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A Bridge Too Far

Officials say an overloaded truck is to blame for the fatal collapse of an overpass. But forcing the trucking industry to halt the chronic malpractice is not so easy

By NewsChina Updated Jan.1

On the evening of October 10, 2019, a viral video clip showing an overpass collapse in the city of Wuxi, Jiangsu Province shocked the nation. The falling bridge crushed three cars underneath. Three people were killed: a woman and her 5-year-old daughter in one vehicle, and a man in another nearby car.  

At a press conference on October 24, Zhou Rongfeng, deputy director of the road network management department under the Ministry of Transport (MoT), said that an overloaded truck caused the bridge to collapse. Zhou added that its structural integrity was sound (there was no breakage or transverse cracks) and the bridge was built to code. 

The freight truck was carrying six piles of steel coils, each weighing 28.5 tons. The bridge, part of the Wuxi section of National Highway 312 (or the G312), is 82 meters long and 9.5 meters wide. 

According to building codes from the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, China’s first-class roads have a maximum load capacity of 55 tons. The truck was overloaded by 310 percent. 

The truck is owned by Wuxi Chenggong Transport Company (WCTC). According to legal website China Judgments Online, WCTC trucks have been involved in several traffic accidents because of overloading since the company opened in September 2014. On March 18, 2017, one of its overloaded semitrailers collided with an electric bike and injured its driver. Police concluded the truck’s overweight cargo was to blame. From 2017 to 2019, the company was involved in nine lawsuits, six of which involved traffic accidents.  

Heavy Price
On the afternoon of October 11, our reporter arrived at the company in Wuxi to find the sign on the gate had been removed. A police car was parked beside the gate. Locals living nearby told our reporter that police investigators had taken the boss of the company into custody.  According to an official audit of the Wuxi section of the G312 in 2007, the road was completed in June 2005. In its evaluation report, the Wuxi Transport Engineering Quality Bureau said the road was “excellent” even though the design was changed several times. 

However prior to the accident, congestion and safety hazards on the Wuxi section were the source of repeated complaints. In 2018, representatives of the Wuxi People’s Congress delivered a proposal to address congestion on the Wuxi section of the G312. Alongside the rapid development of the region, the section faces increased stress from heavy traffic, particularly freight trucks, the proposal read. 

On the date of the overpass accident, the website of the Wuxi City Key Construction Project Management Center released two draft plans to solicit public opinion on improving the congested road section. It stated that Wuxi Transport Bureau was scheduled to invest 1.57 billion yuan (US$222m) on one section and 7.55 billion yuan (US$1.07b) on another section of the G312. Shortly after the draft release, the overpass collapsed. 

He Nuo (pseudonym) has been working near the overpass for more than 10 years. Several hours before the accident, she drove home a little early to celebrate her birthday. Her car was parked under the overpass. She had stopped at a supermarket on the way when her husband called with news of the collapse. 

She told our reporter that she often heard rumbling sounds from the bridge and the bridge would shake whenever a freight truck passed. “Sometimes, there was a loud bang when a tire blew out,” she said. 

Short Life Span
Five hundred meters from the overpass is the East Steel Market, a major steel wholesale and retail market in Wuxi. On a regular day, trucks shuttle in and out. But since the accident, Yang Tao (pseudonym), the boss of a logistics company at the market, has been upset and exhausted.  

He said he spends most of his days handling customer complaints about delays because authorities are cracking down on overloaded trucks.  

Yang told our reporter that his company has trucks operating on the 140 kilometers of highway between Wuxi and Shanghai. Observing the weight limits, he can earn 1,000 yuan (US$142) per trip. But gas and tolls combined cost between 800-1,200 yuan (US$113-170). “It is a losing venture if we don’t overload. Trucks overloaded by 50 percent are common,” he said. According to statistics from the Research Institute of Highways under the MoT, road freight accounted for 78 percent of China’s overall transportation system in 2017. China then had to 30 million truck drivers, the majority either self-employed or working for small logistics companies. 

Several logistics company employees at the East Steel Market told NewsChina that government agency officials conduct regular overloading checks at their warehouses. Truck drivers and warehouse owners could be fined. 

Han Xu (pseudonym), a truck driver at the East Steel Market, has mixed feelings about overloading. He spends more than 300 days on the road each year. He told our reporter that he usually drives at night and on provincial roads rather than on national highways in order to escape inspections. Police bribes are also common practice, he added. 

This results in excessive wear and tear on the country’s bridges. According to research from Guilin University of Technology, bridge collapses most frequently occur in relatively developed regions and areas focused on heavy industry.  

From 2007 to 2015, at least 105 bridges collapsed nationwide with an average life span of 19.73 years. Twenty-six bridge collapses were blamed on overloads. For example, it took only 10 months for Yangmingtan Bridge in Northeast China’s Harbin, Heilongjiang Province to fall after it was built in late 2011.  

Among the 26 bridges are 11 arch bridges, seven beam bridges and eight slab bridges. The vehicles held responsible for collapsing the bridges were carrying freight of more than 100 tons. For example, a truck weighing more than 260 tons crushed the Lihe Bridge in Luoyang, Henan Province in 2009, which was designed for a load capacity of only 20 tons. All these bridges had weight limit signs that drivers routinely ignored.  

At least 14 people were killed and 68 injured in the 26 bridge cases.  

The Wuxi bridge was single-pier, meaning a single column in the middle supporting both lanes. The overweight semitrailer caused the overpass to tip to one side. This design was once preferred because of its small footprint. Now double-pier bridges with supports on both sides are more common. 

At the news conference on October 24, MoT spokesman Wu Chungeng said the ministry had launched a three-year safety inspection to rectify potential hazards in construction projects on highways and waterways, boost public safety awareness and penalize violations of laws and regulations. 

“The MoT will strengthen efforts nationwide to supervise road safety and take measures to prevent such accidents from happening again,” he said.