Australia is the world’s sixth largest country by area, just behind Brazil and twice the size of India. And with a population of just 22 million (Brazil has 192 million while India boasts a whopping 1.2 billion), its cities and communities are quite widely spaced.

This vast area and the enormous distances involved remain a challenge for railway engineers. the rail engineer issue 85 (November 2011) described Australia as the “land of opportunity”, and for many railway companies – it is.

One of the latest opportunities to present itself is the inspection, repair and possible replacement of bridges. There are over 30,000 small road bridges and many thousands more pedestrian bridges in Australia, many of which are coming to the end of their structural lives. The cost of replacement is colossal, and could impose a crushing burden on councils which are responsible for the vast majority of these, mostly timber, bridges.

To complicate matters, the legal responsibilities for councils and road authorities have changed enormously with the decision by the High Court to abolish the concept of nonfeasance. (The intentional failure to perform a required duty or obligation). While a number of Australian states have legislated to protect councils and other road authorities, the legal position has been dramatically altered and continues to evolve.

Greater loads and more traffic

Bridges built decades ago now have to withstand far greater and heavier traffic, which is imposing greater risks and forcing councils and road authorities to search for cost effective solutions and to improve their management of their bridge assets.

Obviously, this situation presents opportunities for firms specialising in bridge inspection and reconstruction. British structural engineering consultants BridgeZone have noticed those opportunities and have taken steps to move into the Australian market. As managing director Paul Marshall puts it: “Australia is a land of great opportunity, with similarities with the UK as well as historic friendships.”

Unlike companies in the UK and across Europe, most Australian organisations tend to have a regional, state or territory focus – given the size of this vast country that comes as no surprise. So BridgeZone is initially targeting opportunities solely between Brisbane and Melbourne, cities which are anyway 1040 miles apart by road.

Based in Tiverton, Fishguard and Ilkeston in the UK, BridgeZone specialises in the close inspection of the seemingly inaccessible parts of structures such as viaducts, bridges, tunnels, harbour walls and dams. This often calls for the use of rope access, underwater inspections and working in confined spaces, and BridgeZone not only works for the rail industry but also for highways, utilities, ports, harbours and aviation companies. With the expertise to inspect, survey, assess, design and recommend remedial works, BridgeZone prides itself on excelling at “inspecting the uninspectable”.

Conference appearance

Because BridgeZone is a new entrant into the Australian market, the team will need to put extra care and effort into selecting local partners who have similar business principles. The company is therefore participating in the Australian Small Bridges Conference, which will take place on 19-20 November in Surfers Paradise, on the outskirts of Brisbane.

The conference is designed to alert bridge, highway and rail engineers, managers, contractors and suppliers to significant new developments in their field. BridgeZone anticipates there will be great interest in its use of sonar technology for sub-surface scanning. Recently deployed in a dam inspection project in Uganda, this system is used to deliver highly accurate, high definition, 360o images of underwater structures that cannot be obtained by traditional diving methods.

The two-day conference programme will focus on small to medium bridges, both road and rail. Local government authorities in particular are currently faced with major challenges, so local government projects are a major theme of the conference. Small bridges are located not only on roads but also occur on train lines, parks and gardens, national parks, mines, forestry areas, private property and in public areas such as zoos. Small bridges can be for vehicles, trains, pedestrians or even stock and wildlife. Structures such as elevated boardwalks and viewing platforms also fall within the scope of this conference.

Learned paper

As well as meeting potential partners and clients, Paul Marshall will be presenting a paper on “Inspecting Difficult Access Bridge Structures”, with particular reference to:

• The cost effectiveness and efficiencies gained by employing non-disruptive methods to undertake a variety of types of inspections of bridges and structures difficult to access;

• “The Perfect Team” – the make-up of the people who form the best inspection teams; their skills, their individual roles and their experience appropriate to producing professional engineering-led reports for engineers with accountants in mind;

• The judicious use of appropriate technology such as sonar to assist in underwater inspection where visibility may be poor and a look at other equipment such as hand-held devices which can optimise time on site through the efficient transmission of asset data;

• Specific case studies that demonstrate the best, the worst and the most innovative methods of producing high-quality and consistent inspections, including examples of rope access, diving and confined space access techniques.

The event will bring together councils, state government road managers, government agencies and the private sector. State and local government engineers, leading practitioners and consultants in the bridge sector will present up-to-the-minute, highly relevant information to assist asset owners, road managers and engineers to perform their roles in an increasingly complex bridge/road environment.

The conference aims “to provide practical guidance to all delegates that can be immediately used.” One of the messages will be to take advantage of British expertise in this area, and BridgeZone are well placed to deliver that message.