The city of Utrecht is known for its exceptional cycling infrastructure, but even in Utrecht things aren’t all perfect. The city has to deal with a legacy of old infrastructure too. Infrastructure that was maybe fine at the time it was constructed, but which doesn’t meet current design standards. A 50-year-old railway bridge, that has a narrow cycling deck attached to it, is completely outdated and in urgent need of a replacement. But while the city agreed to maintain the cycle route, the bridge belongs to the railways and it crosses a canal that is managed by the national government. Who is going to plan, construct and pay for a new cycling bridge at this location?
The wider Amsterdam-Rhine Canal replaced an earlier canal at the exact same location in 1952. It took until 1966 before construction of the current bridge started. It was finally opened in 1970. The steel “Demkaspoorbrug” is a 255 metre long bridge with a main span of 173 metres. The cycling deck is just 1.8 metres wide for cycling in both directions, at 9.45 metres over the water. Demka was a steel factory that had expanded to both sides of the canal decades earlier. That is why the new bridge could also be used for cycling, just like its predecessor. The factory workers had to be able to cycle to the other locations of the company quickly. Since the Demka employees used the bridge most it was named after the factory over time.
Early this century the railway was expanded from 2 to 4 tracks. The bridge was not replaced but an extra bridge was built parallel to it. After that was finished in 2002, trains could use it for the time that the old bridge was completely refurbished. The two tracks on the old bridge are now only used for trains going from Utrecht to Amsterdam. That the cycling part was not updated during that refurbishment is a missed opportunity. The bridge is an important connection to an industrial area on the other side of the canal that has only very few crossings. The route is also part of the main cycle route from Utrecht to Amsterdam, but only as a concept so far. The bridge is not at all suited for a lot of cycling, but who is going to improve it?
The bridge is owned by the railways (ProRail) and crosses a canal that is managed by the national government (Rijkswaterstaat). Utrecht agreed to do maintenance on the cycling part and also manages the access ramps and the lighting. Finally, the bridge is a municipal monument. All this complicates matters. Understandably, cycling is not a top priority for the railways on their railway bridge. Utrecht investigated 35 bridges and tunnels that can be seen as weak links in the city’s cycling network. This bridge ended as priority number three of nine connections that are in urgent need of upgrading. That Utrecht doesn’t own the bridge and only has €46 million for all 9 projects is not helpful. For the time being the bridge’s update is planned for 2030. For the local chapter of the Cyclists’ Union that is unacceptable. They are supported by the organisation representing employers of the Lage Weide industrial area. This organisation wrote an open letter to the council to inform that they cannot wait that long either. In their letter the employers state:
Employment is clearly linked with accessibility. When job applicants have to cycle long detours or experience the cycling route as unsafe, they will be less likely to accept a job at Lage Weide. We know from the business community that this is a real hurdle. Employers cannot accept that staff leaves and chooses to work in other locations which are more easily accessible by bicycle. New companies are also more likely to start their business at Lage Weide when their employees can get there quickly and safely by bike.
There had been plans to attach a wider cycling deck to the existing railway bridge. Designers ipv Delft published a nice drawing, but in the factsheet about this project the city of Utrecht writes that the old bridge will likely not be strong enough to support a new and heavier cycling deck. The city therefore concludes: “The technically most feasible option is to place a new bridge parallel to the existing railway bridge.” A new bridge would require an investment of an estimated 14 million euros. Because the crossing is over a canal that belongs to the national government all eyes are now on that national government to help the city of Utrecht by supporting this project financially, possibly from the Dutch Multi-Year Programme for Infrastructure, Spatial Planning and Transport (MIRT). In that programme “all parties collaborate on ambitions and projects regarding infrastructure and water, in order to maintain and build on the Netherlands to improve the quality of life, access, and mobility in a clean, safe and sustainable environment.” A new cycling bridge at this location would tick many of those boxes. The city of Utrecht therefore writes in the factsheet:
“There is a high chance of co-financing because the bridge is part of Rijkswaterstaat’s Dom-to-Dam study*. ProRail is the owner, Rijkswaterstaat is the waterway manager. The goal of the study is improving health in a carbon neutral way. This connection fits in well with that goal.”
This fall the government will decide which projects will get financed in the coming year. The Cyclists’ Union and the other stakeholders hope the planned new bridge will make the list. This would mean the people of Utrecht will not have to deal with the outdated narrow cycling connection for another 9 years.