Why Germans Can’t Tunnel #2

Today’s example of less than successful German tunnelling comes from the wonderful city of Cologne. In this example the large excavation where one of the stations was supposed to be collapse into itself, taking with it the city’s archive and over 1,000 years of historic documents.

German engineering; finishing the job the RAF started in the 1940s

The observant may notice that along with the archive building a couple of apartment buildings fell into the hole as well. All in all quite an impressive disaster.

The cause of this engineering catastrophe? It appears to be a combination of lying, incompetence and excessive Kelvinism. There was also a great deal of thieving, not least about 1/3rd of the project’s steel was illicitly sold off instead of being installed, however the steel was for the long term support not the short term, as such it probably wasn’t involved in the collapse.

Of course had the station somehow survived construction and gone into service the lack of steel would have been critical and probably caused a collapse later on, from that point of view you could say the ineptitude of the tunnellers was in fact a blessing. After all if the station had collapsed during morning rush-hour due to lack of steel it would have been carnage, ‘luckily’ German tunnelling saved the day by collapsing the station earlier and only killing two people.

For the rest it appears the construction team didn’t bother putting in large swathes of the temporary support, and then forging the records to pretend they had done the inspections. Somehow managing to be worse than that, this wasn’t actually an isolated incident. The same chaps were working on the Düsseldorf metro and were, allegedly, involved in similar fun and games there. Oh and the investigators think there may well be an organised crime element involved in the material selling and record forging. Which is nice.

The final point, excessive Kelvinism comes down to this old quote from Lord Kelvin;

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind

Which is indeed a nice neat statement as far as it goes, certainly it’s useful for annoying homoeopaths and psychics. However if you take it too far it will end in tears, particularly when combined with a certain type of Germanic mindset. The problem boils down to assigning absolutely certain numbers to situations where there is uncertainty, such as ground conditions next to a large river like the Rhine, the exact situation in Cologne in fact. The trick is to accept the uncertainty and deal in ranges, however for many that is far too imprecise and everything must be reduced to one ‘correct’ number.

In this case there are so many contributory factors we wont know the answer till the final report comes out, a process that will take years, but I would be very surprised if ‘mistakes in the design and geotechnics’ didn’t end up as a major contributory factor.


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