Failure as Tourist

Civil or transport engineering failures are very public. They tend to get investigated far more thoroughly than typical mechanical engineering problems. Occasionally, they are so public and so expensive to fix that the only option is to tear them down and start over.

That is what happened after the tragic accident with the retractable roof at my favorite major league baseball venue, Miller Park, in Milwaukee. The roof repair warranty costs were several times the original estimate for the entire complex. But the roof works great now and the Brewers never have to worry about rainouts when they are at home. For many fans the roof is even part of the attraction.


(photo provided by C. Schultz)

My summer vacation afforded me an opportunity to visit another spectacular failure. Once the tallest and longest railroad bridge in the world, the Kinzua Viaduct was upgraded from cast iron to steel during its long service of moving massive coal trains over a 1,000-foot-deep gorge in north central Pennsylvania. Recently conducted analysis blames a shortcut during that upgrade for it crashing in ruins following an F3 tornado in 2003. The economy of reusing iron foundation bolts seemed like a good move at the time, and the bridge did continue in service to the mines for another 40 some years.

By 1959 it had outlived its customers and was taken out of active service. The state park service ran excursion trains over it until a 2001 inspection showed corrosion issues. Those “rust belt” problems were being addressed at more than the original cost of the viaduct and on a much longer schedule than the 87 days the initial crew needed. Imagine bridging a 1,000-foot-deep gorge with 1870s technology in less than three months!

The tornado damage made repairs impossible but in the best tradition of making lemons into lemonade, the park is an even bigger tourist attraction today. I like to think of it as America’s Leaning Tower of Pisa or a monument to the team that said “yes sir” to their boss’ impossible lead time promise. If your travels take you across I-80 in Pennsylvania, it is well worth the detour to see nature reclaiming those fallen Victorian-era pillars from the observation deck on the intact half.

Any suggestions for other engineering-related tourist attractions?

About Charles D. Schultz 640 Articles
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.

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