Low blow: is fixing Montague Street’s ‘pure evil’ bridge beyond Melbourne?

<span>Photograph: Mal Fairclough/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mal Fairclough/AAP

As yet another truck joins the hundreds to get stuck under the notorious Montague Street Bridge, can anything more be done to fix the South Melbourne structure that the premier, Daniel Andrews, once described as “pure evil”?

On Tuesday, a white panelled hire truck was the bridge’s latest victim, becoming lodged underneath shortly after 9am, blocking one lane of traffic in South Melbourne and sustaining damage to its roof and sides.

The city let out a collective groan.

“This is peak Melbourne,” one Twitter user said to the Victorian traffic monitor’s Twitter account that advised the road was blocked.

“People will never learn,” another replied.

Related: An ode to Melbourne’s Montague Street bridge: swallower of trucks, monument to failure | Patrick Lenton

A website set up to track the days since the Montague Street Bridge had been hit was grimly reset back to zero days after an impressive 127-day streak.

The bridge, which has a 3 metre clearance, is one of the lowest in Melbourne and its reputation precedes it. The Victorian government has set up 26 signs in the lead-up to the bridge on either side, warning of its low height.

In February 2016, a bus driver from Ballarat and six passengers were injured after the bus collided with the bridge. The driver was initially jailed for a minimum of two and a half years for the incident, but that was overturned on appeal 10 months later and reduced to a two-year community corrections order.

After that crash, Andrews raised the white flag and admitted defeat, after more than 100 crashes in five years.

“It is fearless. It is formidable … It remains undefeated,” he posted on Facebook. “Make no mistake: the Montague Street Bridge is pure evil. We surrender.”

The Victorian government installed safety gantries on either side of the bridge along with rubber bollards to alert trucks if they hit them before the bridge.

“If anyone manages to get stuck under this thing after that, well, I give up,” Andrews said.

Since that pronouncement, 49 vehicles have struck the bridge, according to the Montague Street Bridge tracking site – and that’s including the Covid lockdown years.

Are drivers just unaware of the many years of reporting about the bridge and miss the many, many signs and warnings every time?

“We don’t learn very well collectively, but I doubt anyone has ever done it twice,” said transport safety expert Associate Professor Jason Thompson from the University of Melbourne’s school of design.

Thompson said the reason it keeps happening has more to do with people’s lack of familiarity with either their vehicle or the location.

“You’re either not familiar with the area or you’re not familiar with the vehicle that you’re driving,” he said. “You might be moving from interstate or you’re just hiring a truck for the weekend because you’re moving yourself.

“It’s always more likely that someone in an either unfamiliar vehicle or in an unfamiliar place is going to crash into this.”

Many of the vehicles listed on the Montague Street Bridge tracking site are hire vans, campervans or vehicles that might not normally be in the area or might be unusual for the driver. The transport department has recorded a nearly 12% increase in the number of small trucks and vans on the road since 2018.

A spokesperson for the department urged drivers in high vehicles to note the height of their vehicle and bridges, saying a moment of inattention can affect thousands of people.

“A number of charges can be brought against both the driver and the company that owns the heavy vehicle that has collided with a bridge,” the spokesperson said, adding that a driver found to have failed to obey a low clearance sign can be fined $806 as well as repair costs.

The Victorian government estimated in 2016 that the cost to the Victorian economy each time a truck gets lodged under the bridge is about $100,000, when accounting for the delays it causes to drivers and for passengers on the 109 tram that runs along the bridge.

The cost doesn’t include the rescue callouts or repairing the damage to the bridge, which is usually about $30,000.

It is understood the government has ruled out raising the bridge because of the tram network and depot that would be affected. Lowering the road is also not considered an option because of the gas, water and electricity infrastructure underneath it.

There is also concern that lowering the bridge would cause the area to be flooded – it is the reason the road was raised nearly 90 years ago, resulting in a narrower gap between the bridge and Montague Street.

Thompson said short of massive changes to the bridge, there was not much else, aside from warning signs, that the government could do to limit crashes.

While the South Melbourne span has the most notoriety, it came in second in terms of bridge strikes in the city, according to the department, with the Newmarket Bridge in Flemington having 21 collisions in 2021-22, compared with 16 for Montague Street. Coming in third with 14 collisions is the bridge on Napier Street, Footscray.