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Columbus bridge

A Union Pacific Railroad train crosses the Loup River just west of Columbus. This bridge is part of a pilot project undertaken by Union Pacific and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Liz Morales, The Columbus Telegram

COLUMBUS — A local bridge is being used as part of a pilot project undertaken by Union Pacific Railroad and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Union Pacific is currently working with three entities, including UNL, to improve bridge-monitoring technology. Graduate students from the university's Department of Civil Engineering are using sensors to detect vibrations along a steel bridge just west of Columbus.

The bridge, built in 1908, crosses the Loup River.

One of the goals for this research is to develop an easily produced and cost-effective way to conduct bridge inspections to detect cracks and other structural defects.

More than 95 percent of Union Pacific’s 18,000 bridges nationwide are inspected at least twice annually. Bridges that are fewer than 10 years old are only inspected once per year.

UNL Assistant Professor Richard Wood said research on the Columbus bridge is ongoing.

“The primary focus of this research is to understand the bridge’s response under realistic train and environmental loads,” Wood said. “This research is also being conducted to develop strategies for continuous monitoring to detect damage.”

The bridge near Columbus was selected for research based on its age and construction style using steel trusses and plate girders. Its importance for continued Union Pacific operations was also considered.

The university used digital technology, including wireless and light detection and ranging sensors, to further understand this particular bridge structure. Wood said these technologies will help expand the research on many types of bridges.

Data collected from the bridge will be used to diagnose defects earlier, and the experiments the graduate students are conducting will help future engineers quickly identify and fix bridge problems. This could save the railroad time and money.

Union Pacific bridge maintenance director Todd Martindale said the railroad will maintain communication with UNL regarding its goals for bridge development.

“Our goals are a cost-effective, easily deployable solution to implement across our rail network,” Martindale said. “We hope the collaboration and research will lead to development of a broadly applicable piece of technology to meet this goal and supplement in-person inspections.”


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