That Time A Bridge Failed Just 42 Days After Opening To Traffic

Less than two months after opening to traffic, one of the most important bridges on the Trans-Canada Highway failed. Here's how a state-of-the-art design succumbed to a basic engineering blunder
That Time A Bridge Failed Just 42 Days After Opening To Traffic

Spanning nearly 7,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, the Trans-Canada Highway is the longest point-to-point highway in the world. It’s also one of North America’s most important trade routes, and a must-drive for road trip enthusiasts. With millions of vehicles using the Trans-Canada every day, it’s important for the highway to be in good working condition at all times.

In 2013, construction began on a replacement for the Nipigon River Bridge, a vital connecting point along the Trans-Canada Highway in the small town of Nipigon, Ontario. The old two-lane steel girder bridge would be replaced by a two-span, cable-stayed bridge capable of carrying four lanes of traffic across the Nipigon River. At a cost of over $100 million, the new Nipigon Bridge would be one of the most elegant bridges along the Trans-Canada Highway when completed.

A rendering of the completed Nipigon Bridge
A rendering of the completed Nipigon Bridge

The bridge was to be built in three stages. The first stage involved the construction of the bridge’s first span, completing two of the new crossing’s four total lanes. Stage two of construction involved the demolition of the old bridge to make way for the second span of the new crossing, which was to be built in the project’s third stage.

Construction of the first span of the new Nipigon Bridge was completed in late November of 2015, and it opened to Trans-Canada Highway traffic for the first time. Within a few weeks, however, it would become painfully clear that the new bridge had a serious problem.

A side-angle view of the point of failure.
A side-angle view of the point of failure.

On 10 January 2016, a brutal winter storm rolled over the town of Nipigon. With high winds and the wind chill flirting with -40 degrees Celsius, the new Nipigon Bridge took its first real beating from the weather. Eventually, an expansion joint failed, causing one side of the connection to lift about two feet above the other. Just 42 days after opening to traffic, the $100 million Nipigon Bridge failed. Fortunately, the bridge did not collapse. In fact, it remained mostly intact, and nobody was injured as a result of the failure. However, the real disaster was just beginning.

The problem with the Nipigon Bridge is that it’s what’s known as a single point of failure in Canada’s National Highway System. This means that, if it fails, the entire system (including the Trans-Canada Highway) also fails. Essentially, the failure separated the entire highway network between eastern and western Canada. Normally, it takes just a few seconds to cross the Nipigon Bridge from the east side. When the bridge shut down, the only alternate route was to go through the United States, which took about 19 hours longer.

Here's the bridge deck after being weighed down by hundreds of concrete barriers.
Here's the bridge deck after being weighed down by hundreds of concrete…

Needless to say, the Nipigon Bridge failure was an economic and logistical catastrophe. Without wasting a second, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation came up with a jury-rigged solution. To bring the bridge deck back down to the level of the road, they placed about 200 tons of concrete barriers on the end of the bridge. Less than 24 hours after the failure, the Ministry was able to re-open one lane of the bridge, which was at least better than nothing. However, traffic wouldn’t be able to flow normally for over a month, causing delays to goods valued at over $100 million per day.

An expansion joint, similar to the one that failed on the Nipigon Bridge.
An expansion joint, similar to the one that failed on the Nipigon Bridge.

An investigation into the failure revealed a flawed connection between the bridge deck and a rotating bearing. The bearing was installed to allow the bridge to move slightly, reducing stress on the bridge caused by expansion and contraction of both the soil and the bridge itself. However, the bearing was not functioning correctly, which overloaded the bolts that held the whole connection together. The bridge lifted when those bolts finally snapped. After the cause of the calamity was identified, highway engineers around the world began to use the Nipigon Bridge as a case study of the importance of getting vital infrastructure projects done right.

As of 2017, the second span of the Nipigon Bridge is still under construction. A series of retrofits to the failed first span ensure that the bridge will be stable for the foreseeable future. However, it’s unlikely that the residents of Nipigon will soon forget the national chaos caused by the failure of their town’s bridge just weeks after opening.


Rahul 1

It’s really sad…hope no one got hurt…And stinks for the economy that a $100M project failed

12/24/2017 - 13:34 |
4 | 0

Thank you KyleAshdown for the wonderful article. Its gonna help me with my assignment on Human factors. DW, im not using this as a source, just a way to look for more sources

12/24/2017 - 13:39 |
2 | 0

Really enjoying these away-from-the-norm features here

12/24/2017 - 14:14 |
164 | 0

Yeah I like me some expert engineering and build quality showcase too 😂😂😂

12/24/2017 - 14:42 |
30 | 0
Jefferson Tan(日産)

Construction failure at it’s finest

12/24/2017 - 14:46 |
2 | 0

Guess you could say the joint SCREWED UP

12/24/2017 - 15:04 |
114 | 2
lowie t

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Get out.

12/24/2017 - 18:15 |
20 | 2

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

12/25/2017 - 22:34 |
0 | 4
Simone Mascia


12/24/2017 - 15:08 |
2 | 0

Probably designed by the same bloke who thought that this was a great idea

12/24/2017 - 16:40 |
60 | 0
Black Phillip

In reply to by HfromB

Yeah tailgates are a fcking btch

12/24/2017 - 18:17 |
6 | 0
Rise Comics

In reply to by HfromB

or the people who thought this was a good idea.

12/24/2017 - 22:42 |
16 | 0
Soni Redx (MD Squad Leader) (Subie Squad Leader)

Oh yeah remember that bridge that failed.. Oh yeah that bridge.. never heard of it..

12/24/2017 - 21:22 |
0 | 0
Comfused Miata

I could see this event being used as a physics book- or test-assignment.

12/25/2017 - 14:47 |
2 | 0

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