Wednesday, October 21, 2015

I've wanted to write this all my life.

Today is October 21, 2015. 
I'm not holding a hoverboard and Jaws 19 isn't coming up on Ticketline, so I'm not holding my breath that Marty McFly is actually going to show up. I'm not going to pass up the change to have a little bit of fun with pop culture, though, so today's blog is going take a look Back to the Future III. I haven't actually been waiting my entire life--that title is a reference to Doc's quote when he gets to pull the whistle-- but since I don't have my own time machine, I won't ever get another chance to do this again.

In the last part of the trilogy, Doc Brown and Marty end up trapped in 1885 after the Delorean breaks down. The time machine components will still work, though, if they can only find a way to get the car moving at 88 MPH. Eventually, they hatch a plan to steam a locomotive and push the Delorean up to speed. Marty goes back to 1985 but Doc chooses to stay at the last minute. When he arrives the Delorean is crushed by a freight train coming down the same tracks in the future; moments later, Doc and the family he has formed in the 1880s arrive in a flying, flux-capacitor equipped locomotive.

(Spoiler alert, you say? Stop saying that. It's been 25 years.)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

North Texas Whistle Stops

A passenger train cannot be made to look inelegant. They beckon us towards discovery, to elegance, to all of the epiphanies that one collects in the process of a journey. They remind us of a  time when travel was dignified, effortless, untroubled by the frustrations and delay that taint the process of getting from place to place in modern times.  Retired passenger equipment never looses this power, no matter how long it has been left to fallow on a siding, or how many iterations of motive power have passed it by on adjacent mainlines.

The Union Pacific Company Special is one of the most colorful and least seen cross-country passenger trains operating in the United States today. In this picture, the train deadheads past Argyle, Texas,  after traveling to a board meeting in San Antonio. It is heading northwards to Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Problem With Ditch Lights

Forgive the inclusion of a personal portrait. 
Two articles ago, Friends of the Flange discussed the nuances of preserving first-generation diesel locomotives. This article isn’t quite a sequel, but more of a tangent into the nature of preservation.
So many steam locomotives and passenger coaches were culled during the 1950s and 1960s that it sometimes seems like a miracle any of them survive into the present day at all, let alone that more than a hundred of them are still in operable condition. Keeping them supplied with enough  money and spare parts is an ongoing battle, though, and the railroad network as a whole has continued to evolve.

Sometimes, this combination of factors forces the owners and operators to be flexible in how they operate, or to make certain decisions about the appearance and upkeep that may not be in line with historical accuracy or the practices of the company that originally owned the equipment. (For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to say ‘locomotive’ for the rest of this article--steam locomotives tend to bring out the most stalwart defenders of historical accuracy--but the discussion could apply to any and all forms of railroad equipment.)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Guest Post: What are Volunteers Worth?

Jerry bring his professional skills as a volunteer gets in there where the dirt is.

 A/N: Today's guest post by Art Chase discusses making railroad restoration appeal to younger volunteers, and the value of engaging them as a valuable part of any project. The images depict the restoration of Alaska Railroad 557. Photo credit: Stewart L. Sterling III

We were talking about this the other day and it has been something I have thought about often over the years.We just don't pay our tourist railroad volunteers enough! Seriously!
There isn't a group out there that wouldn't benefit from an over abundance of interest and cheap labor, and I mean really cheap. I have watch as folks will drive for miles, hang out, drop hints, almost beg to get a chance to work on a locomotive, or support a restoration, be involved in the world of railway preservation. Often their enthusiasm is maybe a little misguided and grandiose in ways they don't really know how to focus. But it is there! I can't fault them anyway. I know how they feel. Let me elaborate, cause it wasn't always in the best of ways.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Visiting the Colorado Narrow Gauge Railroads

The writeups from our trip to Cumbres & Toltec and Durango & Silverton have been posted on Trains Magazine's Observation Tower blog.These aren't behind a paywall. Stop by, leave a comment if you've got an account, and enjoy!

Discovering the Cumbres & Toltec

Where the Trains Call, and the Mountains Answer  

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Ferroequinology Fieldwork: Chasing Trains in the Rocky Mountains

Last week, F-O-F road tripped through Colorado and New Mexico and visited the Cumbres & Toltec and Durango & Silverton Scenic Railroads. These had been on the to do list for a long time, and it was a thrill to finally visit them in person. Both places exceeded expectation and are well worth the time and effort to get out to a rather remote part of the country! 

When the pictures are for personal satisfaction and not an article or news blurb, sepia and black and white tones are my favorite for photographing trains.

With three long train trips in two months, though, I think now we'll stay home for a while.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Fly on the Firebox Wall

Steam survives into the 21st century, but most of the associated infrastructure doesn't. When it's time to refuel,
 the 611's operators have to make due with a clamshell loader. 

Good afternoon, readers. It’s time to get back to regularly scheduled programming.

What makes people interested in history, and what even inspires some of them to make a career out of that interest, is those moments in the past that resonate enough that they still  feel alive and palpable. Maybe a certain event was particularly important or one of its central players especially bombastic, or some aspect of an event remains controversial up to the present day. Whatever the case, these are the “fly on the wall” moments that keep history interesting, the times and places we would love to see with our own eyes.

I’ve got a number of such moments mentally highlighted throughout railroad history. Mine don’t tend towards events that we now understand to be moments of great change, or events of a particularly calamitous nature. It’s the mundane things that interest me, things that few people would have thought to record as important.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Chasing Trains in Nine States

I'm coming to the tail end of a long adventure that has involved many amazing railroad sights and travel to nine states in two weeks. What a pleasure to join the Trains Magazine team for 611 and then attend the UPHS/C&WHS convention in Omaha!

When my sleep gauge is reading higher I'll work on some writeups and recaps. In the meantime, enjoy a few  of the best shots.

Spencer, NC: 

Roanoke, VA: 

Omaha, NE: 

Council Bluffs, IA:

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Next week: Ferroequinology Fieldwork

In the next 3 weeks, I'm making trips to cover several railroad-related events. The first is 24 Hours @ Saginaw, a railroad photography event near Ft. Worth, Texas. Then, late next week, I'm heading to North Carolina to team up with the Trains Magazine staff to provide live coverage of the 611's debut and first passenger trip to Roanoke, Virginia. If you can't make the event in person, be sure to watch the live stream on Trains Magazine's web site--guess who will be the one running the camera! The week after that, I'll be headed to Nebraska for the Union Pacific/Chicago Northwestern Historical Societies' conference.

I'll be posting updates from all three events here and on F-O-F's Facebook pace, but such a busy schedule means that there just isn't enough time to keep to the normal schedule of posting an article every two weeks. It will be roughly 3 weeks before I get the second article about diesel locomotive preservation posted and followup on the takeaway from the Amtrak crash.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Amtrak 188 has derailed. Are we listening?

Image via AP

Update: The latest news indicates that crash may be related to excessive speed, and the death toll has raised to 7. 
Go up to any railfan, and ask why they like trains. You're going to get an answer like "they're big" or "they're fast" or "they get me to work." These are pretty ready answers but they get at something more philosophical and harder to articulate. We like these things about trains because they're the tip of the iceberg, the visible hints of just how much kinetic energy a train displaces when it's moving at full speed--even at low speed, by right of it's sheer size.

We get hints of it,  when we feel the ground tremble under our feet, or hear the rumble of a fully loaded freight from miles off. You can experience those things and get a fuzzy understanding of just how much power is there, in the same way that some really hard thought about basic algebra might give you some conception of how the mathematics of advanced physics works. You get just enough to know how much you aren't experiencing.

I wonder how many of us who like/work on/frequently ride trains sit down and think about just how much of a balancing act the whole thing is. Try wrapping your head around it--tens of thousands of pounds resting on eight(or fewer) tiny points of contact per car, moving upwards of fifty miles per hour. It's easy to forget that almost two centuries of engineering has gone into the railroads now, and that the whole thing doesn't run on faith. You could be forgiven for thinking you're going to end up in the ditch the moment you close your eyes and stop wiling the train to stay on the tracks.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Plight of First Generation Diesels, Part 1

          This ex-FNM del Pacifico Alco PA-4 fell into disrepair before arriving at the Museum of the American Railroad. 

One of the recent Friends of the Flange articles described some individual locomotives that should have been saved, but somehow were not preserved. This post received decent circulation and discussion. A number of the commentators-- both online and in real life--brought up a very valid point: Some of the surviving examples of the first classes diesel locomotives have become perilously few in number.

Not only was this was an enlightening comment, one fully worth exploring in its own article, it also brought up that so far, the articles on this blog have not examined the beginning of the diesel era in its own right. All previous entries have focused on what it did to steam and the people who specialized in that technology. This article--broken into two parts as it ended up being significantly longer than a normal post--will examine the history of early diesel locomotives, and then go on to look at the challenges in preserving the remaining members of the early classes produced for use on American railroads.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

More Thoughts about Tracks and Tubes

A/N: If there's one takeaway from this article, let it be this: F-O-F will be teaming up with Trains 
Magazine to cover the 611's inaugural run. Be sure to check back here and on the Trains Magazine web site around May 29-31 for blogs, photography, and live streaming!
On more than one occasion, I've run across more mainstream outlets referring to railroad-related web sites and video feeds as “one of the odd corners of the internet.” It' s a difficult for outsiders to the hobby comprehend why we would find trains interesting, and especially why some individuals become particularly dedicated (to put it kindly) to objects that are for most people primarily a source of annoyance.

Looking at things from within, though, there’s a sort of pure, unbridled enthusiasm that drives the railfan world that I haven’t noticed in my other hobbies. That's one of the things, beyond the love of the equipment and culture, that draws me in and keeps me here. We are like fans of a certain sport, each subscribing to our favorite company or type of equipment, but without the drafts and competitions  embitter one camp against each other. The projects and people who truly divide us into distinct side are few and far between, and we far more often come together in support of restoration projects and special excursions.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

7 Historically Significant Locomotives that Should Have Been Saved--But Weren't

The railroads have existed for almost two hundred years. That's plenty of time for folk tales and cultural icons to sprout up and take an enduring hold. In many cases, railroad legends starred a certain locomotive as much as their crew. Some of these engines have been preserved, and a few are still in running condition: Their owners knew that they had historic value within its own time

This article isn't about those engines, though. It's about the ones that had by all means earned a reprieve from the torch, but, for some reason, were still destroyed. Please note that the criteria for inclusion here is higher than “This was a really interesting class of locomotive and it would be neat if we still had one around."

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Trunk Lines

Railroads have a significant impact on the environment around them. That’s such a given, it’s barely worth remarking upon--the very first locomotives built in the United States had cowcatchers, after all. Some species of animals have been more directly impacted than others, though, and the news headlines covering the Ringling Brothers Circus' intentions to remove elephants from its performances have brought up one such example. Since this circus and most others that operated in the past traveled by train, in this article, we’ll take a look at how elephants in the circus and in the wild have intersected with the railroads.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Way We Talk About Railroad Accidents Matters

Significant railroad accidents tend to happen in clusters. The past two weeks have seen the derailment of two passenger trains, and several oil trains. Several of these incidents were caused by large vehicles stopping in the path of an oncoming train.

When covering these, and many other railroad accidents, the mainstream media typically gives only a passing mention to the fact that a member of the public caused the accident. This is a small, but significant omission. Framing the reporting so as to separate the death or injury of the person in the path of a train from their own actions, or to make it seem as if there was some negligence on the part of the crew, does not work in the public interest.

If the media changed the tone of articles reporting on railroad accidents and

Friday, February 27, 2015

What the Railroads can Teach Us about Net Neutrality

Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to reclassify broadband Internet as a public utility. While this topic may seem completely unrelated to trains, there are many apt parallels between the social changes caused by the railroads almost two hundred years ago, and the Internet in our own time. In both cases, the  American government and legal system had a learning curve in deciding how to regulate the new technologies and the practices of the companies that owned them.

To briefly recap, American railroads developed at an unchecked pace during the mid nineteenth century. Beyond authorizing thousands of new railroad companies* and granting the industry large tracts of land, the Federal government remained mostly aloof from this process.  The network of rails grew exponentially, and quickly became inherent to the country’s economic and social livelihood.The railroads allowed population and agriculture to expand into much more diverse areas than before. However, as there was at the time no other method of transportation, America’s rural hinterlands were at the mercy of the railroad to import vital supplies and more their crops and livestock to centers of commerce.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Five Innovative Locomotive Designs that Never Gained Steam

Union Pacific's steam-electric turbine locomotive does a perfect imitation of a diesel locomotive. 

To modern people, a television from sixty years ago is laughably simple. Since then, the technology has evolved to such a point that we now have to wonder if our television sets are spying on our conversations. Most other household objects have matured into such a degree of complexity that their counterparts from our grandparents’ time are so simple that they can be mistaken for toys.
With that experience as a benchmark, it’s easy for people of the twentieth century to assume that steam locomotives were a simple technology, and that that must have contributed to their withdrawal. In reality, though, the latest generations of steam locomotives had evolved into a complexity and sophistication that rivaled a commercial aircraft and required a comparable level of skill to operate. Steam locomotive designers had challenged the boundaries of industrial science since the 1800s, and constantly innovated in search of more powerful and efficient locomotives, particularly around the time that diesel engines became viable competition. In this article, we’ll look at a few steam locomotive designs that never quite caught on, but, had they been developed more thoroughly, might have revolutionized steam traction.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Luckiest Scrapyard In The World

If we were to survey the working histories of all the steam locomotives that remain in operable condition today, we would quickly discover a common theme. The great majority of them, even some of the most famous of the iron titans, came breathtakingly close to being dismantled by the scrapper’s torch. Most of them survived after being taken out of service because of some fluke of history.
We are able to cherish and enjoy our surviving steam locomotives because of dumb luck.

The United Kingdom has an enviably thick concentration of operating steam locomotives. It would not be out of turn to assume that they have a particularly strong dose of good fortune. What is surprising, though, is that the favorable climate towards preservation was an unforeseen silver lining of the Modernisation Plan and the Beeching Cuts.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Portrait of the Mad Axeman

A/n: Since this article focuses on British railroads, this seems like a good opportunity to make a little side note about terminology. I have always used American terms in the article text to describe locomotives and other railroad equipment, regardless of what country the object in question comes from, except in the case of formal titles. The reason for this is two fold. First, I am writing from the United States and the American terms are simply what I am used to using. Second, and more importantly to me, I feel that it would make for jarring reading to go back and forth with the terms--"cab" in one place and "footplate" in another, for instance--especially when the switch would happen within the same article.

Take a moment to put on your big boy pants, to grab your favorite talisman, or whatever else gives you strength when the boogeyman shows up. Today we’re going to talk about the man remembered as the single greatest villain in all of railroad history, one far more sinister than any mustachioed robber-baron: We're talking, of course, about Dr. Richard Beeching, the man who advised closure of a staggering portion of the British railroad system and overshadows the transition away from steam.