Our ‘un-Melbourne’ bridge?

23 February 2011

Written by: Lawrie Zion

For the past two years, 500 men (and one woman, a boilermaker) have been working on, in and under the West Gate to make the cabled stayed steel box bridge stronger so that it can carry 250,000, rather than 160,000, vehicles a day. Australia’s most complex construction project is one way of trying to fix the problem of so many suburbs popping up beyond the stunted, disjointed arms of public transport in the West.

The bridge built the Western suburbs. ‘Gateway to the future’ the plaque said on opening day, 15 November 1978. Before the West Gate, drivers could cross the Yarra via steam ferry.  The trouble was, once the future arrived the bridge could not cope. In 1978, planners anticipated 40,000 cars and trucks would use the bridge a day and each driver would toss a coin into the toll bucket. The Lower Yarra Crossing Authority thought it would take 40 years to pay off. Tolls were abolished in 1985.

Late last year on the Monash-CityLink-West Gate upgrade website, a hopeful one-minute animation showed drivers how the new, full-strength bridge would look when the work is finished this May. There were five lanes in each direction and no more than a couple of dozen cars in total driving on them!

The clip – no longer so easy to find – showed how the low rail that once edged the bridge was being fenced in by “public safety barriers” that reach out and up like arms waving in an ecstatic trance. Perhaps the barriers will force desperate people to embrace life rather than abandon it.

Underneath the concrete gills of the bridge’s base, at Hyde Street in the West and Lorimer Street in the East, there is a township made from portables and shipping containers. Every resident wears a hard hat, an orange reflector vest, steel-capped boots and an identity tag. On the Port Melbourne side, the car park glitters with late model utes finished in metallic colours, electric blue or black, a flamboyant mandarin. Windows are decorated with stickers for the ETU, AWU or the CFMEU. ‘Unions strengthening the gateway to Melbourne,’ reads one.

The centrepiece of these temporary towns is the scaffold, the latticed, golden boxes that stretch from the mud up towards the bridge’s underside. The structures are crowned with cribs, big white fluoro-lit lunchrooms just beneath the hum of the traffic. The rooms have four fridges and two pie-warmers. A “Peggy” keeps them clean. In July 1970, men working on the steel section of the West Gate stopped work for half of one day and most of the next because the toilets were dirty.

There are platforms where men in white boilersuits and masks plaster the concrete spine with epoxy, the blood-red glue that sticks strengthening carbon-fibre on. The fibre looks like fabric. On a gantry in the centre of the bridge, a small team of riggers fit delicate steel shapes onto the belly above them. This office has no windows and it is lit by a slice of sunshine sandwiched between bitumen and steel.

The riggers listen to Meat Loaf and eat lunch in a small crib decorated with pictures of bikers and surfers. One poster shows a figure, half man, half monster, with a studded tongue panting down over the tyres of his hot rod. ‘Totally pierced,’ the caption says. Behind the crib, there’s also a barbie. Fifty-four metres above the Yarra, there’s an Aussie backyard.

Most drivers know about this project because of the epic traffic jams that have sometimes resulted. One Friday at midnight I was driving two friends home from an all-male burlesque revue at Red Benny’s in Prahran. A truck had broken down and the bridge was reduced to one lane outbound. For an hour, we inched along with everyone else. Some trucks bumped over median strips to escape onto the Bolte. My companions were tipsy. “In a jam, I like to imagine there are no cars at all, just many people sitting on their bums on seats on the road,” one of them said.

At night, along Hyde Street, drivers can see small figures get into the lit box of the lift and travel upwards, though the latticed scaffold, into the darkness. It seems almost religious.

Container ships ease beneath the bridge where men labour in tunnels built in air. The bridge is made of hollow boxes joined together. There are two bridges, really. The centre portion over the river is made from steel and the two, long bookends are made from concrete. The cables on the concrete bridge were also tightened up, like stretching skin across the edges of an old face.

Inner Melbourne North Face is chalked above a hole that leads into one portion of the steel bridge. Through the hole is a white box with the words Trauma Station written on it. A walkway covers the girders. Inside, the steel bridge is coated in red, lead-based paint to stop rust. Some of this paint has been blasted off so the bridge can be strengthened with new bolts and small steel plates. In all 400,000 new or replacement bolts are being drilled into the bridge. One man crouches on a small scaffold and fits a piece of steel onto a sloping wall. Two others work with slender bits of steel, some of the 1600 tonnes that has been cut into 70,000 shapes. Props are being attached to the outside of the steel bridge as well. To say this work is subtle, esoteric even, is an understatement.

Inside, the steel bridge is like an intestine, a long, swaying, narrow, hot, humming, purring tube. Inside the concrete bridge, though, it is spacious, cool and almost silent, like being inside a pyramid, apparently.

Last October was the fortieth anniversary of the collapse of the bridge, a disaster in which 35 men lost their lives and at least 18 more were seriously injured, many crippled for life. In 1971, the Royal Commission into the calamity said: ‘There can be no doubt that the particular action which precipitated the collapse of span 10-11 was the removal of a n’umber of bolts from a transverse slice in the upper flange plating near to mid-span.’

Eye-witnesses heard an ‘eerie pinging noise’ as the bolts popped out and the bridge unzipped.  At the back of the report, figure 13, a sketch in eight parts, depicts what happened between pier 10 and 11 that day. The sequence is called ‘Dynamics of Failure’.

The report said: ‘to attribute the failure of the bridge to this single action of removing bolts would be entirely misleading.’  The only blameless parties were the firms who supplied the materials. But everyone else must share some responsibility for the collapse. The report was most critical of the designers, London-based Freeman Fox and Partners.

In 1966, when the firm became consultants on the project, they were the most famous bridge designers in the world. Engineer Sir Gilbert Roberts, who was in charge of the West Gate until 1969, had worked on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He designed the Auckland Harbour Bridge (1959), the Forth Road Bridge (1964) in Scotland and the Severn Bridge that linked southern England to Wales (1966). Along with Dr William Brown, Sir Gilbert designed the suspension bridge that connects Europe and Asia, across the Bosphorous Strait, Istanbul. Construction on the Bosphorous Bridge started in February 1970, seven months before the West Gate collapsed. A bridge connecting east and west in an Antipodean city was probably not quite so glamorous.

In April 1970, after repeated requests, the firm sent out one of their men, a Jack Hindshaw, to be its resident engineer. Hindshaw had once worked with the Royal Engineers in India and Burma. He had also worked on concrete bridges but the report noted: ‘Prior to his appointment … he appears to have had little if any experience on site on the erection of any major steel bridge.’

Hindshaw was on span 10 and 11 when it collapsed. Seconds before he was heard talking to himself. ‘Shall I get the bodies off?’ he asked at 10.50am. At 10.51 the ambulance service logged a call: ‘She’s going! The bridge has gone!’

A memorial to the men who died, including Hindshaw, was not erected until 2004 although workers and families have gathered at the foot of the bridge, on Hyde Street, each year on 15 October. For the most recent event, the weather was atrocious. Hail stones pinged off footpaths and grass slicked to mud. Wreaths were laid by the plague. One was dedicated to ‘DAD’.

After the gathering, men in reflector vests walked back through the rain, past the glass factory on Hudson Road, where gigantic machines still whir and spin. Just up the road is the Spotiswoode Hotel, est. 1888, where blue-collar drinkers are entertained ‘with Melbourne’s finest showgirls’. The windows are tinted. Over the train tracks, two new cafes have opened. One sells Small Batch coffee and organic bread made in Torquay. Bloggers love it.

Perhaps gentrification, the death of Australian manufacturing and the decline in union membership have fuelled fascination with the West Gate as a site that sums up a certain kind of past even though on big construction projects like the bridge, union power is still present.

In 1971, the Royal Commission said construction of the bridge was slowed by ‘continual demarcation and other disputes’ between members of the Metal Trades Federation and the Builders Labourers Union. There was ‘an extraordinary amount of industrial trouble’. In July last year, the Federal Court ordered the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union to pay $1.48 million in penalties and costs after an often violent, 88-day-long industrial dispute on the bridge in 2009. The dispute resulted from a turf war between the Australian Workers Union on one side and the CFMEU and the AMWU on the other over who should represent workers on the project.

Recent industrial disasters, such as the lethal explosion at the Pike River Mine in New Zealand, are a reminder of the dangers that many workers still endure and this terrible loss of life has been a theme of exhibitions and articles marking the 40th anniversary of the collapse. The Victoria Police Museum featured photographs of the wreckage taken by a homicide detective while at the Old Treasury there was archival material from the Public Records Office as well as interviews with bridge workers and the widows and adult children of men who died. Scienceworks, in Spotswood, had a small display on the strengthening project.

I have visited all three shows, I have ridden the lift up inside the magical latticework onto the bridge, I have consulted the websites and read the 1971 Report Of Royal Commission Into The Failure of the West Gate Bridge but I still do not understand how the bridge stays up. How can these bolts and bits of steel really make it so much stronger? There are many languages I will never speak and engineering is one of them.

At Scienceworks, my children build a small arched bridge from grey foam blocks cut on different angles. They trot across it and the structure holds. I don’t understand that either.

We have lunch outside and look up at the bridge. As always, it is packed.

Still, if you don’t need to cross it in a hurry, the bridge is perfect. It is elegant, streamlined and simple, an eel leaping out of the river or a vigorous grey snake. In Wolfgang Sievers’ beautiful photographs the bridge is a modernist masterpiece, cleaner and more muscular than Sydney’s heavy, fussy, derivative harbour bridge. ‘The Westgate Bridge’, a late 1970s documentary financed by the West Gate Bridge Authority, shows a ribbon of pastel-coloured Australian-made cars zooming across the lovely curved bridge. No traffic lights and no delays! The past is so optimistic.

At the peak of the bridge, at night, thousands of white lights flood the Western suburbs. It is hard to come down.

Yet for all its grace, for all the skill involved in the construction and now the strengthening, the bridge is also a powerful reminder of our weaknesses, vulnerabilities, failures and fears. 

In the middle of last year, one of my cousins in New Zealand killed himself, the second one to do so. For a few months, every time I drove across the bridge, I thought about William and Matt and their families, especially their mothers, my aunts. Some collapses are very private.

A few days before I went up inside the West Gate, a man had got to a portion of the bridge not yet fitted with “public safety barriers” and jumped off. How do we prevent this sort of disaster? What kind of safety barriers, if any, can be erected to stop people from taking their own lives? What sort of strengthening project does this require?

Rachel Buchanan teaches journalism at La Trobe.

If you need immediate help please contact Lifeline 131 114 or Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800. For further information about depression contact BeyondBlue. Information on how to report suicide and mental illness is at Mindframe-media.

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The West Gate bridge is one example of an un-Melbourne site. Others might be the Western Ring Road, Punt Road, the Werribee sewage treatment plant, dumps and tips, refineries and factories, old or daggy shopping centres and many, many suburbs that are considered too boring, too far from the CBD or too ugly for comment. I think these places are worth thinking about and writing about. After all, most of us probably spend more time on roads than we do in hip bars and most of us live outside the small ring of suburbs that get coverage in lifestyle, fashion and culture stories. So let’s celebrate the unlovely, the unloved, the un-Melbourne. Your suggestions are welcome.