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We are water: The Prins Willem-Alexander Bridge

The bridge at sunset. PHOTO: Jan Bouhuijs

The bridge at sunset. PHOTO: Jan Bouwhuis

The Prins Willem-Alexander Bridge is a four-lane bridge in The Netherlands, across the river Waal between the Dutch villages Echteld and Beneden-Leeuwen. The bridge has 2 so-called traffic roads for slow traffic on both sides, and has a total length of 1419 meters. This includes the abutments. It is the 1st concrete cable-stayed bridge in the Netherlands with a river span of ± 270 meters. The abutments, i.e. the spans of the flood plains, are about 1200 meters on the north side (Echteld) and 219 meters on the south side (Beneden-Leeuwen).

Cable-stayed bridge

The bridge had to become a span without pillars in the river, in order to give the shipping traffic free passage. After all, the Waal is the busiest river in the Netherlands. In 1970, construction of the bridge began after years of preparation. The construction took four years and I worked there from the very beginning until after completion.

Why a permanent cross-river connection?

The two ferry rides in Tiel and Ochten had become inadequate, partly due to increasing shipping traffic, which meant dangerous situations. In the nearby city of Tiel, a foundation was established: the Waalbrug Foundation. The Foundation wanted the Province to guarantee the initial amount of 40 million guilders. Despite the fact that this guarantee had not yet been given, they started to build the bridge anyway. No one could have anticipated that it would eventually cost 100 million guilders.

At first they wanted to lay the bridge in Tiel, but that gave too many problems. Then it was investigated whether the bridge could be built at the village of Ochten. That too was abandoned. Finally they opted for Echteld. There was space and the connection to highway A15 could be reasonably and 'easily' realized.

The contractors who were responsible for the realization of the construction were the families Zanen and Verstoep from The Hague. They were hired mainly for earthmoving. The concrete construction was provided by the families Van Hattem and Blankenvoort, who had built up experience at the Zeeland Bridge and the Kleinpolderplein. The combination of construction companies became known as the Kombinatie Tielse Brug, or the KTB. The two contractors also contributed financially to the construction because it had to be a good 'advertising' for them. They had decided to build a hollow concrete bridge. Engineers from the Delft Unversity of Technology had calculated the entire structure.

Ground extraction

The first step was groundwork for creating a building site. They started behind our farm. Sand extraction was achieved by making a sandhole in the floodplains. A total of 15 pillars had to be built in the flood plains of the Waaldijk. 13 pillars on ground in Echteld, and 2 pillars in the flood plains of Beneden-Leeuwen. A sandhole was also made there for sand extraction. These sand holes still exist.

The sand dredger on the floodplains in Echteld became my first work. With our tractor I had to provide drinking water to the people who were working on the plunger. About 2 times a week I brought a tank of water there. At that time I was not yet employed by the KTB. Later on I did get employed by the KTB, because I was going to do digging and lifting sand, via the pipeline in the sand hole to the construction site. I got a Ford tractor of the type County with a small crane on it.

Concrete pillars

At the construction site, a concrete plant was created for the pillars and the hollow sections that had to form the road surface. Concrete was also delivered from a plant in Tiel.

The pillars were all deposited on site. For pillars 13 (north) and 14 (south), preparations were made for the installation of the concrete suspension, that is to say 2 pylons of ± 70 m high on both sides. For those 2 pillars, which stood on the waterfront, 4000 cubic meters of concrete per pier were poured under water, to form the base for the pylons. The concrete floors for the bridge deck were also made on site by the concrete plant. First came ‘auxiliary tents’ of steel to hold the pavement placed on the pillars, which was already above the river for the last part. The final tents were placed after the middle part was hung in between and was stretched.

Insert spacers

The links above the river, 225 meters long, were made on the working site of the Oosterschelde Bridge in the province of Zeeland and were transported to Echteld with two tugboats. Behind these boats was a pontoon carrying the bridge sections. They were placed on a Sunday in order to disturb the shipping industry as little as possible.

There was a large crane on each side of the bridge. Each crane could hoist 250 tons. On the north side a crane from the family Stoof from Breda and - because there was no second crane in the Netherlands that could lift 250 tons - on the south side a crane from Belgium. Both cranes hoisted the middle sections (left lane, right lane and left and right side lanes) from the pontoon on the Waal. It was a spectacular event. The bridge sections were fastened together with tension cables in the longitudinal direction and the transverse connection was a fact.

The bridge from Nothing to Nowhere

On 1 June 1974, the bridge was ready for traffic. For a while it was called 'the Bridge from Nothing to Nowhere'. Because although the bridge got a good connection on the A15 on the north side, there was no connection on the south side in Beneden-Leeuwen, in order to be able to quickly drive the traffic towards Nijmegen and the A73 towards Venlo. This connection was only realized after 25 years. However, only a 2-lane road that runs around Beneden-Leeuwen and has to relieve this village and the villages to the east from the traffic. This road is already inadequate.

Toll

It became a toll bridge, to still recover some of the costs. That toll was still an obstacle for a lot of traffic to cross the bridge and contributed to the aforementioned nickname. Approximately 4000 vehicles passed every 24 hours. The toll was withdrawn from 1 January 1996. This was celebrated at the toll booth by many people from Echteld and Beneden-Leeuwen on New Year’s Eve 1995-1996, during which we were also present. After that, traffic increased on the bridge; currently about 30,000 vehicles per day use this crossover. After ± 20 years, concrete rot was detected in the bridge and a major renovation was carried out. 5 years ago, ‘whisper’ asphalt was laid on it, but the sound of cars is still very audible for locals.

Almost host to Europe's largest cannabis plantation

What is fun to mention is that in 2008, a cannabis plantation was discovered in the hollow construction of the bridge deck. They found out about it because on a late night, suddenly the light fell out in our village. After investigation, it appeared that the plantaion people had tried to drain power from the power cable that ran through the bridge: a cabled that was fueled by 10.000 volts. When people started to look, nobody was there; only a large pool of urine was found. The plantation was not yet in operation but everything was prepared to plant the plants. It would have been Europe's largest cannabis plantation at the time.

A handyman's anxious, but also enjoyable experience

I worked at the bridge with my County for four years. I have driven many times from one side to the other via the ferry in Ochten. Dropping and retrieving equipment, towing, hoisting, digging. Actually, I was a handyman. I could do a lot, but I also learned a lot there. I could even operate large cranes.

On weekends, I went on 'watch'. And when lamps had to be lit in the evening, I started the aggregates that supplied electricity for that lighting, both in the week and during the weekend. After the bridge was finished, I managed to organize the area around the bridge by paving small roads around it, together with a couple of people from the neighbourhood.

Two people died during construction. One man died a natural death and a another fell into a hole in the bridge deck. The plank that lay over the deck tilted suddenly. It was a beautiful, but also sometimes anxious time, but I think back on it with pleasure and have kept in touch with a number of colleagues from that time.

A contribution from: Jaap van Ommeren, Echteld, The Netherlands

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