Lessons from a Bridge in India

Note: This is the first in a series of articles by Acrow team members on why what they do makes a difference in people’s lives, both here in the U.S. and around the world. In this installment, President and CEO Bill Killeen takes you on an inside look at an extremely challenging – but rewarding – assignment in one of the most remote corners of India.

I have been a licensed professional engineer for 30 years and intimately involved in bridge construction and replacement for 40 years. In the day to day, it’s easy to focus solely on the business aspect of what we do as bridge builders, and overlook the real human benefits our work provides in connecting people, and making their lives easier and safer.

Rarely has this been so true for me than with an Acrow project literally on the other side of the world from our offices in New Jersey.

The project site itself is in a remote village in northern India, not far from the border with China and nestled in the Himalaya. The town itself is called Sonprayag, and the bridge we replaced is approximately 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) above sea level in rugged mountain terrain.

The background for our story begins in the summer of 2013. It was a summer of very heavy monsoon rains. The monsoon season begins on June 1 in India. Further north, and 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) higher, is another small town by the name of Kedarnath, the site of a Hindu temple. Each year, between May and November, approximately 500,000 pilgrims make the trek to Kedarnath Temple, crossing a bridge in Sonprayag to get there.

But June 2013 brought tragedy to Kedarnath when the monsoon rains swelled a lake created by glacial deposits above the town.  

Suddenly there was another cloudburst and the glacial deposits that created the lake could no longer hold back the pressure of the water. The wall of the lake burst!  Devastation ensued. Not only was there the normal runoff of water from the heavy monsoon rains, now you had the contents of an entire lake pouring into a narrow mountainous river valley. Adding to this tragedy was the fact that hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were at or trekking to Kedarnath, and close to 6,000 lives were lost due to the lake bursting and the floods that followed. The bridge at Sonprayag was swept away in the flood.

Acrow began discussions about replacing the bridge lost at Sonprayag during 2014.  During the discussions the State of Uttarakhand chose to install a Bailey Bridge from a local Indian manufacturer. Doing this took away the urgency for the bridge. But in the summer of 2014 and again in the summer of 2015, the Bailey Bridge collapsed due to flooding. It was then reinstalled for a 3rd time after the waters receded. Had the Bailey Bridge not collapsed two times, this project might not have happened for Acrow.   

When the Bailey collapsed it resulted in the hike to Kedarnath being close to 25 miles (40 kilometers) versus the 10 miles (16 kilometers) when the bridge was in place. The lack of the Bailey Bridge created significant consternation for the State of Uttarakhand and for the pilgrims. At the same time, the local economy was terribly hurt because pilgrims, knowing the river could not be crossed, were not traveling. After the Bailey Bridge was rebuilt for a 3rd time, everyone knew that it was unreliable. It did its job in making it possible for light weight trucks to cross the river and also pedestrians, but it was unknown whether the bridge would remain standing.  

This lack of reliability and robustness resulted in the negotiations between the State and Acrow being reopened. In February of 2015 Acrow quoted once again. It took to the middle of June 2015 for a purchase order to be agreed upon. Right on time Acrow shipped the bridge and launched nose equipment in August 2015.

The logistics involved in moving the bridge to the Port of Mumbai were quite routine.  Where routine was no longer applicable was moving the bridge inland. First, the bridge parts were moved to New Delhi and then onward to Rishikesh in the ocean containers they arrived in. There the containers were unloaded and the cargo reloaded onto 40 small trucks for the difficult trip to Sonprayag. Because of their size, the trucks could negotiate the sharp turns and drops in the road, each taking about three days to reach Sonprayag in mid October 2015. Keep in mind this is only a 150-mile trip (240 kilometers)!

This was a very difficult and challenging launch and roll in of a 300-ton bridge. The bridge has a 200-foot (60 meter) clear span, but behind the bridge on the approach road there was only 40 feet (12 meters) of length available to work. Normally with a bridge of this length we would like an approach road to provide us with 175 feet (53 meters) of construction space. As a result, the short assembly space necessitated constructing a temporary pier in the river. (Because this was not the monsoon season the water flows were very low and there was little concern for the temporary pier being washed away.)

So the temporary pier was constructed completely by hand out of stone, one stone at a time, to about 20 feet above the river bottom. Then a tower of steel was constructed out of Bailey Bridge parts and placed on top of the stone pier. The crew then positioned Acrow rollers on top of the Bailey Bridge steelworks. It was only then that the partially assembled Acrow bridge could be rolled out over the river, where it would reach the new temporary pier and glide itself over the Acrow rollers.  

There were many challenges along the way, but in the end the bridge was assembled in approximately 45 days, well into March 2016. It was not until May 9th that the bridge was officially opened to the public.

The Acrow bridge is significantly more robust than the earlier bridges. The 200-foot (60 meter) span allows it to sit high above the water, ensuring the water does not flow against the sides of the bridge. Also helping the bridge to remain in place are the amazing hand-built rock walls along the sides of the river that prevent water from getting behind the abutments and undermining them.  

I said earlier that connecting people is at the heart of what we do, and that’s certainly the case of the Acrow bridge at Sonprayag. Between the May 9th opening day and June 30th – or just seven weeks – I was told that 250,000 pilgrims had already crossed the new span.  

Think about that number for a moment. In about the time it took to build it, a quarter of a million people were able to use a safe crossing designed by engineers halfway around the world and installed by local workers in some of the most rugged mountain conditions anywhere in the world.

Our ability to provide emergency bridging solutions in challenging terrain is built on our years of experience in creating and restoring transportation lifelines under extreme circumstances. We have replaced bridges lost to natural catastrophes and man-made calamities and provided safe and secure crossings for the general public, commerce and emergency vehicles. It is a significant privilege to have our Acrow bridge at Sonprayag and to support and connect to each other the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims on their journey to the Kedarnath Temple.


Want to Understand the True ‘Costs’ of Using Temporary Rental Bridges?

Lessons from a Bridge in India

The Signing of the FAST Act is Very Good News for U.S. Infrastructure

A Two-Week Solution Restores Traffic over I-5 in Washington State

New Jersey Gas Tax Increase to Help Strengthen the State’s Infrastructure, at Least in the Short Term