Located along the Danube River in the state of Upper Austria in Austria, the city of Linz, with a population of over 188,000 inhabitants, is one of the largest tourist destinations in the Alps region. One can travel into the mountains and end up skiing in 30 minutes, or visit its historic city center to see the Pöstlingberg church, the Church of St. Michael and Ursula, plus many museums and the market square, just to name a few. There is the University of Linz, one of the largest institutions of higher education in the country. Yet, when it comes to bridges spanning the longest river in Europe and the second longest river in the world behind the mighty Nile in eastern Africa, the city has one of the fewest river crossings with a total of five bridges, if one combines the suburb of Styegg, which has two spans. In terms of historic bridges, only two of them exist that were built before Adolf Hitler took over the German government in 1933 and ordered the “Anschluss” with Austria (which happened in 1938): an 1873 railroad bridge at Styegg and the Linz Railway Bridge built in 1900. Yet if the city council has it their way and the Austrian Railway Company wants to hand over ownership to the city, the 1900 railroad bridge will soon become history- replaced with a larger, three-span tied arch bridge. While the new bridge would fit the modern bridgescape, with the VOEST cable-stayed bridge built in 1972 and the Niebelungenburg Bridge, built in 1941 but is a girder bridge built on piers of a previous bridge, the historic character of the railroad bridge will disappear forever and it would raise questions about the preservation laws in Austria, one of the strictest in Europe. At the moment, the preservation office has not given the green light to proceed with the bridge replacement, even though they are open to options.
But how special is this bridge in comparison to the one in Styegg? And why does the city want to tear this bridge down at any cost? A quick oversight into the bridge reveals that one should not judge the bridge just by its type alone. The truss bridge type is a Schwedler, created by Johann Schwedler in the 1860s and is a combination of three truss spans known very well in the US: the Whipple, the Parker and the Bowstring Arch. It was constructed by the state, which appointed the bridge building company Anton Bíro to oversee the design and building of the structure. Founded in 1854 by Anton Bíro, the company constructed hundreds of kilometers of rail lines and buildings even beyond the founder’s death in 1882. His sons took over and the company Bíro later merged with the construction agency Rudolph Phillip Waagner to create Waagner and Bíro in 1924, a construction company that is located in the capital of Vienna and has built numerous bridges worldwide since then. The appearance of the bridge combined with its association with the builder made it eligible to receive protection status through the Austrian Historic Preservation Laws. Yet despite it being historic, opposition is mounting to see to it that the bridge is replaced. According to polls by the Linz news agent Nachrichten.at, nearly 61% of the public is in favor of the new bridge. Four of the five major parties in the Linz city council would like to see the bridge removed. A study conducted by the Technical University of Vienna also favored bridge replacement and even though the bridge serves rail, automobile and pedestrian traffic, the owner of the bridge, the Austrian Railway Company wants to see a solution regarding the bridge.
Apart from the fact that the railroad bridge is 112 years old, which technically does not count as the railroad bridge at Styegg is 27 years older and is still in use, the condition of the bridge itself may doom the structure. Rust and corrosion caused by weather extremes combined with traffic running over and under it have weakened the structure to a point where it could potentially fail. In fact, according to a study conducted by Josef Fink of the Technical University of Vienna, only half of the bridge can be renovated as rust and corrosion on the other half of the bridge have progressively eaten away at the superstructure to a point where it would cost less to replace the bridge rather than replace the bridge parts. The report indicated that the bridge could still be used without rehabilitation for up to a year at the most- namely through the end of 2012. This has prompted the city council and other parties involved to consider the following options:
Demolish and Replace the Entire Bridge. The new structure would represent a model similar to the truss bridge and cost 57 million Euros. The time to build the bridge would be 5.5 years.
Renovate the Truss Bridge and Construct an Additional Span. The new span would be either a concrete beam or an arch span and would be constructed first before the railroad bridge would be rehabilitated in its entirety. The cost of the project would be up to 98 million Euros and the time to complete it would be 8.5 years.
The main factors to keep in mind are that with both variants, additional bridge piers would be needed which would have an effect on the river flow of the Danube, the ship traffic going under the bridge and lastly flood protection- should flooding occur on the Danube, it could potentially cause jams resulting in flooding upstream. The decisive role in determining which option is the most feasible is the fact that only half the truss structure can be renovated, which could cost up to 40 million Euros alone, according to Fink.
Yet if the railroad bridge is in such horrible shape, then the next question would be why it was not properly maintained when it was in service in the first place. A simple paint job, combined with minor repairs on the bridge parts and annual inspection reports would ensure that the structure’s life would last beyond the 112 years it has served Linz. Yet, as we have seen in the United States, Germany and other countries, cost-cutting measures, which includes rediverting funds for infrastructure maintenance to other needs have forced the agencies to forego the necessary procedures to upkeep the bridge. In some cases like in the US, many engineers do this on purpose just to secure funds for replacing the bridge outright, and this without properly informing the public beforehand.
It is highly doubtful that it is the case with the Linz Railroad Bridge as the bridge has been heavily travelled and has survived weather extremities and other incidences (like war, etc.) which would have destroyed other bridges. Yet no solution to the bridge problem is not an option at all. If the bridge is protected by Austrian law, then perhaps one should follow Murphy’s Law which indicates that there is another option other than the ones given. The new bridge needs to be built but the healthy half of the old bridge should be preserved as an observation pier to provide people with a view of the city. While this would alter the integrity of the bridge, by removing the half that is not salvageable, saving the other half will still make the railroad bridge a landmark to see when visiting Linz. The advantages are simple: it is cheaper to salvage the part that can be saved, it will not disrupt the flow of the river and shipping traffic, and it will keep the city from having a set of structures over the Danube that are modernized but not to the liking of those who prefer to see historic places.
While it may take weeks before a decision can be made on the future of the bridge, it will have to be made before the bridge is no longer safe to use.
At present, the preservation laws and the interest in preserving the bridge from the public are the only two “hindrances” that are keeping the bridge from being replaced. Yet removing them will ultimately doom the bridge and erase a piece of Linz history, which would make the city less attractive for people to see if they want a cultural and historic experience and not go there for the skiing. An indecision is not an option as it could produce disaster for the bridge and cast a shadow on Linz itself. The easiest way is to present the three options to the public and allow them to decide for themselves. Only then will everybody be happy about it. And even if the majority votes for demolishing the bridge, a memorial for the bridge should be erected so that the public can remember the bridge. After all, contrary to the beliefs that one will forget about the bridge issue, the memory of the railroad bridge will forever remain in the hearts of minds of people who live in this wonderful Austrian town on the Danube.
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