Why has The Smiler had so many problems?

The SmilerIf you’ve been to Alton Towers this year and found its latest rollercoaster closed, you are far from alone.

The Smiler opened more than two months behind schedule, but even then what was presented was not strictly ready.

The ride’s problems are now well documented, with reports of July’s bolt falling incident covered widely among the national and even international press.

And today a similar incident is reported to have occurred to the first track drop, above the toilet block.

It’s important to stress that safety measures do mean that no guest is ever in danger from these incidents, raised blood pressure from frustration aside.

The ride incorporates more track per cubic metre than any other rollercoaster in the world, something which designer John Wardley has been keen to promote.

Unfortunately it is this attribute that has caused so many problems during – and after – construction.

Coiled spring

Anyone that has ever tried putting a pop-up tent away will tell you how the process can be somewhat challenging.

The Smiler 1They try to free themselves from the compressional forces placed upon them, like a coiled spring attempting to release.

In layman’s terms, the problem with The Smiler is that it has not quite been installed in the correct position – its supports don’t lie precisely where they should and this makes sections of the track effectively coiled springs.

Ride manufacturer Gerstlauer’s technique is to concrete the supports into place after the track has been erected, so that they sit precisely where they should when the track has been put together.

However it seems that on this occasion that process has not been carried out as well as it should.

So, in conjunction with supports slightly out of place, and the fact that some parts of the track had to be ratcheted and welded into place to make them fit, you are left with areas of elevated stress.

It is at these key stress areas that bolts would be capable of shearing under the heightened stress levels, and that is what we have seen, certainly in the incident in July.

It remains to be seen whether extensive restructuring work is to be carried during the closed season, but that is the only way that The Smiler’s track problems can be eradicated once and for all.


The ride has also suffered a number of disruptions simply as a result of heavy rainfall, blame here can more easily be apportioned.

The SmilerThe civil engineers and designers involved with the site’s foundations are ultimately responsible for not tackling the issue of drainage both during and post construction.

Bizarrely, the prospect of significant amounts of rainwater entering an excavated site in Staffordshire were not properly prepared for – despite the park having constructed rides in far deeper excavations without issue.

Flooding during the excavation and concrete-laying phase delayed the ride’s opening by many weeks and further flooding post opening has led to the unfortunate sight of sandbags appearing against the wall of the ride’s indoor section.

Failing to account for these issues has caused further unnecessary embarrassment and disruption to operations, not to mention the costs the park has incurred from negative PR and compensating those guests who have complained.

Its easy to blame contractors, but ultimately it is the job of the engineers and designers to actually implement and supervise a project, delivering it to an acceptable standard.

However, what was actually presented was insufficient drainage and subsequent flooding in the ride’s aforementioned indoor section and also the guest queue lines.

As with the track issues discussed above, every problem has a solution – and Alton Towers will soon have the opportunity to eradicate these problems during the rapidly-approaching closed season.