Monday, March 31, 2014

A preview of great things to come.

In August of 2013 I went to see the Big Boy 4018 being moved to a new location. The original article go lost when I transferred to this web site, so I have re-posted the pictures with a quick description for each.

Steam is Not a Zombie

The entire Island of Sodor is a Class Euclid Object.

...It isn’t going to coming back from the mechanical dead.

I’d wager quite a steep bet every single person reading this article has fantasized at least one or twice about traveling back in time and observing the age of steam in person. Most of us also realize that steam, at least to power locomotives, fell out of favor, and we have some idea of the technical and mechanical reasons why it was abandoned.

I say mostly, because I come across articles and web sites arguing for steam locomotives to be brought back into regular service. I don’t mean groups like the A1 trust, which desire to replicate historic locomotives without significant alterations. I am referring instead to proponents of “modern steam,” and I’ve got to get out a rant about this whole idea.

The enthusiasm is admirable, I’ll give them that, but in my opinion, many modern steam proponents have a very poor grasp of how steam actually works is quite lacking. Their mistake, I think, is looking at a return to steam in terms of each individual locomotive. In that sense, a return to steam might seem plausible on paper--but much of the benefit disappears when you step back and try to implement a return to steam as a system.

So let’s step back, look at some of the common modern steam selling points, and then debunk them one by one.


1. Steam can compete if the boiler/firebox is made more efficient.

Only to a point. There’s an upper limit to how much heat you can transfer from the fire, through the boiler material, and into the water, just because of the nature of the materials themselves. You can theoretically increase the boiler length and diameter in order to get more capacity, but in doing this, you end up making the locomotive so large that it is difficult to maneuver and is very rough on the tracks--exactly what began to happen with the latest generation of American locomotives.

But really, that is all irrelevant anyway. Even supposing that you can create a steam locomotive that is just as efficient in terms of performance and fuel consumption as its diesel-powered counterparts, this does not compensate for the fact that a steam locomotive needs to be supplied with water, not just fuel.

This is what I mean when I say that modern steam proponents fail to think in terms of a system: By the time you figure in the cost of trucking or piping in water--which would come at a significant cost in arid regions where water sources are already stressed to the breaking point, and in cold regions where it will have to be prevented from freezing--you counteract all the theoretical savings you would get out of a super-efficient steam locomotive.


2. But we can design a locomotive with a condenser, and then it won’t need to exhaust water!

Highly unlikely. The design of traditional steam locomotive used exhausted steam to move hot smoke through the boiler and heat the water. If you abandoned this design, you would have to compensate with pumps or some other mechanism to move heat through the boiler evenly. This, and the condenser, would eat up the power that would otherwise go towards moving the train.


3. Depending on the fuel, steam can be cleaner than diesel-fueled locomotives.

The idea here, I think, is if you design a locomotive to run on nuclear power or something else that burns with a highly clean fire, which would be desirable over highly polluting diesel engines.

Again, this is a case of thinking in terms of one individual vehicle, rather than an entire system. The fuels that burn clean are often quite dirty when it comes to extracting them from the ground and then disposing of the leftovers. Factoring this in, the “clean steam” become just as dirty, or even worse.

And for anyone who honestly thinks that nuclear powered locomotives are a good idea? No. Just, no. It might work fairly well for well for ships and submarines and power plans, but trains run right through our populated areas and are fairly often involved in collisions and mishaps. I don’t trust the idea of “leak-proof” designs--chance will always throw something at you that you didn’t think to work into the design.

4. There’s a worldwide oil crisis looming on the horizon, which is going to force us all back to using steam locomotives anyway.

All right then, Mad Max.

First of all, the problem with this is that most steam locomotives ran on coal or oil--the exact same fuels that these people are theorizing would return us to steam in the event of a shortage.

With this one, there seems to be an idea out there that you can chuck any darned thing into a firebox, and it’ll power a locomotive. While that’s technically true, there are vast differences in how efficiently and how hot different materials burn.

Wood, for example, can power a locomotive, or farm refuse, but non-fossils fuels have a very low thermal efficiency. The locomotives will consume them in vast quantity, probably too high a quantity when the reset of society has broken down.

Besides this, I wonder where, exactly, these locomotives are going to come from if the Apocalyptic Wasteland finally gets here? Put aside the issue that much of the manufacturing industry has been outsourced. You’d need specialized manufacturing equipment and the people who know how to use it--this kind of work can be very hard for heritage railroads to find--high-quality materials, and the means of collecting and moving the fuel for the locomotives. Much of this manufacturing ability might also collapse, if traditional fuels collapse.

...I have to admit, though, that this would make an awesome Doomsday Preppers episode.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

The End of the End of the Train

Image courtesy of  Peter Port.

Today I finally managed to kick my rear end into gear and get this article published. I choose that phrase specifically, because today’s topic is the things that come at the end of the train.

I personally am a bit young to remember the days when every train ended with a caboose, but I notice that there seems to be just as much nostalgia for the way the back of a train used to look as the front. Like the sounds and sights of steam locomotives, cabooses (cabeese...?) endure in pop culture as a quick visual shorthand for all things railroad related despite falling completely out of use. So, let’s take a moment to look at the history of cabooses, then to examine why they faded from the industry.

Beyond officially indicating the end of a train, a caboose had two basic purposes. The first was to provide a place for the crew to rest during or in between train trips--one more innovation to cope with the long, desolate stretches of track that made up the American railroad system. Within the inside of the caboose were bunks, a stove and heater, and a table where the train crew could fill out paper work.

The second was to allow the crew a way to keep an eye out on for problems on the train ahead of them that couldn’t be seen from the locomotive cab. The “hump” in the middle of the caboose was called a cupola, and housed a seat where crew members could get above the level of the train and spot broken axles, overheated bearings, and spilling loads. A few cabooses did not use cupolas, but instead had “bay windows” which protruded far enough from the side of the caboose that the crew could see down the side of the train.

The United Kingdom and other countries had an equivalent of the caboose, the brakevan, but as the name implies, their main function was more to provide additional breaking as the train descended down hills than to watch for problems or allow the crew a place to rest.

The invention of the cabooses dates almost as far back as the beginning of the railroads themselves. The first ones were little more than empty boxcars or wagons strapped down on top of flat cars, but the familiar shape and traditional colors developed by the mid-19th century. Oddly enough, the origins of the word “caboose” itself have been lost to history, though there is some evidence that it might have been borrowed from now archaic French and Dutch naval terms.

Cabooses disappeared from the railroading world only very recently. In fact, they were legally required by American law to be at the back of a train until the early 1980s. Two different factors, unrelated but all arriving in this same span of time, contributed to the downfall of the caboose.

Put simply, technology advanced enough that both of the caboose’s functions became obsolete. By the 1980s, technology had advanced enough that remote sensors could detect the sort of problems with the train that would have formerly been the crew’s responsibility to detect. These detectors were placed along the tracks, and a sensor called called an EOT (end of train) device or a FRED (flashing rear end device--though I’ve heard some acronyms much more colorful than that!) was also installed also on the back of the last car on the train.

The need for shelter for the train crews also reduced, leading up to the 1980s. The transition away from steam in the 1950s reduced the size of train crews over all, and in the second half of the 20th century, politicians and corporate administrators began to pay more serious attention to the long working hours and crew fatigue that had historically plagued the railroad industry. Legal caps on the length of shifts and working days translated into less of a need to house train crews overnight. Railroad companies successfully lobbied the United States government and argued that cabooses were no longer needed, and by 1988 the last of the laws requiring the use of a caboose had been repealed.

Even if they have disappeared from the tracks, cabooses are quite well represented in the library of preserved railroad artifacts. Not only are they quite well represented in transportation museums, many private collectors and businesses recycled old cabooses for a variety of alternate uses.


People and Their Pistons: The influence of Geography on Steam Locomotive Design.

Over the years, I’ve amassed a pretty decently sized collection of railroad history related books. Many of them open with some sort of rumination about how the building of the railroads dramatically altered the landscape and changed the shape of the Earth itself.

This is undeniably true, but I’ve notice less discussion about how differences in geography influenced the design of the steam locomotives built to roll over the early railroads. Most people interested in trains can distinguish a locomotive that ran in the Americas from one that ran in Europe--in fact, we tend to divide ourselves into camps depending on which side of the Atlantic we favor--but may be unaware that these differences are less cultural preferences than they are specialized adaptations.

All of the divergent appearances of these two types of locomotives can be distilled down to one of three factors: Different fuel sources, the distance that the locomotives were required to travel between stops, and whether the nation by which they were designed was at the time developing, or already in possession of an infrastructure and a dense population.

So with that in mind, let’s dive right in and get to the meat of the discussion!

Here are two different locomotives--the top is the reproduction of the Jupiter locomotive used at the Golden Spike ceremony, the second is a, LB&SCR B4 class.  While it should be noted that B4 was designed some 40 years after the heyday of the American type, as this 0-4-4 wheel arrangement came to be known, these two locomotives display enormous variation on the same exact wheel type. The American locomotives of this time appeared quite a bit more ornate than their British and European counterparts. Let’s start our way at the front, and break these differences down part by part.

The first difference that one might notice is the cowcatcher and the oversized smoke stack that give the American locomotive a distinctive shape--one that tends to be replicated in any sort of railroad doodles or clip art. The British engine has a smaller smokestack, and instead of a proper cowcatcher, pieces of metal to knock debris off of the track. (I don’t know if there’s a word for these things!)

The need for the cowcatcher is almost self-explanatory. Today much of the American plains are privately owned and fenced off, but until the later parts of the 19th century, those lands were wild and untamed. There was nothing at all to prevent wild animals or grazing cattle--many of them large enough to derail a train--from wandering out of the tracks.  

In Europe, by contrast, much of the land through which the railroads were built was already privately owned. Much of the rural lands were already divided into pastures, and the shorter distances involved, compared to the tracks built in the United States, made it much more practical for the railroad companies to fence off their property completely. Thus, the locomotive designers did not have to content with removing anything more than small debris from the track.

The American locomotives developed their large, bulbous smokestacks because the preferred fuel in North America until the turn of the 20th century was wood--not coal, as in Europe. Wood gives off a much dirtier smoke than coal, and also tends to throw up sparks and embers. These posed a potential hazard, as they could quite easily set grass and property near the tracks on fire. The American locomotive designers also had more leverage to build to greater heights since they were generally not, as was the case with their British counterparts, designing machines that had to work around existing structures.

The headlight on the American locomotive is also quite noticeably larger than the one on the British locomotive. Again, this goes back to the fact that large stretches of the American tracks ran through wilderness areas. The crew had less light from adjacent cities, and had a greater need for forewarning as there was more chance of an obstruction on the tracks. British engines had one or two small lanterns, which were removable and placed in a different location to indicate what sort of train the engine was pulling.  

Moving slightly back towards the cab, the British engine has no visible pistons. They are tucked under the frame, giving the locomotive a sleek, slender profile compared to the American version. Some designs featured a third piston, nestled all the way into the frame. Many British and European engines designs do place the pistons outside the frame, especially those that date towards the end of steam, but they tended not to protrude out much farther than the width of the frame. American locomotives, by contrast, did not use the in-frame piston design--because of those long distances, they simply needed more power than this design could provide.

As time went on, steam locomotives became larger and more complex. They incorporated more individual pieces of machinery, such as air brakes, electric generators, and automatic lubricating mechanisms. American locomotive designers tended to place a many of these components above or on the side of the boiler, so by the 1900s they looked more cluttered than ornamented, but British designers tended to place these parts somewhere out of sight. (This is illustrated a few paragraphs below.)

Finally, let’s talk about the cab itself. The American locomotives tended to have larger cabs that were completely closed off from the outside. Again, this goes back to the fact that the crews traveled over longer distances, and required greater protection from natural elements and sparks coming out of the smokestack. British locomotives usually had a cab that was shielded in the front and had an overhang to cover the crew’s head, but were otherwise open in the back. Some designs had nothing more than a short barrier, somewhat like a motorcycle windshield. Because the crew could easily lean out and look around the front, the windows were usually small and iconically round.

The only differences that are as far as I know completely cosmetic are the opening to the smokebox doors, and the sound of the whistle. American engines often had a row of thick bolts to keep the doors fastened tight, but engines across the Atlantic typically had one round handle, or two straight ones that gave the face of the locomotive a “clock dial” appearance. The European engines typically had high, single-noted whistles, but the American locomotives typically had much lower-pitched whistles that might sound three or more different notes (also called “chimes”) at the same time.

These differences remained readily apparent right up until the end of steam, though the size of the smokestacks and cowcatchers on the American engines shrank as locomotives began to use coal and oil for fuel, and the frontier was parceled off to private owners.

The real proof of the geography-influencing-design theory, however, can be found outside of the British vs. American paradigm. In less politically dominant nations, the specific geographic needs either encouraged imitation of one style or the other, combined the two, or prompted designers to create something completely unique to the region.



This is a picture of a Russian locomotive. Although locomotives there were generally built by local shops, they bear a striking similarity to the American designs. Chalk this up to the fact that travel in Russia involves the same primary challenge as it does in North America: long, underpopulated distances. Here, too, the rugged locomotive designs reflect that the machines must travel over prolonged distances with few opportunities to refuel.

This locomotive is from China, where, again, large expanses of land and harsh climates produced a design almost identical to similar examples in Russian and the United States.



Finnish steam is fascinating to me, because not only are there quite a few surviving examples in the present day, their locomotives are almost perfect hybrids between the American and British styles.
Looking at this picture, you can see quite a few telltale signs of European designs--rounded windows, hidden condensing pipes, a single-chime whistle, and two removable lanterns. The large smokestack and full cab, though, reflect that Finland is a cold and heavily forested country, and wood is the most abundant natural fuel. Distance, however, was less of a defining factor--note how stubby the tender is compared to the engine!


 These locomotives are from Argentina and New Zealand, respectively, and show another example of the two styles being hybridized. They run on coal or oil and they have a generalized European look--both of these countries were European colonies at one time-- but both have the large headlights and cowcatchers to run over more rugged terrain.

Come to think of it, you can get half way to placing a locomotive just by looking at the cowcatcher, if it has one. The slats on American locomotives were almost always vertical-- not horizontal or woven as you see in engines from India, China, and other continents.


Garret locomotives--which have a boiler in the center and articulated pistons on the front and the back--are in a class all of their own. Although they were developed in England, they were used most frequently in Africa, and occasionally in Australia and Asia.

Of Tracks and Tubes

Of Tracks And Tubes


For the first eight years of my life, I grew up living very close to two different, and busy, sets of railroad tracks. Growing up this close to the sounds and sight of the iron road--as I can attest myself and have heard many, many other people verify--has a way of getting in your blood. Other people might consider an echoing whistle or the growl of a straining locomotive to be a nuisance, but to me those sounds are like the alarm clock tucked into a box to sooth an anxious puppy.

Eventually I grew up and moved away, and the train fanatic inside of me went dormant until I entered college and enrolled in a history program. There I focused my studies on the history of science and technology, and had the opportunity to write several papers that explored railroad history more in depth. In the process of this research, I began to change my view of railroad history. It was not just something nostalgic that called back fond memories of childhood, but something with which I could draw a surprisingly high number of parallels to the technological change that have occurred in my own lifetime.

We are, in the present day, accustomed to a world where one can pick up their phone and send a text to the opposite side of the world in an instant, where one can also get a package delivered across the same distance in a day if he has the cash to pay for it.Travel is easy and taken for granted.

I think it’s almost literally impossible for people in the modern age to conceive of a world where the nothing moved faster than a pack animal could travel. It cannot be overstated how drastically the coming of the railroads changed the world, once the network was installed. One book in my library states that the travel time from London to Edinburgh was cut from two weeks to an astonishing six hours, after the railroads were installed.

The idea that everything suddenly revved up in pace, that the world could transform from one technological paradigm within a few decades, resonates deeply with me. While the nature of personal travel has more or less remained the same during my lifetime, the way that information travels has turned completely on its head. At the time of my birth, information traveled slowly; now the Internet and wireless technology permeate every single aspects of our live. I think a time traveler, arriving from twenty-five years in the past, would be completely unable to believe that they hadn’t accidentally traveled to a different world.

Almost every single aspect of my daily life has changed since the dawn of the Information Age, and each one of these changes has a corollary in the social upheavals that followed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

The most obvious one is that the basic nature of communication has changed.

When I was a child, I kept in touch with my friends and extended families by writing letters and carefully rationing out long distance phone calls. Now, I can barely remember the last time I did either of those things--what is the need, when it is much quicker and more convenient to send a text or an email?

This shift to much more rapid communication has a parallel in the early railroad age. Telegraph lines almost always followed the construction of the tracks, and these lines were soon opened up for public communication. Compared to the earlier era, where news traveled no faster than a person could, telegraphy was an almost instantaneous form of discourse.

The increased rapidity of the transfer of information has also had an effect on the way that things travel from place to place. Growing up, I watched my mother pour over physical catalogs that arrived in the newspaper or the mailbox to keep up to date on sales. Nowadays, physical catalogs are redundant. I can bring those same sales up on my laptop and compare prices at several stores, and then enter my address and have my purchase delivered right to my home. I am no longer limited to catalogs I have in hand and stores I can visit in person--with the Internet, the markets of the entire world are at my fingertips.

Consumers during the Industrial Revolution had a similar experience. The construction of factories brought cheaper goods to the market, and the railroads shipped foods and products into local markets that would have been unavailable during the age of the horse and cart. In both eras, the world seemed to shrink, and markets appeared to expand.

A change in the nature of production also means a change in the nature of work. Recently, I have been hired on to a new day job. The nature of the work will allow me carry most of it out from my home from behind my computer. I am not alone. In the last decade, thousands of workers have shifted out of the office, and into their homes or any other place with a good internet connection.

The commencement of rail travel also shifted people out of one work setting, into another. The first rail lines gave individual workers much more agency in where they sought employment--people no longer had to limit their job searches to the radius they could walk. These rail-traveling employees created the first class of commuting workers, and encouraged the development of suburban areas. The railroads also pushed less-than-desirable industries such as farming and meat processing away from big cities and into more out-of-sight locations, just as we have now moved tech support and other industries into other countries.


To put it bluntly, within a few decades of its invention, the railroads and other forms of mechanized technology had literally transformed the face of the Earth. The implementation of the Internet and the history of the railroads are the only other example in all of history I can think of, where a single form of technology changing the world so quickly and dramatically. It may take some time before we can look back at the beginning of the Information Age with clarity, but I wonder if, when that time comes, we will look back upon it with the same romanticism and fondness as we do the golden age of the railroads.