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European bridges secure against ship collisions, port authorities say

The cargo ship Dali crashed into, and destroyed, the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, USA on 18 April 2024. In 2016, the Dali crashed into the quay at Antwerp, where it was damaged but the city was left unscathed.

Posted on May 1, 2024

European bridges over maritime harbours are not likely to collapse if they are hit by seagoing vessels, according to several large European port authorities who Euractiv contacted following the March collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in the US city of Baltimore.

The Key Bridge collapsed after a seagoing cargo ship lost power and hit one of the bridge’s pillars, resulting in six deaths.

US magazine Architectural Digest stated that the collapse was caused by the large mass of the ship hitting one of the bridge’s weak points at a relatively high speed. According to Scientific American, cargo ships are increasing in size to accommodate growing consumer demand, but bridge infrastructure is not being upgraded to keep up with this trend.

Despite this, spokespeople for European port authorities have said that harbour infrastructure is unlikely to experience incidents similar to Baltimore.

Euractiv spoke with three European ports — all of which accommodate large seagoing ships and which have bridges spanning their waterways.

Sinje Pangritz, spokesperson for the Hamburg Port Authority, said that “the conditions under which ships call at the port are carefully planned and monitored by all parties involved, both in advance and during the call,” in emailed comments to Euractiv.

Ships in the Port of Hamburg are accompanied by tug boats. Dolphins (structures designed to protect a bridge from a ship’s impact) are also in place. Pangritz added that ship managers can monitor the heights of bridges in Hamburg through an online portal. Finally, ship impact is accounted for in the construction of the bridges.

Gert Ickx, a corporate communication advisor for the Port of Antwerp-Bruges in Belgium, said seagoing vessels passing under bridges in the twin Flemish ports are not at risk of collision because the ports have no permanent bridges over deepwater channels.

Rather, both ports have drawbridges spanning their waters, meaning they are in an upright position when the boats pass underneath, unlike the Key Bridge, which cannot move.

Additionally, captains, towage services and traffic managers work together to guide ships and cargo into the port, according to Verbeelen.

By coincidence, the Dali, the same ship that caused the Baltimore bridge collapse in March, scraped the side of the quay and damaged its hull when leaving Antwerp in 2016.

“We take all necessary safety measures,” Verbeelen wrote to Euractiv in an email.

However, both spokespersons declined to clarify whether they were concerned about a ship causing a bridge to collapse, in the event that safety measures such as dolphins failed.

Rocio García Gómez, a spokesperson for the Spanish Port of Algeciras, said there is no risk a bridge in the bay or port would collapse upon being hit by a seafaring vessel because ships do not have to sail under any bridges.

“We have no risks in that sense,” García Gómez told Euractiv via email.

The European Maritime Safety Agency referred Euractiv to the European Commission’s Transport Directorate-General, for answers on EU measures to prevent a Baltimore-type incident, but a Commission official said ensuring bridge safety is a member state competence, not an EU one.

“There is no specific EU-level legislation concerning bridge safety,” the official said.


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