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Germany

A long, strange trip for German truckers near Duisburg

Achtung all truckers heading eastward towards Duisburg - bring a pillow: As of Tuesday, you won't be able to go over a main bridge. Why? It's too old. And it's part of a bigger problem facing the German government.

Apart from posts about good deals on big rigs and spare parts, licensing and job openings for truckers in and around Oberhausen, Duisburg and Essen, many of the 12,202 members of the online chat room #link:http://www.forum-speditionen.de/logistik.html?s=69cb27666f07c4e42450fc610d1ab943eadd8c48:forum-speditionen.de# seemed this weekend to have nothing else on their mind other than a bridge.

"This whole [expletive] country is going downhill, massively," wrote one user on the forum that is primarily for truckers in North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), the most populous of Germany's 16 federal states. Another user commented: "Yes! It's all going downhill. They've shut down another bridge for us!"

The bridge in question is part of the A40 autobahn and crosses the Rhine River between Oberhausen and Duisburg. Its location makes it one of western Germany's most heavily used bridges in what is one of the most important inland waterway transportation hubs in all of Europe.

The Neuenkamp bridge near Duisburg (dpa)

Passage over the A40 bridge - impossible for truckers as of midday on Tuesday

As of noon on Tuesday, no trucks over 3.5 tons heading from Oberhausen to Duisburg will be able to traverse the Rhine on the A40. Instead, they will be forced on a detour through the veritable jungle that is the complex mix of highways in the Ruhr region. The 11,000 trucks that normally go over the A40 bridge every day will be rerouted onto the A57, then the A42, then the A3, and finally back to the A40 and on their way.

"We're talking about at least an extra hour for every single trucker's journey, but that's much worse than it sounds," said Bernhard Philipps, of the NRW Freight and Logistics Association, in an interview.

"For the truckers themselves, it's easy," joked Philipps. "With all due respect, they just have to sit on their butts! They aren't paid by the kilometer. They are paid by the hour, and that means this bridge closure is killer for the trucking companies."

If a trucker is booked for an eight hour ride and all of a sudden 10 hours are required, that means two, or at least one and a half, shifts will be required. Who ends up having to pay the bill? "The trucking companies, that's who!" said Philipps, adding that the number of jobs taken on by companies around Duisburg and Oberhausen might drop as a result.

A bridge too old

The A40 bridge is exemplary of problems that will be facing the state government in NRW and the federal government for a long time to come. The bridge was built in 1971, at a time when traffic research was certain that no more than 30,000 vehicles would go across per day.

Around 100,000 vehicles went across per day in 2014, including some 11,000 semi-trucks that weighed at least 3.5 tons. Now the bridge can no longer deal with that weight.

"The A40 bridge is just the beginning of a long story," said Bernd Löchter, of the NRW road development and maintenance office. "It's not dangerous, yet, but we need to do some serious welding work to make sure that the bridge can withstand the enormous amount of traffic that goes across today. "

Löchter said the welding work - and the closure for trucks - would likely last at least six weeks, but that this would be a superficial solution at best.

"This bridge has to be replaced," he said, adding that several attempts to repair it have been in vain. "We're talking about 10 years at least before the new bridge is ready, at least."

And the A40 bridge is far from the state's only bridge that needs work.

"At the moment, we are in the process of analyzing 880 bridges in NRW," Löchter said. At this point, 229 bridges have been assessed: 150 will have to be rebuilt, and 64 will have to be repaired.

The Neuenkamp bridge near Duisburg (dpa)

A number of fissures were found in the A40 Neuenkamp bridge over the Rhine between Oberhausen and Duisburg

Political monster

The transportation minister in NRW said the situation was "absolutely unacceptable," calling it "absurd" that the heart of an export nation was being constricted. "This is an immense strain, both for the people who live here and the economy," NRW Transport Minister Michael Groschek said when he visited the bridge on Friday.

Groschek told reporters that the federal government in Berlin had to make more significant investments in infrastructure, saying NRW couldn't possibly come up with the money needed to maintain - and rebuild - the state's bridges.

"We need this, otherwise we will have no other choice but to paralyze parts of our economy," Groschek said.

Back on the online forum, one trucker had a more pessimistic view: "All we need is for a few simple cars, just a couple normal drivers, to cause the collapse of one of our bridges. That's what I'm waiting for...Germany is falling apart!"

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