by Austin Williams
The appalling tragedy of the Morandi Bridge
built in the mid-1960s (and named after the civil engineer Riccardo Morandi) which collapsed on 14 August 2018, is a disaster that is still under investigation. At the moment there are reports of 39 lives lost but not much is known about the causes or the wider consequences. I am loathe to speculate but there needs to be a wider conversation than the knee-jerk demands for corporate manslaughter charges against the private bridge operating company, Autostrade per l’Italia. Heads will roll – deservedly so – but I want to look at wider concerns about infrastructure, per se. I caveat all of this by saying that pre-empting the ongoing investigation may reveal me to be wide of the mark. Mea culpa, but I think that it is worth trying to open up the conversation.
Firstly, the collapse is extraordinary. The bridge is architecturally unique and with this comes unique stresses that may have given rise to the catastrophic failure. A similar collapse of a similar nature and magnitude has not occurred before in a cable stay bridge This bridge had 90m high concrete towers that held tensioned cables fixed at an angle to the deck (the roadway) meaning that the cables are being stretched by the loads, the towers are being squashed by the same loads. In engineering terms the weight of the deck (and the traffic on it) is carried by the combined structure meaning that the towers are under tremendous compression while the cables are under tension.
Bridge design always makes allowances – contingencies – for localised failure and therefore even the most efficient, slender structures tend to be over-designed so that the engineers can sleep at night. The bridge has to imagine, for example, wind loads, snow loads, or that there might be 250 lorries on the bridge and not just 250 cars. But have the owners and managers of this bridge kept up with the reality that in the 60 years or so since this bridge was constructed, loading conditions have significantly increased owing to increased freight volumes and vehicle sizes. Has this unseen attritional damage finally come home to roost?
In this bridge design, there is only one angled “stay” (made up of four steel cables) encased in a concrete covering. The idea is that the concrete would protect the steel from weathering, corrosion and failure. Maintenance work as recently as 15 years ago or so, replaced some of the cable stays and recoated them in concrete. Suggestions that cracks in the concrete exacerbated the ingress of water which speeded the corrosion of the cables is possible, but not totally convincing.
Were the cables to snap – possibly requiring more than one to snap due to the engineering contingency I spoke of – then the deck would fall and possibly overbalance the entire structure. However, the fact that the towers collapsed in such a horrific fashion – seeming to crumble – may hint that the problem may lie in the foundations where regular maintenance work was being carried out. We just don’t yet know. As Prof Gordon Masterton, from University of Edinburgh’s school of engineering said to the Guardian newspaper, there needed to be a “forensic and thorough” investigation to get to the root cause.
What should not happen, is a replay of the knee-jerk response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy where hundreds of council blocks across the country panicked and spent large chunks of their budgets randomly ripping off cladding with no clue as to why they were doing it. If Italy were now to institute a major spending spree on inspecting all bridges to appease the risk-lobby, it would be a real waste of time and effort.
What I would like to do, is examine some of the broader influences on Italian infrastructure provision – in a political sense – rather than speculate about the finer points of metal fatigue. My thoughts are these:
In the 1960s, Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously crowed about the “white heat of technology”. It was a pledge to turn Britain from an old-school labouring nation into a leader in science, technology and social progress. It was a time of experimentation premised on economic growth and productivity. In Italy at the same time, GDP was, on average 5% per year throughout the 1960s (6% in the 1950s) compared to around 1% in the UK. As a consequence more experimentation, more rapid untried innovation was being explored. As the economy boomed, urbanization hit 50% at the end of the 1960s (40% at the start of the 1950s).
Peasants from the south moved to the north looking for a share in the industrial wage gains of their northern compatriots. Many of these unskilled labourers were put to work on infrastructure projects. As one report notes: “Between 1950 and 1967, some 17,000,000 Italians, more than a third of the population, moved from one district to another. Although a certain amount of small industry and construction work did come to the South, it was not enough to prevent a massive migration to the North. This constant reserve of labour was exactly what the Italian bosses needed. It helped to keep wages down…”
In the same way that we see low-wage internal migration used as a cheap source of construction labour in modern-day China, Italy too transformed a significant number of agricultural workers into builders overnight. Some recruited to complex infrastructure projects while lacking training, recompense and decent standards of living. It would not be surprising to hear that latent problems of sub-standard construction are beginning to show from that period. That said, these problems would be something that a regular maintenance, replacement and upgrading programme should have been able to handle.
In some ways, the Morandi Bridge disaster is Italy’s Ronan Point.
Ronan Point was he experimental high-rise housing project built in east London, using large prefabricated panels, substandard detailing and unskilled labour. A minor gas explosion led to a catastrophic collapse where high-level apartments crumpled like a deck of cards. Without that nudge, the building may have survived for as long as the Morandi Bridge (exact same flats are still standing around the site of the now demolished Ronan Point). It took one spark – literally – to reveal the flaw. Tragedy ensued. Whether a similar integral flaw lay within the Morandi Bridge is yet to be revealed, but maybe this too could have been explored if the political and financial will to do so, was more prevalent.
Sadly, Italy is not a stable political entity. Ever since the Second World War it averaged one new governmental administration every ten months. With that level of political uncertainty it is hardly any wonder that there has not been an opportunity for consolidation of a significant future-oriented infrastructure plan. The opposite is true. It is remarkable that anything has been done at all.
Currently, the new coalition government of the League and 5-Star are being pilloried for saying – in a rather damningly unfortunate recent pronouncement – that rumours that the Morandi Bridge was unstable – were no more than “a fairy story” and should be ignored. The fact that people have expressed fears over this bridge for many years, and over many administrations, (possibly because of its constant repair schedule), just shows that the current administration is as contemptibly ignorant of people’s fears as were all other Italian administrations over the years. How reminiscent of Kensington and Chelsea’s deaf ears about Grenfell Tower!
The coalition are obviously keen to criticise the EU – and with some justification – but their attitude suggests that their reasons for blaming the EU are more pragmatically self-defensive than driven by meaningful integrity. However, the truth is that European Union spending restraints impose a restriction on what deficit (investment) member states are allowed to run up. Currently, Italy is at 1.5% well below the 5% permitted by EU rules. However, there is a principle at stake in terms of the external authority of the European Union dictating internal financing terms. At the moment, it is a convenient political football for the coalition, but if they were to seriously challenge the spending limit, they might open up a real political confrontation with the EU over national sovereignty.
Next, we have the rise and rise of environmentalism. Over the last 20 years or so, environmental issues have – in general – welcomed a steady decline in car-based infrastructural investment and the rise of alternatives, like rail. Since the financial crash of 2008, investment in roads has dropped by over 75% in Italy.
The Morandi Bridge was a key route from Italy to the south of France and so there can be little doubt that its commercial sensitivity would not allow it to become an environmental football (as we have seen in other parts of Europe). But politically, the will to build new, let alone maintain road networks is clearly lacking. EU operational and maintenance budgets decreased in Italy by around 45% between 1995 and 2013. Between 2007 and 2013 they fell by 60%. With such a charlatan attitude to road spend, maybe no wonder flaws in the construction were missed. They were never looked for.
The tin hat is put on the situation when we consider the level of institutionalised corruption within Italy. I am nervous about raising the issue of the Mafia because it sounds like a caricature, but it is clearly a factor. The syndicated crime gangs operating in construction prevent a sensible, safe and democratic debate about infrastructural procurement, development and maintenance. Road-building procurement practices are a dangerous game.
One last example to demonstrate how uniquely peculiar and, in some ways, out of control is the provision of road infrastructure in Italy. The 450km stretch of highway from Salerno to Naples includes one of the highest bridges in Italy, the Rago Viaduct. This motorway project was started 52 years ago. It is still unfinished.