Hosanna to Howrah Bridge!
(Rabindra Setu)

It is a laudable gesture that the Kolkata Port Trust is commemorating the Herculean services of the Howrah Bridge, a mute structural engineering marvel, which has marvellously completed sixty years of service to the populace of Kolkata in particular and the nation in general.

True to Joseph Jonhert’s observation, “The monuments are the grappling irons that bind one generation to another”. The Howrah Bridge renamed to Rabindra Setu, a structural engineering marvel and a nostalgic symbol of Kolkata has been binding different generations of people crossing it.

This sentimental landmark and identity of Kolkata, besides bearing the brunt of many stormy weathers of the Bay of Bengal region, it has also been stoically bearing the weight of nearly lakh of vehicles and innumerable pedestrians crossing it daily and thus registering a proud world record for itself as the busiest bridge in the world.

World’s busiest bridge :

The Howrah Bridge is India’s biggest, world’s busiest, and longest single span and the third longest cantilever bridge in the world.

Like any other monument, the Howrah Bridge, originally named the New Howrah Bridge and later renamed as Rabindra Setu (named after Rabindranath Tagore a great poet and the first Indian Novel laureate) on 14th June 1965 has its own story to tell.

Floating bridge (Howrah Bridge) :

At the end of the 17th Century, the British traders founded Calcutta (Kolkata ) by merging three villages- Kalikata, Sutanuti and Gobindapur on one side of the river Hooghly. Howrah on the other side of the river grew up as a commercial and cultural centre later. To connect these towns situated on opposite banks of the river, Sir Bradford Leslie’s famous floating pontoon bridge came up in 1874.

Built mainly of timber on pontoons, it was intended to put in service for twenty five years only, but it survived nearly three times as long.

The newly appointed Port Commissioners in 1871 were also appointed Bridge Commissioners and enjoined to take charge of the structure on completion. The Commissioners took over the management of the Howrah Bridge in February 1875.

In the floating bridge at each end and hinged shore spans had to be provided due to the river being a tidal one. During highwater, these became very steep and bullock carts were unable to negotiate their way, which resulted in long traffic jams. The floating pontoon bridge became too inadequate to cope up with the increasing flow of day and night traffic and its maintenance cost, the Government of Bengal in 1933 decided to replace it.

New Howrah Bridge :

It was Cantilever Era when arch and cantilever bridges came into use for long spans and engineers found that these structures were more rigid than suspension bridges.

The New Howrah Bridge, a fine cantilever, was built during the second World War, the forth cantilever bridge in the world, and a great legacy left to Indian by British engineers.

The first of these cantilever bridges was the Firth of Forth Bridges in Edinburgh, Scotland, (1890) the master piece of a great engineering genius and of a kind that will probably never be repeated . The next one to follow was the well-known Queensboro Bridge in New York and the Pont De Quebec in Quebec, Canada (1917). Tragedy fell at Quebec, when the first bridge crashed during the course of erection and the suspended span of its successor for was also dropped into the river while hoisting into position.

Considering navigational aspects, hydraulics and tidal conditions of the river, a design for a cantilever bridge of 1500 feet span with a roadway of 71 ft width with two 15 feet cantilever foot ways was prepared by M/s Rendel Palmer and Tritton. Firms from Britain, Germany and India quoted and finally the contract was awarded to the Clevland Bridge Company of Darlington with a strong recommendation that they used Indian-made steel which they agreed to do. Out of a total 26,500 tons of steel 23,500 tons were supplied by the Tata Iron and Steel Co. of Jamshedpur and fabrication was done by the Braithwaite, Burn and Jessop Co. at four differed shops in Calcutta. Many intricate items were made in England.

Biggest ever sunk monoliths :

The first job in building the New Howrah Bridge was sinking of two huge monoliths, the biggest ever sunk on land, measuring 180 ft x 81 ft approx. and area sufficient for four tennis courts.

While clearing the muck, the grabs brought up all kinds of curious things which included anchors, grappling irons, cannons and cannon balls, part of an idol, brass vessels and a variety of rupee coins dating back to the days of John Company.

Men at work :

A team of British Senior engineers and foremen with Indian assistants was at the site. The labour consisted primarily of Muslims and Hindus, Sikhs and Pathans were fine riveters, most steel erection was done by Punjabis and Bombay Khalassies, Nepalies and Gurkhas were watchmen . Due to a great number of Indian Festivals, construction work was interrupted. It is significant to note that there was no trouble from labour or religious wrangles throughout the six years of construction.

Forty Indian crane drivers were trained on the job and worked in three shifts of eight hours each and the job of sinking of monoliths was carried out day and night and continued steadily at a rate of a foot or more per day.

A mishap :

While grabbing out the muck to enable the monolith to move, suddenly one night the ground below it yielded and the entire mass plunged down two feet, shaking the ground and buildings around it. The impact of this mishap was so intense that a Hindu temple on the shore was destroyed which had to be subsequently rebuilt, a warehouse also caved in and it was said that the seismograph at Kideerpore had registered an earthquake Braving all such difficulties, the monoliths were placed remarkably true to position, the biggest variation of the top or bottom in any direction being only two or three inches.

Cantilever arms connection :

Next was another hazardous operation requiring to keep the water out at the depth of 103 feet around the foundations to enable inspection and cleaning before concreting. About 500 Indians were employed on the compressed air operation which amounted to more than 40lb per square inch which was completed in November 1938. The erection of the cantilever arms of the bridge commenced at the end of 1940 and completed in mid summer. The two halves of the suspended span – each half 282 ft long and weighing 2000 tons – were built in Dec. 1941. Then the two halves were joined by moving them horizontally towards each other by hydraulic jacks until the gap was closed and the connections at the centre could be made permanent. Sixteen hydraulic jacks each of 800 ton capacity were pressed into service for the closing operation placing eight of them at each end.

Opened to traffic :

After completing the steelwork of the deck and concreting of roadway, the New Howrah Bridge was finally opened to traffic in February 1943, removing the old floating bridge. In May 1946, a census of traffic passing over the bridge in 24 hours was made and it was found that the bridge was used by 1,21,100 pedestrians, 2997 cattle and 27,400 vehicles. The maximum number of vehicles using the bridge per hour was actually 20 per cent higher than that on London Bridge which was the busiest in the metropolis. The total cost of the bridge and its approach spans finally amounted to nearly £2,500,000

Then Chairman's attention:

Sir Thomas Elderton, the last British Chairman of the Calcutta Port Trust and Chariman of the New Howrah Bridge Commissioners contributed a lot of his attention and services to the successful completion of the New Bridge.

Present Chairman's initiative

Thanks to the initiative and special concern of the present Chairman Dr. Chanda to this bridge, a computer environment centre has been created at the bridge office, which successfully competed the vectorisation of age old drawings of Rabindra Setu. Steps have already been taken to upgrade this computer center by procuring latest softwares. A dedicated website to Rabindra Setu is also going to be launched shortly.

Proud to maintain the Bridge :

Dr. Chanda, the Chairman maintains, “it is a proud feat for the Port to perfectly maintain this cynosure which has been a mainstay of development for this region”.

Since inception, Kolkata Port Trust, erstwhile Commissioners of the Port of Calcutta (CPC) [later Calcutta Port Trust] are the custodians of the bridge. Thought till 1983 (i.e for the first forty years of bridge) maintenance really meant thorough painting (once in 5/6 years), patch painting as needed and emergency repairs to dislocated joint covers and railings. At present the Rabindra Setu division under the department of Civil Engineering of Kolkata port Trust, looks after the regular and special maintenance of the bridge.

Description :

Rabindra Setu is a suspension type balanced cantilever bridge with central span 1500 ft between centers of main towers. The anchor arms are 325 ft and the cantilever arms 468 ft long at both ends, which the middle suspended span is 564 ft. Main towers are 280 ft high above the monoliths and 76 ft apart at the top. Bridge deck width is 71 ft with two footpaths of 15 ft 6½ on either side.

Present jobs :

At present the main jobs under progress are (i) the restoration of ceased bearings at towers and (ii) mechanization of underslung trolleys. Both jobs are nearing completion.

New look :

The Howrah Bridge wears a 'new dress' on its birthday of October 17th this year. Yes, it will start getting a fresh coat of paint commencing that day. In all it will take 30,000 litters of fresh paint for its enormous 2,150 ft. length and 280 ft height. For this painting operation, a maximum of 250 workers will be employed everyday for a period of six months at a stretch. The total expenditure for painting the Howrah Bridge could be Rs. 70 lacks and painting operation will be over in April 2005.

For the river festival in winter , this year, about 10,000 bulbs ranging from 25 to 40 watts will be used to illuminate this enduring landmark of the city.

This division has also undertaken a scheme of environmental upgradation at certain locations including beautification . After completion, which promises to give an entirely changed look to this gateway of Kolkata. A thorough structural audit about the condition of the Bridge will be taken up shortly.

Expenditure of Rabindra Setu from 1992-93 to 2003-04 :

2003-2004 272.56 lakhs
2002-2003 151.85 lakhs
2001-2002 352.43 lakhs
2000-2001 339.18 lakhs
1999-2000 249.21 lakhs
1998-1999 239.62 lakhs
1997-1998 211.61 lakhs
1996-1997 318.48 lakhs
1994-1995 442.74 lakhs
1993-1994 271.79 lakhs
1992-1993 64.62 lakhs

The Kolkata port Trust through its Rabindra Setu division serving Kolkata and the nation by properly maintaining this bridge through continuous monitoring satisfying all the safety aspects, in addition to its normal Port activities. The Rabindra Setu Division too is determined to keep this structural marvel in active condition as long as possible.

Largest Cantilever Steel Truss Bridges

Name Location Country Year

Firth of Forth Edinburgh Scotland 1890
Pont de Quebec Quebec Canada 1917
Transbay San Francisco CA USA 1936
Horwah Calcutta India 1943
Greater New Orleans, LA USA 1958
New Orieans – I
Baton Rouge Baton Rouge, LA USA 1968
Minato Osaka Japan 1975
Commandore Chester, PA USA 1975
Greater New Orleans LA USA 1988
New Orleans-2
Gramercy Gramercy, LA USA

The Vidyasagar Setu – second Howrah Bridge

The Vidyasagar Setu or the second Howrah Bridge, built in 1992, is the longest cable stayed bridge in Asia. It is named after Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, (Vidhya-knowledge, Sagar-Ocean) and eminent scholar and a champion of social reforms. The Hindu Women's remarriage Act was passed in July 1856 mainly due to his initiative.

The main bridge connecting the Kolkata and Howrah approaches is three span double plane cable stayed bridge of 822.96 (2,699.3 ft) in length and is the longest of its kind in Asia. The cables originating from steel pylons look like chords originating from the stem of a fiddle.

Bascule Bridge:

The only basucle bridge in India is at Kidderpore in Kolkata operated by the Kolkata Port Trust. The bridge is in two halves each of which goes upto allow ships to pass through, the bridge has a span of about 35m (114.8 ft) and was built by Wagner Biro AG, Austria. It was commissioned on November 5, 1966. It replaced a swing bridge built in 1892.

Largest Cable – Stayed Bridges:

Name Location Country Year Span

Carlos Casado Barrios de Luna Spain 1983 440
Annacis Island Vancouver,BC Canada 1986 465
Second Severn Bristol Great Britain 1996 456
Yokohama Bay Yokohama Japan 1989 460
Queen Elizabeth II Dartford Great Britain 1991 450
Ikuchi Onomichi-Imabari Japan 1991 490
Skarnsundet Trondheim Fjord Norway 1991 530
Second Hooghly Calcutta Indian 1992 457
Higashi-Kobe Kobe Japan 1992 485
Yangpu Shanghai China 1993 602
Tsurumi Tsubasa Yokohma Japan 1994 510
Pont de Normandie Le Havre France 1995 856
Qingzhou Minjiang Fuzhou China 1996 605
Chongging-2 Sichuan Prov. China 1996 444
Second Severn Bristol Great Britain 1996 456
Xupu Shanghai China 1997 590
Meiko-Chuo Nagoya Japan 1997 590
Ting Kau Hong Kong Hong Kong 1997 475
Seohae South Korea 1997 470
Tatara Onomichi-Imabari Japan 1999 890
Oresund Copenhagen Malmo Denmark Sweden 2000 490

Latest Bridge inspection technology : 'Smart Bridge'.

Embedded fibre-optic sensors will now allow engineers to continually monitor the safety of a bridge. This method called 'Smart Bridge' technology is fitted for the first time in the new Interstate 10 bridge over University Avenue in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

“Traditionally, bridge inspections have relied primarily on a visual inspection of the exterior of the bridge”, says Rola Idriss a professor of civil engineering who is leading New Mexico State University's smart bridge research.

“ This monitoring system can provide information on the effects of stress long before signs of fatigue begin to show visibly allowing engineers to address potential problems before they become serious and costly”.

Ultimately, Idriss says, the technology should lead to better bridge designs.

Reproduced from "Special Issue on Kolkata Port Trust" published on 17.10.2004


Exim India Shipping Times publication , pg.83-88

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