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OM in the News: Bertha–A Project Within a Project

August 7, 2014
Bertha, before drilling began in July 2013

Bertha, before drilling began in July 2013

The world’s biggest tunnel-boring machine, nicknamed Bertha — which hit a pipe and was damaged in mid-December after only 1,000 feet of excavation — is down there in the dark, awaiting what may well be the world’s biggest industrial rescue operation. Engineers around the world were closely watching Seattle’s tunnel even before Bertha ran into big trouble. The largest diameter tunnel-boring machine ever built — about five stories across, or 57.5 feet — Bertha was designed to dig under Seattle’s waterfront to allow the city to replace an aging viaduct. The project was given urgent priority after an earthquake in 2001 revealed instability in the elevated roadway, which was built in the 1950s. Tearing down the viaduct will also open up the city’s waterfront to new development.

On paper, the complex plan looks like a cross between a ballet and a monster-truck pull in its combination of delicate details and heavy-torque engineering. First, a rail-mounted crane will be inched up to the shaft’s edge. Then, a 2,000-ton piece of the boring machine’s front assembly will be raised up and laid down on the waterfront. There it will be repaired under the supervision of Japanese managers from the company that built it, reinforced with 200 or so tons of new steel and slowly lowered back down into the 120-foot-deep pit.

And then things really get tricky. “Project managers,” writes the New York Times (Aug. 2, 2014), “liken reattaching Bertha’s front end to putting a rebuilt, souped-up engine into the family Volvo.” If all goes according to schedule, tunnel work could resume next March, 16 months after tunneling was stopped. Until then, the rescue itself — the cost of which, along with delays, could surpass $125 million — has become its own drama within the broader saga of the tunnel.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why is this a project within a project?

2. Why is this project so closely watched?

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