Standing the test of time

THE 100 ft. long bridge between Perambur Loco Works and Villivakkam stations stands still as an example of what good structural engineering can achieve. It may not qualify to be a poster-size picture on the wall; it doesn't have any feature for the eyes to feast on. It will certainly not make the grade if you consider it vis-�-vis other impressive bridges dotting our nation. Therefore this utilitarian bridge will remain an unsung hero for the rest of its life after holding its head high, its shoulders and legs steady for at least 100 years.

The bridge is apparently so old that though it was the railways of the Raj that had built it, the Southern Railway does not have any record that states the date it was opened and the time it took to build, aver senior officials. Though some technical information surfaced after a long search, it was surprising that there weren't any blueprint that showed the plan (the bird's eye view), the side elevations (the side views) and the front elevation (the frontal view at right angles to the vertical plane of the bridge).

Standing the test of time

Despite its age, the bridge provides a crucial link between the south and the north zones that are split apart by the loco works and the railway tracks lodged in between. One would have to travel an additional two to three kms from the Railway Hospital area to Jawahar Nagar if one were to go via the subway next to Perambur station and down Paper Mills Road.

The bridge, that has three spans of 30.48m each, rests on a 7.32m central arch of masonry and with mortar and brick approaches with asphalt tops from the two ends. It has a gentle slope except at the points where the approaches merge with the main span of the bridge. The sudden difference in the height acts as an effective speed breaker and could stun a new user, if not toss the pillion rider out. Despite the pitfalls and frozen waves on the asphalt surface, the bridge has traffic now that is at least ten-fold the number a decade ago. According to the Southern Railway, the bridge is meant for light motor vehicles, which should mean cars, auto rickshaws, motorcycles and bicycles. Between 8 a.m. and 9-15 a.m. one day, an impressive assortment of motorised vehicles was noticed trying to inch across the bridge. Though the width of the approaches on either side of the main span is roughly 15 ft., the actual width of the useable bridge span cannot be more than 10ft. The narrowing of the useable width works as a bottleneck. The worse is, the bridge is open to multimodal means of transport as cycles, cars, mini vans and pedestrians try to squeeze past one another. Observation showed that it is not easy, because some have to yield. Vehicle users in Chennai have a strong preference for usurping the entire width of the carriage way and overtaking other vehicles whenever there is a perceived opportunity, even if one has to barge into the half-width meant for on-coming traffic. Therefore a knot forms quickly on the bridge, stalling the traffic for several minutes at a time. Add to it a couple of enterprising women who squat at a blind spot of the bridge, selling buttermilk. Fortunately these poor women are not encroachers of navigable space, even though the crowd of buttermilk enthusiasts could be a challenge to vehicle users.

Standing the test of time

If you place your palm on the metal frame of the bridge, you will notice how the bridge trembles each time a car drives across. The vibration is more pronounced when a large number of vehicles use the bridge to take the shortcut to or from Jawahar Nagar or Thiru V. Ka. Nagar. Though the bridge stands proudly today, it has been standing firmly for decades now. Even the best of things show signs or age and wear and tear. One cannot help but agree with an MLA who wrote a letter to the Union Railway Minister, Mr Nitish Kumar, on December 12, 2002, drawing attention to the state of this bridge, and how it needs to be replaced with a new bridge. Though the MLA may have stretched the truth a little too far, there is really no doubt that another wider bridge is needed for traffic. Replacement may be an expensive option, but frequent thorough inspections are a must. If there is any weakness like metal fatigue, the renegade spans and sections should be replaced.

If the bridge, unable to bear the increasing weight of traffic, collapses one day, it will be too late to make amends and compensate for the possible loss of lives or debilitating injuries to the bridge users.