Network Rail Highlights Importance Of Structural Assessments

The importance of regularly assessing structures like bridges has been in the spotlight lately, following the collapse of a pedestrian bridge in Miami, Florida, which killed six people and left others injured.

It gained particularly widespread attention after it was revealed that engineers had discussed a crack that had appeared in the structure just hours before the collapse, and had deemed that this did not affect the structural integrity of the bridge.

An investigation is ongoing to determine the cause of the collapse, so it’s not yet known what role – if any – this crack played in the tragedy.

Bridges are everywhere and are often used to allow roads to cross railways, or railways to cross roads. Network Rail has highlighted the vital role its structures examiners play in keeping everyone safe and ensuring that the country’s rail network is fit for purpose.

The organisation revealed that, nationwide, it has 40,000 structures that it needs to inspect on a regular basis. It operates a “proactive examination schedule”, which is why it’s able to keep the bridges and other structures – some of which are more than a century old – in service.

One structures examiner for Network Rail, Tom Wilkinson, explained that this proactive approach is the key to keeping the UK’s railways running.

“We identify new defects as they come about, keep an accurate track on them and nip potential problems in the bud,” he said.

Each examiner has to produce a written report on all the structures in the area they cover at least once a year, with these typically based on visual inspections.

However, they also carry out what are known as ‘detailed’ or ‘tactile’ surveys, which involves examining every structural element, photographing it and recording its condition. The frequency for these kinds of inspections varies from annually to every 12 years, depending on the structure in question and how it has fared in previous reports.

Because structures like bridges are often used to navigate an obstacle – like a road or a waterway – this can make monitoring defects challenging. A wide range of techniques are employed to carry out this kind of observation, from ladders and mobile platforms to underwater teams and CCTV.

The aim is always to ensure that the most critical defects are dealt with swiftly, while other, smaller problems are fixed when feasible, but before they develop into more serious issues.

However, structures examiners do more than just these regular inspections – it’s also their job to check any bridges that have been involved in a bridge strike: where a vehicle has hit a bridge and potentially caused damage.

In some cases the damage will be very minor, while in others it can be serious and lead to emergency repair works to save the structure.

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