

Heavy vehicles are not allowed to cross some bridges, such as the A1 motorway passing over the Rhine near Leverkusen. Restrictions for heavy vehicles currently exist on dozens of German bridges. “Bridges are mainly burdened by heavy vehicles, each truck causes oscillations”, explains engineer Heinrich Beckham. “These oscillations are dynamic processes that damage the bridges, especially when they already have cracks.”

The German Federal Road Service (BAST) considers that there is a great need for maintenance. The service has inspected 40,000 bridges on German motorways, finding that 5,000 of them are in extremely poor condition. The German bridges are old – more than 30 years old. Only 6% of the bridges on the German motorways were built over the last eight years.

German Transport Minister Andreas Soire is urged to take action. His predecessor, Alexander Dobrard, had set up a special bridge modernization program, allocating 1.5 billion euros in 2015. However, this can only be the beginning. According to engineer Heinrich Beckham, the German minister “should insist on the matter and examine the bridges in Germany on a large scale. It should also remind municipalities of their responsibilities (testing and maintenance).