In March this year, following the collapse of a footbridge in Miami, I said this:
For a standard, single-span footbridge to suddenly collapse in this manner in the United States in 2018 is incredible. Reinforced concrete footbridges have been built worldwide for decades, and ought to be the sort of thing a highways department can design and build on their own.
There is enough knowledge and experience by now to ensure these sort of accidents no longer occur.
I had the same thoughts yesterday when I read about this:
A motorway bridge has collapsed in the northwest Italian city of Genoa, killing 26 people and badly injuring 15, police told the BBC.
Dramatic video footage captured the moment of the disaster when one of the huge supporting towers crashed down during torrential rain.
Cars and trucks plummeted 45m (148ft) on to rail tracks, buildings and a river along with slabs of concrete.
This simply should not happen anywhere, much less in a modern, developed country with a history of engineering and industrial competence. The BBC has a good page on possible causes of the bridge’s collapse, but I fear it may have overlooked something far more serious: a general decline in overall competence.
My guess would be a lack of timely maintenance is the technical reason the bridge collapsed, but what I’m more interested in is how Italy became a country incapable of carrying out basic maintenance. This is the sort of thing you used to see in the Soviet Union, or basket-case countries whose rulers enjoy the kickbacks and prestige of large capital projects but can’t be bothered with the mundane task of maintaining anything. However shambolic Italy may have appeared over the years, you could be reasonably confident the bridge over which you were driving wasn’t going to disappear from under you halfway across: they might be corrupt and disorganised, but the basics still got done. That’s no longer the case, so what’s changed? Again, I’ll refer back to my earlier post:
There has been a major shift in modern companies from delivering something useful – such as a bridge which doesn’t collapse – to managing processes. A lot of companies have subcontracted out the actual work – designing, building, manufacturing, operating, maintaining – and instead busy themselves with “managing” the whole process. This involves lots of well-educated people in nice clothes sitting in glass-fronted office buildings sharing spreadsheets, reports, and PowerPoint presentations by email and holding lengthy meetings during which they convince one another of how essential they are. I’m sure this is pretty much what Carillion was doing when they went bust: anything useful was done by subcontractors. The distance between those doing the actual work and those supposedly responsible for the outcome has, in far too many companies, grown into a yawning chasm. Survival in a modern company is all about compliance and obedience, and accountability is non-existent because it is no longer required.
In such an environment, it is inevitable that the quality of work suffers, errors go unnoticed, and – occasionally – catastrophes occur.
Italy is flat broke and has been for some time, and this will likely be put forward as a contributing factor to the bridge’s collapse. But in my experience, when modern organisations start feeling the pinch the white-collar middle-managers clogging up the glass-fronted offices start preparing spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations which show if they cut back on certain things they can save money – things like maintenance. I’d hazard a guess the organisation responsible for maintaining this bridge has a budget which would make your eyes water, but almost all of it will be blown on overheads and inefficient, process-driven nonsense. They’ll also have a staff which would match the cast of Ben Hur, all of whom will know lots about the latest managerial missives but little about bridge maintenance. I’d also bet the individuals who actually maintain the bridge are subcontractors, and there’s a fair chance they’ve not been paid in a while.
I’m speculating, and perhaps I’m wrong. But currently there is a bridge lying on the ground when it ought to be sitting pretty in the air, and people are asking questions. This should never, ever have happened and it is almost inconceivable that it has. It might be a one-off but me, ever the skeptic, I’m not so sure. I think we’re going to see more of this sort of thing, vital pieces of infrastructure suddenly collapse or stop working in a manner which we in the west thought we’d never see again. I also expect we’re going to see several major corporations go under in the same period, and this will not be a coincidence. It’s good that engineers are now running around Italy inspecting other bridges for signs of collapse, but it’s high time some of these organisations and their management were subject to similar scrutiny.