The focus of the next issue of the special project is the history of Severny (Northern) Bridge, a technical facility that has become the hallmark of Voronezh. A Voronezh know-how, the automobile-tram bridge became the first two-level overpass in the USSR. Its prototype was Luzhniki Metro Bridge in Moscow.

Now the upper level of the structure is an abandoned zone and the only place in the city where tram rails remain. It is here that urban romantics come to watch the sunset. And under their feet crackles garbage and broken bottle glass.

Unique project

The construction of the third bridge over the Voronezh Reservoir started at the end of 1977, the construction works had stretched for eight years. The design was carried out by the Giprokommundortrans Institute, and the construction was executed by Mostootryad-81.

The first construction stage was solemnly opened on December 8, 1985. Eyewitnesses recall that before the opening of the bridge, loaded MAZ trucks passed through it, which tested the structure’s reliability.

1985. The rally on the occasion of the opening of Severny Bridge
Photo –

– Voronezh residents were filled with great joy. Chernavsky Bridge had collapsed by that time, we banned freight traffic on it. Trucks had to drive through VOGRES Bridge only. In 1987, the construction of Severny Bridge continued. It was finally put into commission in the late 1980s, – former head of the Utility and Urban Development Department of Voronezh Dmitry Zhukov says.

The bridge consisted of three overpasses: the central one, along which the tram ran, and two roads - to the left and right sides. The structure was unique.

– Usually, before that, a lane was allocated for trams in the middle of the road, due of which bridges were wide, with wide supports. On Severny Bridge, a separate level was allocated for the tram, and the overpasses were built on openwork supports. The project turned out to be very inexpensive – 20.3 million rubles. Gosstroy (the State Committee for Construction in the Soviet Union) was very surprised by it, so the bridge was approved with enthusiasm, – chief engineer of Giprokommundortrans Lev Kruglov recalls.

The first tram on Severny Bridge
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According to him, the construction of the bridge was preceded by a technical and economic feasibility study (TEFS) of the transport communications of Zheleznodorozhny and Northern districts in the early 1970s. The authorities had planned the construction of a grand complex of road and transport facilities: a junction on Ostuzhevsky Ring, Severny Bridge, and the overpass over the Central Park, which led to Moskovsky Avenue and further to Antonova-Ovseenko Street. The project was approved in the late 1970s.

– After Severny Bridge, the next stage of the feasibility study was implemented – they built an overpass over the Moscow-Voronezh railway to get to the overpass over Central Park. The overpass itself –semicircular-shaped, with supports up to 40 m in height – was built in the late 1980s. It led to the area of Ryleev Street where houses had to be demolished. At the turn of the 1980-1990s, these three structures were nominated by the region for the award of the Council of Ministers Prize of the USSR. But, unfortunately, by that time, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and Voronezh never got the award, – Lev Kruglov says.

Photo – Anastasia Sarma

The authorities did not have the time to complete the construction of the road leading from the overpass over Central Park to Moskovsky Avenue – the 1990s struck. Voronezh residents, whose houses were to be demolished for the further construction of the road, had to be provided with apartments. But there was no money for these purposes in the city budget. The overpass remained ownerless for many years, it began to rust. Hence its popular name – "the road to nowhere." It was opened only in 2003.

– After many years, we had to develop a project to restore and repair it and re-do the roadway. It was also when the problem with the demolition of houses was solved, – Lev Kruglov notes.

According to Dmitry Zhukov, Severny Bridge was supposed to lead directly to the Central Bus Station and intersect with Shishkova and Transportnaya streets and Moskovsky Avenue.

– We removed the bird market, which was near the bus station (on Levanevskogo Street – RIA Voronezh). It had long been a free site. It was supposed to be a junction, which would lead the traffic flow to Antonova-Ovseenko Street. But when I quit, the authorities changed, the confusion began, the architects were replaced. As a result, the site at the bus station was built up, and the “road to nowhere” took a completely different route. It is a pity, because our junction was straightforward and beautiful and led straight to Antonova-Ovseenko Street. We were planning to move the Central Bus Station to the outskirts of the city, – Dmitry Zhukov recalls.

With an eye on Metro Bridge

There were several designs of Severny Bridge. One of them envisaged the construction of a single-level bridge such as VOGRES, where the tram was supposed to run in the middle of the road. There were projects of bridges made of steel, steel and reinforced concrete, but it was narrowed down to reinforced concrete. According to the chief engineer Vyacheslav Karp, the last say on the construction of the bridge was not that of the designers, but of the constructors:

– Our bridge construction crew at that time was subordinate to the Kiev Trust. There were no bridge builders in the city then. The city authorities were afraid to ruin the relations with the trust, so they toed the line, and we had to as well.

Photo – from Valery Bashkov’s archive

Even then, in Voronezh, it was said that the city would become a million-plus one and would have a subway.

– The reservoir was a success, the next step for a million-plus city was the subway, which was the dream of the city authorities – they were crazy about it in the regional party committee. That is why the prototype of Severny Bridge was Metro Bridge across the Moscow River in the metropolitan Luzhniki. Hence the second level, the capacity of which was designed not only for the tram, but also for the subway: it was assumed that the tram would run through the bridge only for some time at first, – Vyacheslav Lvovich notes.

Underwater works

The construction of the bridge began from the left bank. According to Mostootryad-81 veteran Valery Bashkov, there were three operating crews – about 100 people in total: one was building the supports, and the other two were engaged in building superstructures. The constructors worked in two shifts: from 8:00 to 17:00 and from 16:00 to 24:00. In the winter, they warmed themselves in greenhouses - booths that were heated from cast-iron stoves.

Photo – from Valery Bashkov’s archive

Interestingly, both the lower and the upper levels were built simultaneously. The hardest thing was to execute the underwater works:

– Almost the entire bridge is built on water. It was difficult to submerge the pile foundations into the water, to work with concrete in the water. All building materials were delivered on watercraft – boats and ferries – pontoons that were fastened together, – Valery Bashkov recalls.

The underwater works were carried out in a bottomless (floating) box. The piles for the erection of the bridge into the ground under the water were installed by using a washout – high-pressure water flow, then hammered in with a diesel-powered hammer. The depth of the pile is 10 m from the bottom level. After that, piles were fixed by using a monolithic concrete foundation – grillage.

Photo – from Valery Bashkov’s archive

The bridge was built with a navigable span of 42 m in length. It is located under the channel, which is shifted to the right, to the right bank.

Fireworks from the window of a tram

Trams were launched on Severny Bridge earlier than cars, in 1985. And they ran until 2009. These were the new Czech Tatra T3M tram cars which were more innovative than their predecessors - the Tatra T3 trams.

– There were only a few of them in entire Voronezh – about 12. The Czech trams had foot control you didn’t have to do anything with your hand except opening the doors, – former tram driver Igor Sherne says, whose route № 16 led along Severny Bridge.

In addition to № 16, Severny Bridge served as the route for trams number 2, 5, 7, 21, and a café-tram. Igor Sherne became a tram driver largely because of a good salary - according to him, in the early 1990s, he was paid 600 rubles a month. And his wife Lyudmila, also a tram driver, chose her profession at the call of her heart.

– I graduated from medical school, but in time I realized that it was not my thing. I dreamed of working on a tram since childhood. I came to the Voronezh Region from afar. I studied to drive the tram in Novokuznetsk, then my family moved to Rossosh, where I worked at a cannery. I really missed the tram. And so I decided to move to the nearest city that had a tram. It was Voronezh. So, starting with 1993, I began to work on the tram running on route № 5, – Lyudmila Sherne says.

Over time, due to the deterioration of the rails and the contact network, a speed limit was enforced on Severny Bridge – from 30 km/h to 10-15. By the way, it was here, on the second level of Severny Bridge, that the townspeople loved to watch the fireworks.

– In the evening on May 9, people deliberately took a tram to Severny Bridge, asked us to stop to watch the fireworks. We did stop, – Igor Sherne recalls.

The drivers' working day began at 5 am. They had to wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning. Drivers were taken to the depot by a service bus. They worked on 4/2 schedule – four days in the first shift (from 5:00 to 13:00), then – two days off, after that – four days in the second shift, until 1 am.

Igor Sherne drove a tram on Severny Bridge until 2008. It was then that the upper level of the bridge was decommissioned. Soon the vandals stole part of the contact network from the bridge. The remnants of the current-carrying wire were dismantled by the staff of the contact network service in the summer of 2008. In 2009, the city authorities finally got rid of the trams in the city, believing that this would deprive Voronezh of traffic jams. But, as time has shown, it did not help.

– I miss the tram. If they launched it now, I would take it, – Igor Sherne confesses.

Rusting bridge

Today, the upper level of Severny Bridge is an abandoned zone. Drain trays and pipes have clogged over time, no one cleans them. Due to the fact that the bridge is not provided with drainage, the girders – the carrying beams – are decaying. Rebars are sticking out on the south side of the bridge, near the pylons 15-18.

– Water stays, the upper concrete layer is decaying, as a result of which the reinforcement is getting exposed. And if the rebars are exposed, that’s the end - the bridge will rust. It is necessary to conduct a survey of the bridge and the load that falls on it, to replace the concrete layers that have worn out, to deal with the drainage issue, – Lev Kruglov notes.

According to Valery Bashkov, as compared to 1985, the load on the bridge has increased by one and a half times. While in the past the carrying capacity of a single car was 8 tons, nowadays there are 60-ton trucks driving over the bridge.

– This is why the supporting structures will not meet the current requirements, – Valery Stanislavovich says.

According to the construction veteran, Severny Bridge needs to be strengthened following the example of Chernavsky Bridge: its arched spans were disassembled, the structure below the water level was strengthened, and new pillars and new metal spans were erected.

Tramline or pedestrian area?

In the meantime, the upper level is a place of attraction for urban romantics, teenagers, artists, and just fans of barbecues in a friendly company. Yet, it has a big shortcoming for friendly gatherings - mountains of broken bottle glass strewn all around. In 2017, Voronezh journalist Tatyana Dorofeeva drew attention to this problem initiating a clean-up of the bridge’s upper level from debris and glass. The girl cleaned up the abandoned territory every day, and later other townspeople joined her.

In late spring of 2019, a group of Voronezh artists from the Voronezh Center for Contemporary Arts (VCCA) held a performance called “Farewell” (“Transpanikhida”), a symbolic funeral of the tram, as part of the City of Rights festival. The artists, nostalgic for the tram times, fear that the electric transport in the form of trolleybuses in the city will disappear for good.

Young Voronezh architects from the Creative Workshop association are sure that the upper level of the bridge is an excellent viewing platform which can be turned into an excellent pedestrian zone with a boardwalk connecting the left-bank Delfin Park with Central Park.

– Our people are used to thinking many years ahead. In my opinion, a subway is unrealistic. We are living today and now, which is why we have created a development project for the second tier of the bridge. It will be a well-equipped transit walking zone with viewing points and catering locations, coffee selling venues. To maintain security, we have planned security checkpoints on both sides of the bridge, – architect Andrei Kozlov says.

Pedestrian zone design
Photo – provided by Andrei Kozlov

The architects offered to organize an exhibition area with installations and art objects on the bridge. By the way, the practice of turning abandoned bridges into parks and squares has been used all over the world. It includes the High Line park in New York created from an abandoned railway overpass, Promenade Plantee boulevard in Paris built on an abandoned overpass, and a park for recreation and sports on the roof of a railway tunnel in Munich.

However, according to Lev Kruglov, the upper level of the bridge is not suitable for creating a public garden or a pedestrian zone.

– I'm not sure this is the right thing to do: it is at high altitude, it isn’t safe. This is a service lane for transport. What will the citizens breathe with there – exhaust gases? Plus, it is windy there all the time – the place is exposed. Can you imagine how much you will be drifted by the wind at such a height? – the engineer argues.

Social activist Vitaly Ivanishchev offers six more ways to use the bridge apart from the pedestrian version:

– The first is to leave everything as it is, to make the bridge a “half-ghost”, to remove it from operation. But maintaining the tier’s infrastructure requires money. This is not the best future for it, but not the worst either. The worst future for this tier is dismantling it, which costs a lot of money. The third way is adapting the tier for public transport. The fourth and most exotic is to make create a children's railway, like the one in Liski, which will connect Delfin and Central parks. The fifth way is to turn the upper level into a pedestrian bridge, like Patriarshy Bridge in Moscow. The sixth is to bring electric transport back to Voronezh and restore the tram traffic here, – Vitaly Ivanishchev told.

Valery Bashkov believes that the upper tier of the bridge is not suitable for traffic load, and suggested using the existing resource – rails and poles:

– It was designed for the tram, not for road traffic load. As for dismantling the upper tier, it is expensive; besides, dismantling it will cause a traffic collapse.