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Another day, another accident



(Stonea, England) It is an immovable structure champion of traffic accidents. A bridge in the east of England on which trucks, motorhomes and vans have crashed with astonishing regularity for years.

Located in Stonea, about 30 miles from Cambridge, the bridge has been hit 33 times in a recent 12-month period by drivers who misjudged its height. According to official statistics, it is Britain’s most damaged railway bridge, and many local residents say these accident frequency figures are understated.

From her perch in the nearby Golden Lion pub, owner Christina Swinden is usually the first to hear the impact, and she knows exactly what it means.

I go out and buy them a cup of tea, tell them they’re not the first and won’t be the last, and make sure everyone is okay.

Christina Swinden, owner of a pub near the bridge

Mme Swinden adds that she keeps a set of traffic cones and a hi-vis jacket on hand for the next inevitable crash.

Among the vehicles that hit the bridge were an army truck that got stuck under it, a delivery van that crashed, spilling eggs and potatoes on the roadway, a horse trailer, farm machinery, many motor homes, and a good number of cars that went under the bridge with bicycles strapped to the roof to come out on the other side without them.

Shards of glass, pieces of plastic and other debris litter the side of the road. A gray and yellow hazard sign along the low ceiling of the bridge – just 198cm from the ground – is dented and torn, and the metal behind it is warped and twisted.


A hazard sign is damaged and torn on the edge of the Stonea Bridge.

Collisions with rail bridges in the UK, which were once down, are rising again as traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels, experts say.

From 1er April 2021 to March 31, 2022, the most recent period for which there are statistics, 1,833 collisions involving railway bridges were recorded, according to Network Rail, the authority responsible for railway infrastructure. That’s nearly 200 more than the previous year. The authority attributes most of these incidents to trucks and buses and estimates the cost at around £12 million (CAN 19.6 million) over this 12 month period.

Benjamin Heydecker, professor of transport science at University College London, said there was a fairly strong correlation between the number of collisions with bridges and the volume of traffic carrying heavy goods on non-motorway roads, a phenomenon which has increased since the pandemic began to recede.

The road near Stonea is adjacent to an artificial watercourse, mainly used for drainage, and there have been a few serious accidents along this watercourse, some of them fatal, unrelated to the bridge.

But, according to the local police, no deaths or serious injuries have been reported following the shocks against the railway bridge in recent years. The biggest casualty is usually the drivers’ pride, not to mention their wallets.

A problem that does not date from yesterday

With its low headroom, the Stonea Bridge allows small cars to pass under the tracks instead of waiting with large vehicles at a manual level crossing whose gates close as trains approach.

Only a few tens of meters before the bridge is a junction where drivers must choose the path to take. In doing so, some miss the sign warning of the very low passage height. Others just follow their navigation system.

But the problem existed before GPS, and the Stonea Bridge, built in 1895, has long been one of the most battered in the UK. If it recently disappeared from the register of bridges involved in the most accidents, it is because the underpass was closed after a serious accident involving agricultural machinery in 2019 which required large-scale repairs.

A new crash beam was installed, strengthening the structure against future accidents – a good investment considering the reality of things since then.

“On the day it reopened, someone ran into it,” said John Gowing, an elected official for Cambridgeshire County Council.

  • Cambridgeshire County Council elected John Gowing (left) chats with residents of the Pam Boss and Glen Lea area.


    Cambridgeshire County Council elected John Gowing (left) chats with residents of the Pam Boss and Glen Lea area.

  • The Stonea Bridge.


    The Stonea Bridge.

  • Signs approaching the bridge.


    Signs approaching the bridge.

  • The numbers to call in the event of an accident under the bridge.


    The numbers to call in the event of an accident under the bridge.


According to Pam Boss, who lives nearby, up to three motor homes a week can hit the bridge in the summer, and during a recent seven-day winter period there were two accidents, including one involving a van.

“Some drivers need to retake their driving lessons,” said Boss, who added that she once had “a nice collection of side mirrors” that were ripped off and thrown into the air by careless motorists. Many of those who realized they had taken a wrong turn backed up and damaged the low wall in front of his house.

But she has sympathy for some, including a man who broke down in tears after his 2,000-pound (C$3,300) bicycle, strapped to the roof of a car, was reduced to a tangle of worthless metal.

Ups, downs and empathy

As a white van slowed to weave under the bridge, Glen Lea, another resident who lives nearby, said he thought the actual number of crashes could be twice as high as the 33 officially recorded, because minor accidents are not reported.

Some local officials would like to close the underpass and push all traffic to the crossing. But opinion is divided in the region, as it would force local motorists to spend more time waiting for trains to pass.

At the Golden Lion pub, Mme Swinden said she would prefer signs to warn drivers sooner that they are approaching a major hazard. Most of those who are caught are not driving their usual vehicle, have objects on their roofs or are towing a trailer.

Accidents have become familiar to her, but she tries not to be judgmental.

If it was the same person every week, you’d probably pat them on the head and call them dumb, but that’s not the case. It’s someone having a very bad day.

Christina Swinden, owner of a pub near the bridge

“Whether it’s their fault or not – and it’s their fault because they hit a low bridge – they don’t need anyone else to [leur faire comprendre la gravité de la situation] “, she testifies.

Sometimes it’s impossible not to see a fun side, she added, recalling an event that happened on Valentine’s Day a few years ago. A florist’s van hit the bridge, she recalls, and while the cab was able to pass, the rest of the vehicle couldn’t, separating from the front and dumping its entire load. “The smell of fresh cut flowers underneath was awesome. »

This article was originally published in the New York Times.

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