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Expensive Miscalculations

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Scottish poet Robert Burns warned us in his vernacular that “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley,” (Go oft astray). Herewith, a selection of plans that went horribly wrong. None of them involving mice.

“Oh no! You did what?”

“Oh no! You did what?”

London's Millennium Bridge

It was planned as an iconic structure that straddled the River Thames to welcome the start of the second millennium. In June 2000, Queen Elizabeth II opened the pedestrian bridge. Of course, it being a publicly funded project, the bridge was behind schedule and £2.2 million ($3 million) over budget. But that was the least of the things that went “a-gley.”

Londoners flocked to experience the new engineering marvel; an estimated 160,000 of them in the first two days. That's when the bridge started to wobble. The span was designed to move a little, but this caused pedestrians to alter the way they walked and this amplified the movement in what is known as the synchronized footfall effect.

Alarmed by the swaying of the bridge, authorities closed it to the public. A few weeks turned into two years as remedial action was needed to stop the bridge oscillating. Engineers installed dampers, like shock absorbers on a car, that controlled the movement.

In another embarrassment, an inclined elevator, called the Millennium Inclinator, was built to help people who had trouble climbing the stairs up to the bridge deck. But, it was frequently out of service due to mechanical breakdowns and it had to be replaced.

The Millennium Bridge is now known to everyone as the Wobbly Bridge.

French Railway Platforms

France has a highly sophisticated passenger railway system with 2,734 km (1,699 miles) of high-speed track. (Canada has zero km (zero miles) of high-speed track. Yes, that's a bit of a private gripe). The service is operated by the state-owned Société nationale des chemins de fer français (SNCF). Meanwhile, a subsidiary, Réseau Ferré de France (RFF), looks after track maintenance, stations, etc.

SNCF placed an order with Alstom and Bombardier at a cost of €15 billion ($20.5 billion) for 2,000 brand-spanking new regional trains. However, when delivery of the rolling stock started in 2014 a rather embarrassing problem cropped up. The vehicles were too wide for the platforms of more than 1,000 stations. It was a €50 million ($68.4 million) blunder, that being the estimated cost of modifying platforms. Everybody expects it to go way higher.

It appears that RFF failed to inform SNCF that many of its older stations had wider platforms that were built to accommodate narrower trains that were in use decades ago. So, hundreds of jack hammers and their operators were sent out to trim a few centimetres off platform edges. When they've finished that they can get to work re-aligning some of the rails so the wider trains don't scrape against each other when they pass on double tracks.

Red-faced officials were very busy pointing the finger of blame in every direction except towards themselves.

“The train now scraping along platform 2 is the 1315 from Montpellier St-Roch.”

“The train now scraping along platform 2 is the 1315 from Montpellier St-Roch.”

The Building that Melts Cars

In the summer of 2013, Martin Lindsay parked his Jaguar on the street in the City of London. When he returned he found his car had buckled panels and its badge and wing mirror appeared to have melted.

The damage was traced to a building nearby that was under construction. The £500 million ($672) building is of unique design with its south side slightly concave.

Dubbed the Walkie Talkie building because it looked a bit like a giant version of that device, the building reflected concentrated sunlight onto a street below. Temperatures where the beam hit were recorded as high as 117 C (243 F) and the brightness was six times higher than looking directly at the Sun. And yes, a reporter did fry an egg in a pan set on the sidewalk.

A sun-shading system had to be erected to stop the problem, and the architect Rafael Viñoly admitted he “did not realize it was going to be so hot,” adding that “a lot of mistakes” were made.

The broiling at ground level earned the building new nicknames of “Fryscraper” and “Walkie Scorchie.” It also received the unwanted Carbuncle Cup in 2015, an award that is handed out by an architectural magazine for the ugliest building erected in London in the previous year. One of the judges commented that it is “a gratuitous glass gargoyle graffitied on to the skyline of London”

London's Walkie Talkie building.

London's Walkie Talkie building.

Classic Business Errors

  • In 2000, an upstart company that rented videos and sent them out by mail approached Blockbuster, the 800 lb. gorilla in the movie rental trade, with an idea. “We'll handle all your digital needs and you can keep the bricks-and-mortar operation going” was the proposal. Blockbuster declined the offer from the upstart company called Netflix. Blockbuster went from 9,000 outlets to out of business in 2010. A single Blockbuster store remains in Bend, Oregon.
  • We all know that Apple Computers was founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. But, there was a third founder, Ronald Wayne. As the company struggled to raise money in its earliest days, Wayne decided to quit. He sold his stake in Apple to Wozniak for $800. In 2021, the company is valued at a little over $2 trillion.
  • In 2006, a typographical error cost the Italian airline Alitalia $7 million. The company's website offered flights from Toronto to Cyprus for $39. Budget-conscious travellers snapped up the deal before Alitalia realized a couple of digits were missing from its price, which should have been $3,900. In a noble gesture not often seen in the airline industry, Alitalia honoured the $39-tickets.
  • NASA's Mars orbiter of 1999 cost $125 million. Its maker, Lockheed Martin, was operating in imperial measures (miles, inches, and feet) but NASA was using metric measurements (metres, kilometres, etc.). When the orbiter neared its destination, the incompatibility between measuring systems caused the spacecraft to have a catastrophic navigation failure that sent it off into distant space, never to be seen or heard from again.

Oops doesn't even begin to cover it when “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley.”

The Collapse of Galloping Gertie

Bonus Factoids

  • James Howells is a British IT engineer. As such, he understands the incomprehensible cryptocurrency that is Bitcoin, but he seems to be lacking in housekeeping skills. In 2013, he was tidying up a couple of laptops and tossed out a hard drive he no longer wanted. There must have been a massive sinking feeling in his stomach when he realized he had trashed the wrong hard drive; it was the one that contained the encrypted key to the 7,500 Bitcoins he owned, valued today at $280 million.
  • China's dictator Mao Zedong decided in 1958 that sparrows were eating the country's grain and, therefore had to be exterminated. Millions of Chinese people took to the streets to bang pots to keep sparrows flying until they dropped from exhaustion. They also smashed nests and eggs and used sling shots. At least a billion sparrows died and that meant that insects thrived and attacked crops. The great sparrow cull, in part, caused a famine that killed between 20 and 45 million people.
  • The dreaded typo struck at Mizuho Securities Co., in Japan in 2005. A stockbroker was tasked with offering a single share in a company priced at 610,000 yen ($5,350). He keyed in the wrong information and offered 610,000 shares for one yen each, that is less than a cent.
“To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer” — Anonymous.

“To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer” — Anonymous.

Sources

  • “Great Miscalculations: The French Railway Error and 10 Others.” BBC News, May 22, 2014.
  • 22 May 2014.
  • “Rather Curious Facts about The Millennium Bridge + Tips for Visiting.” Julianna Barnaby, londonxlondon.com, July 14, 2021
  • “Mind le Gap! France Spends $15 Billion on Trains that Are too Fat for 1,300 Station Platforms.” John Litchfield, The Independent, May 22, 2014.
  • “London's Walkie Talkie Building Sold for Record-Breaking £1.3bn.” Sarah Butler, The Guardian, July 27, 2017.
  • “15 Most Expensive Mistakes Ever Made.” Kelly Bryant, Reader's Digest, July 30, 2021.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

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