Sustainable Bridges

An EU-backed consortium of surface-transport specialists is investigating ways to build and renovate railway bridges to meet growing transport demands.


No ‘bridge is too far’ for an EU-backed consortium of surface-transport specialists investigating ways to build and renovate railway bridges to meet growing transport demands and, at the same time, allay concerns about sustainable construction in the sector.



Faster and bigger trains running more and more services on busier routes are on the horizon. But many existing railway bridges are ageing. To investigate the safety of these bridges and help the EU meet the growing surface transport demands, the Commission is funding a project to develop methods to better utilise the capacity of the existing infrastructure, and to come up with more efficient maintenance practices.



Thirty partners across Europe are taking part in an EU-funded project, called ‘Sustainable Bridges’, which will, among other things, monitor railway bridges electronically, carry out fatigue testing on steel-reinforced concrete bridges and assess future traffic demands and how to lengthen bridge life.



Many of Europe’s rail bridges are old and in poor condition, which poses a major problem for rail-system operators. But with improved monitoring and maintenance, expensive renovation work could be avoided, which saves money and has potential environmental benefits.



“The railway bridges in Europe are a vital part of the transport system. They represent a value [in] the order of €20 billion. The objective is to increase the capacity of existing bridges by increasing allowable loads, speeds and capacities, increasing residual service lives, and enhancing management, strengthening, and repair systems,” according to the project information on ARAMIS, an Information System for R&D projects in Switzerland, one of many countries involved in the project.



Launched on 1 December 2003, the project is funded by the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) – Sustainable Surface Transport activities. Although much research has already been carried out in this area in the past, there is still scope for innovative testing and development, in order to establish safe procedures for managing and upgrading railway bridges.


2020 scope for rail transport


Led by of Jan Olofsson of Sweden’s Skanska Teknik, project participants include rail operators, research organisations, universities, and private engineering firms. Swiss partner EMPA (Materials Science and Technology) will be responsible for testing and developing the automated monitoring systems. The information will be used to gauge the performance, endurance and safety of both existing and newly built bridges.



At the end of its four years, the project’s ultimate goal is to evaluate whether railway bridges in Europe will meet the 2020 goals – the joint strategy for European rail research ‘Towards a single European railway system’ by 2020 – and provides the means for upgrading them if they fall short.



Among other things, the Joint Strategy 2020 document recommended the setting up of the European Advisory Council on Rail Research (ERRAC), which was done in November 2001. ERRAC then initiated and carried forward a Strategic Rail Research Agenda that is designed to help plan research programmes, particularly national and EU programmes, in line with the 2020 document. The Agenda, delivered in December 2002, addresses challenges, such as better service quality, intelligent mobility, enhanced productivity and interoperability.



According to the EU’s Sustainable Surface Transport Research website, “[The Agenda] describes a rail sector able to handle twice its current freight and passenger market share and three times the current freight and passenger volume by 2020.”



“The 2020 scenario would see increased capacity with heavier payloads and greater forces to be absorbed by bridges due to longer, faster trains and mixed traffic,” confirms the Sustainable Bridges website, adding that, “All types of bridges are being considered.”


Other key areas which the Sustainable Bridges project is covering include an inventory of railway bridges to help planning for the European transnational rail system, optimised monitoring methods, improved measures for renovating and reinforcing bridges, as well as thorough testing of the methods and systems deployed. Findings are being disseminated to end users through training courses and conferences, and guidelines will ensure rail operators are well informed on the best way to maintain different bridges.