A new bridge in rural South Africa has won a regional engineering award for technical excellence.  We spoke to Mandla Biyela, Transport and Planning Director for Kwa Zulu Natal in South Africa, to learn more about how this project will help to change the lives of people in the region.

View of bridge looking downstream. Tugela Ferry in background (on northern bank)  | Royal HaskoningDHV

View of bridge looking downstream. Tugela Ferry in background (on northern bank)

What did this project involve?

Royal HaskoningDHV was asked to help create a new bridge at the small rural town of Tugela Ferry in South Africa. A steel bridge was built in 1936 to replace a pontoon crossing the Tugela River at the village. The bridge was originally constructed as a single lane bridge given the requirements at the time. It was being used by pedestrians, livestock and vehicles and became a source of significant congestion and safety risks.

The Kwa-Zulu Department of Transport recognises that road mobility is essential for economic development in the Msinga District. Its objective was therefore to increase the capacity of the bridge by adding a new two-way road bridge alongside the existing steel structure, to enable better and safer accessibility.

Firstly, tell us about the location of this project

Tugela Ferry is a small rural settlement in the heart of Kwa Zulu-Natal, on the northern bank of the Tugela River along Route 33, home to some 3000 people.

The settlement’s history is very interesting – it takes its name from the ferry that operated there for many years before the bridge was built in 1936. The creation of that bridge provided the settlement with the opportunity to expand onto the southern shore of the river across a deep valley, and as a result the community has become very reliant on the crossing.

In the early 2000’s, Tugela Ferry was ravaged by AIDS and a drug resistant form of tuberculosis, and in the last decade it has remained as one of the poorest communities in South Africa.

Why was a new bridge needed?

South Africa’s National Development Plan for 2030 seeks to eliminate poverty and inequality. Some of the key elements within this plan involve boosting economic development and employment by creating stronger infrastructure, and creating an integrated and inclusive rural economy as a key priority of the plan.

People struggle to make a living in Tugela Ferry and its harsh conditions are further exacerbated by the town being separated by the river. In recent years, the creation of a new shopping mall south of the river had put significant pressure on the narrow bridge, and traffic congestion had effectively slowed the local economy.

Traffic had also become a threat to the lives of the many pedestrians that share the bridge with cars, tractors and trucks, so something had to be done.

In 2013 the Department of Transport decided that the solution was to construct a new two-way concrete bridge alongside the existing steel structure.

What’s the role of Royal HaskoningDHV in this project?

We designed the bridge structure to blend into its surroundings and keep the iconic and historical look and feel of the existing steel bridge so that it tied into what was already in place. Opened earlier this year (2018), the new bridge will offer Tugela Ferry a neat solution as the old bridge will be used solely by pedestrians and animals while the new bridge is to be used by vehicular traffic. The existing bridge also remained open throughout the works, keeping Tugela Ferry connected at all times.

We used Building Information Modelling (BIM) for the design of the bridge and used software for the structural analysis, geometric design, drawings and topographical mapping. AutoCAD 3D was used to model the entire bridge in a 3-dimensional environment, which meant we could drive accuracy and efficiency and quickly identify any challenges or errors throughout the project.

What were the challenges?

One of the main requirements was to provide a modern, two-way traffic solution with provision for pedestrians – without impacting on the aesthetics or heritage of the existing bridge. The Tugela Ferry Steel Bridge has monument status and is widely regarded as an icon in the area, so it was very important for us to maintain that!

Another challenge was to design a solution that would not interfere with the existing foundations, as the two bridges are very close to one another.

How were they overcome?

We made sure that the positions of the new foundation piers were designed to line up with the existing structure and gave all the piers a similar look to the old structure.

The new deck was positioned just below the level of the existing steel deck, to complement the existing bridge rather than overpower it.

What does this project mean to the town?

A primary driver of poverty in any location such as this is unemployment. People need access to jobs, and transport infrastructure is vital in helping people reach those jobs affordably.

The new bridge means it will be easier for residents to travel to the other side of the river for work. It will also improve access to the shopping centre, which will drive more spending within the town and subsequently improves the local economy for the community.

Tugela Ferry is also located on the main route between two larger nearby towns, Greytown and Dundee, so by improving traffic flow, the hope is that it will attract even greater passing trade.

We also took steps as part of the project to maximise the socio-economic benefits for workers in Tugela Ferry itself. Job creation and skills transfer were a key focus for us from the start, and small and medium sized manufacturing enterprises (SMMEs) were employed wherever possible.

Our team visited local schools to promote engineering in the local community and to explain to them what we were doing on the project thereby encouraging greater stakeholder engagement and awareness in the area. We also provided structured in-service training to graduates and the client’s technical personnel to complete their studies and be eligible for professional registration with the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA).

What’s next?

We’re delighted that the Tugela Ferry Bridge has received a South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) Pietermaritzburg Branch Award for Engineering Achievement in the category Technical Excellence.

It’s a fantastic example of how our work is truly enhancing society here in South Africa, and this sort of project will not only improve people’s lives, but it is also sustainable for future generations.

The bridge will now go up against a host of landmark infrastructure projects for the national awards in 2019, in the Technical Excellence category – so watch this space!