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DON McCOLL CP Eng, FIE Aust., Consulting Structural Engineer Yass NSW

There are approximately 700 timber bridges remaining in NSW. Many were built in the 1920s, when
prevailing loads were a four tonne traction engine at most. Expected life was about 30 years. Still in service,
but suffering from obvious deterioration, these bridges are long overdue for replacement. But with the
prevailing sentiment on the part of the Federal Government, the return of fuel taxes sufficient for
replacement does not appear to be forthcoming. The two bridges covered by this paper had been load
limited to 15 tonnes. Further analysis, load testing and strain gauge work, and consideration of typical
semi-trailer geometry enabled relaxation of the limits. The bridges have been re-rated to a 38 tonne limit.
This paper acknowledges permission from the Tumut Shire Council for release of its content.

Bridge, Load rating, Load testing, Strain gauge

Encouraged by the fact the early timber
bridges were still in service, many new
similar bridges were still being designed as
late as the 1950s. A typical trestle is shown

in Figure 1 for a single lane bridge. Girders

were supported off 1800 long corbels,
according to the D.M.R. standards of the

The method of design was elegantly simple,

conservative, and used working stress

methods. A line of wheels was aligned on a

girder centerline and simple support for

girders assumed. The maximum bending

moment and shears were obtained from
influence lines, then reduced to allow for
sharing through the medium of the deck
planks, by dividing by an empirical factor of
girder spacing/1.8. The required modulus for
the girder was arrived at from f = M/Z. f is
the allowable stress in bending for the
species, M the applied bending moment and
Z the section modulus. The required girder
diameter was calculated from Z = Pi . d/32,
plus an allowance for non-structural
sapwood. Girder taper was ignored. It is
immediately seen from the exponent that the
strength in bending is very sensitive to the
diameter. Shear at the ends of the girders
would not control the girder size. Corbels of
a nominal 450 diameter were used, and the
dead and live loads computed for design of
the headstocks. Usually, these were 300 x
150 sawn members, one checked into each
side of the piles. Either shear or bending
could control for headstocks, depending on
the relationship of pile location, centres etc.
Piles were driven with drop hammers, and
capacity determined using the Hiley formula
with a large safety factor of about three or
These designs worked well. Unfortunately
perhaps, it is their very longevity that is
causing problems today. They are being
called upon to cater for greatly increased
axle loads, they are decaying, but still it
seems, must remain in service. There is
uncertainty of load path complicating the
issues, which the early designers would have
ignored in their design methods. Thus it is
not simple to determine whether a given
bridge is or is not overloaded, especially if
In structural design, it is easier to design for
a given load than to determine with that
same level of confidence the load that an
existing structure can carry.
The aim in bridge work is to rate the
structure with the highest possible level of
confidence that method allows, so as to
comply with the load (safety) factors required
by the codes. Measuring up an existing old
trestle bridge, and applying the same simple
analytical techniques as the original
designers, the likely conclusion is many a
bridge in as-new condition will not safely

carry T44 loading, in any of the trailer

wheelbase spacings (3 to 8 m.) required in
the AUSTROADS 1992 Bridge Code. (T44 is
taken in this paper as the load criteria). But
if a check for inner piping rot by boring the
members, and the simple analysis allows the
structure to survive this scrutiny, on the
assumption that pile capacity is not
exceeded, then no load limit need apply.




Rimmers and Purcells bridges are on

MR280 in the Shire of Tumut, across
Adelong Creek.
This road is a
significant link between Batlow and
Adelong, thence to the Hume
transport for produce, timber and
access to numerous farms. The
imposition of a fifteen tonne limit
caused significant inconvenience to
users, denied the use of triple-deck
stock transport and the use of semitrailers which previously had enabled
local fruit growers to economically
market their seasonal produce. With
the imminent harvest of crops and a
crash program to upgrade the
structures, Council was faced with an
uncomfortable prospect. It appeared
that intermediate trestles would have
to be
constructed urgently at
midspan of both bridges, and at no
small cost.


Deliberating over this dilemma, Councils
Assets Engineers realized that short
wheelbase trailers rarely used the
Re-rating by load testing
provided the answer. It was found
that strengthening to upgrade to full
unrestricted T44 loading was not
nearly extensive as was first thought,
and could be done within a much
more suitable timeframe.


Both bridges have four spans nominally of

10 m, are trestle type, single lane, employing
a four girder layout decked by 200 x 100 mm
cross timbers. Girders are of unknown
species but probably ironbark. The
girder/corbel/headstock configuration is as
outlined in the introduction. Bolted to the
decks, are running timbers 200 x 50 mm
which appear to be an addition subsequent
to original construction. A few of the girders
and some of the piles have been replaced
since the date of original construction. The
streams are permanent, with flow varying
from that which one can walk across to some
measure of flood. Superstructure clearances
are about 4 m. to low water. Considering
their obvious age, these structures have
stood the test of time remarkably well and
indeed have outlived many a modern
concrete bridge suffering from concrete
cancer, alkali-aggregate reaction or other
durability problem resulting from poor
construction quality control.
Councils Engineers had become concerned
that these structures might be overloaded;

The opinion determined a safe load

assessment for each element of each bridge
in as-new condition, and separately in an
as-is condition. For example, girders in
Span 1 might carry a T19 load in bending,
T30 in shear. And that the headstocks in a
trestle would carry T25 in bending and T15 in
shear etc etc. The lowest controlled the limit
and hence the 15 tonne rating.
The opinion, in order to attain T44 rating,
recommended the early replacement of
some of the piles (piped), some of the (split)

carrying loads with insufficient load factors.

Limit state philosophy, introduced by the
displaced working stress methods and safety
factor terminology. There is little difference in
the outcome in timber design using limit state
theory compared to working stress.
structurals will find reference to working
stress more convenient, and thus is utilized
in this paper to expound the principles used
to re-rate these bridges.
Council duly sought structural opinion. This
considered the full range of trailer axle
spacings called up in the Code, which varies
from 3 m to 8 m. for T44 (truck) loading.
(Lane loading does not control for short span
bridges such as these).
The short
wheelbase loading was obviously the most
Loading T44 uses 96kN per axle for bogies
and 48 kN front, as shown in Fig. 2.

corbels, piped girders, braces, and

recommended the bolting up of some of the
split members, not otherwise beyond

The author was engaged to advise on the
remedial work that would upgrade these
bridges to unconditional T44 loading. It is
useful here to compare T44 with legal loads
requiring no travel permit. Whilst RTA
configurations single axle front steer, dual
front steer, single axle trailer, dual or triple
axle trailer, for the sake of simplicity, only
three configurations are shown in Figs 3, 4
and 5.
These are the likely local
configurations that would apply. Thus one
sees that the code standards do not directly
relate to legal loads -T44 aggregates 432 kN
(44 tonnes), whilst fig 2 shows an
aggregation of 39 tonnes, and the tri-trailer
axle configuration of Fig 3 allows 42.5
Presumably, code writers are
satisfied that T44 safely provides for the
multiplicity of configurations that the statutory
law allows, and according to the laws of
probability on which engineering design is
The relevant load factors called for by the
Bridge Code are two for live load, (closely
translated to a safety factor of 2) and 1.2 for
dead load. The difference is that dead loads
can be more reliably predicted than live. The
code also requires a live load deflection limit
of span/800. This appears to apply to new
work, and is derived from comfort
considerations. In the case of high speed
traffic, undue vertical accelerations will be
felt if the more usual structural limit of
span/360 was used. The deflection limit
rather than strength frequently controls in
bridge design. The subject bridges are on a
poor alignment. Traffic will slow to some 15
kmh. (This also will reduce dynamic
loadings). In terms of remedial work, it is not
considered realistic to endeavor to work to
the modern day code deflection limit.
Councils Engineers accepted the authors
view that these bridges be instrumented and
load tested. For with the realisation that
vehicles of GVM around 40 tonnes had been
using the bridges, with a live load factor of 2
allowed by the code, thoughts were that a
limit nearer 20 tonnes might be allowed,
rather than a conservative fifteen.
The first load test was to apply 10 tonne
bogie axle loads from a rigid frame test truck,

with wheel lines aligned over the girders, one

at a time, in each span. With a precision
level, deck deflections were recorded,
including adjacent unloaded spans. From
span length, girder diameter, and standard
deflections, were calculated, allowing the
empirical girder load sharing factor of 1.8.
Support was taken as simple. Girders have
to be idealized at circular, taper ignored, and
assumption made as to the modulus of the
The deflection figures were
compared, measured vs theoretical. If in
such a case, the measured deflection is
significantly less than the theoretical, then
the deck is significantly much stiffer and
stronger then one would expect.
The deflection results are compared. The
product of E, the elastic modulus of the
timber and I, the second moment of area
being the denominator in the deflection
equation, is the stiffness of a system.
From the data in the case in point, it was
found that the measured deflection over the
loaded girder in some spans was about one
third of that expected from theory. Thus the
inference was that the stresses in the
outermost fibres of the subject girder at the
point of maximum bending moment, was
much less than the theory would have one to
fear. Elastic theory dictated that either the
applied bending moment, M, was overestimated in the calculations, or the value of
I and/or the value of E was too low. Better
than expected load sharing among the
girders via the deck, or unexpected
continuity span to span could explain an
anomalous M. Determination of the value of
I (and hence the derived value of section
modulus, Z in a calculation of extreme fiber
measurement of girder diameter d. It was
also suspected that the lengthy running
planks might be assisting the stiffness of the
deck, with effective horizontal shear transfer,
courtesy of their multitudinous connecting
bolts. Computations showed a very
significant lift in the neutral axis and in the
values of I and Z, if it was assumed the deck

Fig. 3

Max dual axle group
Max front

16.5 t.
6 t.

Min dimension

5.8 m. front

Fig. 4

Max. GVM
Max dual axle group
Max tri-axle group
Max front

40 tonnes**
16.5 t.
20 t.
6 t.
Min dimension

5.0 m. at GVM

Fig. 5

Max dual axle group
Max front
Min dimension A
*Sum of front and axle group(s)

16 t.
6 t.
3.5 m.
** Max allowed, as tabulated for Dimension,B, ref RTAweb site



Don McColl CP Eng FIE Aust Consulting Structural Engineer YASS NSW PHIFAX 02 6227 1231

running planks were contributing to the

stiffness and hence strength of the deck.

Some spans deflected much more than

others, and this correlated where piped
girders had been found. Measurement of the
annulus in piped girders is imprecise, and

thus determination of Z is
because of the cubic exponent.


This uncertainty led to the decision to

measure strain with a Demec gauge in a
reload of the spans combined with a re-read
of deflections of the loaded and adjacent
spans. The Demec is a mechanical gauge
which is essentially a precision dial gauge
connected to an invar bar, with points at a
nominal 200 mm centres, one of which
swings and operates the dial. (Electric
resistance circuitry calibrated to the
mechanical gauge is another option). The
procedure is to affix precision Demec button
points to the element undergoing strain, and

to record dial readings before and after

loading; the difference is strain. The
instrument is very sensitive and will give
consistent readings of plus or minus ten
micron. Using E for the timbers, the stress is
easily arrived at and can be compared with
the timber code listed value, Fb = 22mPa
basic for ironbark. Notwithstanding the girder
species was not known, reliance can be
made on the code for short term values of E,
because the range between the heavy stress
grades in hardwood is not great. Timber in
contrast to steel, within elastic limits behaves
in a nonlinear fashion. The value of E is load
time dependent. That is to say the material
creeps. This introduces further judgement
into the matter.
Gauge readings showed the running planks
were in compression under the test load,
showing that they were working as structural
Apart from the immediate replacement of a
weak girder at Rimmers Bridge, the
headstocks in the bridges were found to be
the critical elements, being inadequate in
shear for the short wheelbase trailer. It was

also found that the long wheelbase trailer

configuration in T44 for the subject bridges
applied only 78% of the headstock shear
compared to the short wheelbase, the
resulting stress level being acceptable. In
due course, the headstocks will be replaced
with parallel flange channels; short
wheelbase trailers can then traverse the
The prevailing traffic pattern for MR280 is
long wheelbase. So that the users in the
area would not be inconvenienced by the 15
tonne load limit, relaxation was made
immediately after the strain results were
assessed, to allow the usual full legal axle
loadings for the longer wheelbase trailers.
The bridges were sign posted accordingly
until headstock remediation and a few other

minor repairs and pile strengthening can be

There is no recognised method of testing pile
carrying capacity without loading the piles.
Boring piles was relied on to check for pipes.
The assumption was made that either in skin
friction or end bearing they could continue to
carry the applied loads, the justification for
which is that there will be warning of this
event from distortion of bridge geometry.
Notwithstanding the above methodology
having being applied to obtain extended life
and increased load rating of these bridges, it
is unlikely that a life of more than another ten
years can be delivered. In the meantime, the
bridges must be kept under observation. And
flood damage might force the issue.

The author was employed in industry for some years before joining
contractors, Hornibrook and Pearson Bridge, on bridge construction. In
1968, he joined the Kempsey Municipal Council as Deputy Engineer,
becoming Municipal Engineer in 1970. In 1972, he was employed by a
Sydney based firm of structural engineers. For eight years, he was
their site representative, retained to design and supervise the
construction of the National Gallery and the High Court and other
major buildings in Canberra. In 1980 the current practice was
established. Of recent times the author is once again heavily involved
in bridge work.

Don McColl Ceridale Gums Lane Yass 2582

email donmccollconsulting@bigpond .com