The rescue mission for Bertha, the world’s largest tunnel-boring machine

Date:23 October 2014 Tags:, ,

The world’s largest tunnel-boring machine has stalled deep beneath Seattle, leaving the city’s planned waterfront renaissance hanging in the balance. There’s only one way to finish the project. Bertha must be saved.

By Christopher Solomon | Photographs by Ian Allen

What do you do if you’re operating the world’s biggest tunnelling machine and something goes wrong? You’re digging along, everything fine, the machine’s five-storey maw about to chew beneath the skyscrapers of one of the great American cities. Then suddenly one day things are not so fine. Bertha – that’s her name, in honour of Seattle’s first woman mayor, Bertha Knight Landes – hits something. A few days later her temperature starts rising. Not good. Then her cutting head stops spinning.

Now what? What do you do when the world’s largest tunnelling machine is, essentially, stuck in the mud? Bertha is 20 metres under the earth, and you’re on the surface watching a squirmy public swap rumours of cost and delay on the R14 billion tunnel component of an even larger transportation project, and the naysayers are howling: just you watch, Bertha will be abandoned like an overheated mole. Talk about wasteful expenditure. Because, don’t forget, when you’re boring the world’s largest tunnel, everything is bigger – not just the machine and the hole and the outsize hopes but the worries too. The cynicism.

What do you do?

Here’s what you do: you try to tune out the media. You shrug off the peanut gallery’s spitballs. You put off the finger-pointing and the lawsuits for now; that’s what the lawyers are paid for afterwards. You do the only thing you can do. You put your head down and you think big, one more time. You figure out how to reach Bertha and get her moving again.

Read more in PM’s November 2014 issue – on sale 20 October.

Related video: How they’ll rescue the gigantic Bertha tunnel boring machine

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