‘Like knocking down the Eiffel tower’: battle to save historic Prague bridge

A plan from Czech railways to replace the emblematic landmark with a modern structure is facing an impassioned backlash

A historic Prague railway bridge, whose importance to the city’s landscape has been compared to the Eiffel tower in Paris, has been earmarked for demolition in a move denounced by architects and preservationists.

The much-photographed Vyšehrad bridge – instantly recognisable for its parabolic lattice steel structure – is unfit to carry an anticipated rising volume of rail traffic, claims Czech Railways, which plans to replace it with a modern structure.


The proposal has triggered an emotive backlash from local campaigners and Prague city council, who want the original, which has earned national monument status, to be preserved. A petition pleading for the 120-year-old structure to be saved attracted more than 6,000 signatures after the railways administration published plans for a replacement.

The outcry has prompted the Czech transport minister, Martin Kupka, to call a special meeting of bridge engineers and the railways administration in an effort to find a solution.

Designed by František Prášil, a Czech engineer of the late Habsburg era, the bridge was built in 1901 and spans the Vltava river, carrying mainline trains between Prague and other European cities, including Munich. It lies within an area designated a Unesco world heritage site in 1992, and has become a favourite landmark among walkers and cyclists, who use two pedestrian walkways on either side of the bridge.

But the railways administration insists that corrosion means that repairing and maintaining it as a busy transport artery is too complicated and expensive, amid proposals to add an extra line to the existing two tracks and build a new local railway station nearby.

Critics counter that its dilapidated state is a result of the administration’s failure to prioritise repairs since the bridge was granted national monument status in 2004.

A competition among Czech architects to design a replacement resulted in a more modern blueprint, loosely based on the existing bridge, being chosen last November.

Vyšehrad bridge
‘The people of Prague cannot imagine the city without the bridge,’ said Prague’s deputy mayor, Adam Scheinher. Photograph: Marketa Novakova/Alamy

But claims that the bridge is beyond repair have been contradicted. Feasibility studies commissioned by Prague city council concluded that preservation was “technically feasible” and that the structure had “sufficient structural capacity to carry future train traffic, including higher trainloads and higher train frequencies”.

Adam Scheinherr, Prague’s deputy mayor responsible for the city’s transport infrastructure and cultural landmarks, said: “What’s most important about the bridge is that it belongs to the panorama of Prague, and the people of Prague cannot imagine the city without it. When you see movies set in Prague, the railway bridge is nearly always there.”

Richard Biegel, chairman of the Club for Old Prague preservation group and an architectural historian at the city’s Charles university, said the railway administration’s plans betrayed “a lack of empathy”.

“It’s part of something that’s emblematic for Prague,” he said. “The importance of the bridge for Prague is like that of the Eiffel tower for Paris. It’s also important as a marker of the period of the industrial revolution in the city.”

Jan Nevola, spokesperson for the railways administration, said a new bridge was needed because renovating the existing one was “unrealistic”.

“Its condition is so bad that it would essentially be a replica made up of more than 60% new parts,” he said. “At the same time, this approach is much more costly, will not allow an increase in traffic and would only extend the lifetime by several decades.”

Ian Firth, a leading structural engineer who specialises in bridge design, co-authored a 2021 report recommending retaining the structure either as a pedestrian or one-track rail facility, while possibly moving it 50 metres to stand alongside a new, unobtrusive rail bridge.

“They weren’t interested. Their minds were already made up,” Firth said. “But to chuck away the existing bridge is a terrible shame because it’s a marvellous piece of work. Imagine the outcry around the world if Tower Bridge in London was declared unfit for purpose and the powers that be decided to demolish it and build something else. This is the same scenario.

“We are in the middle of a climate emergency, and we have a responsibility not to just throw things away and start building new things, which is environmentally wasteful.”


Robert Tait in Prague

The GuardianTramp

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