Preserved railways are now an established part of the tourist itinerary. It doesn’t matter if you call it a railroad, railway, chemin de fer, Eisenbahn or whatever, the chances are that somewhere near you there will be a line rescued from dereliction on which you can spend a Saturday afternoon in vintage rolling stock being hauled by a locomotive long ago withdrawn from regular service. They are established enough to have become an industry in their own right, with the full range of support services to maintain hundred-year-old machinery and even build entire new locomotives.
So we’ve become used to seeing preserved railways in a state of polished perfection. Sometimes a little too perfect, there was a wry observation in a recent BBC documentary on the subject that a typical British preserved railway represents an average day in the 1950s when the Queen was about to visit. Anyone who lived through that era will tell you the reality was a little different, how run down the system was after World War II and just how dirty everything became when exposed to decades of continuous coal smoke.
A particularly worn-out section of railway in those days could be found at Tywyn, on the Welsh coast. A 2’3″ narrow-gauge line built in the 1860s to serve a slate quarry and provide a passenger service to local communities, the Tal-y-Llyn Railway (Welsh pronunciation help) had been in continuous decline for decades and on the death of its owner in 1950 faced closure. With only one of its two locomotives operational and its track in a parlous state it attracted the attention of the author Tom Rolt, already famous for kick-starting the preservation of Britain’s inland waterway system. A preservation society was formed, and in a joint enterprise with the former owner’s estate the line was saved. The world’s first preserved railway had commenced operations.
In a country reeling from the economic effects of fighting a world war there was no infrastructure for a group of enthusiasts rescuing a near-derelict railway. Nobody had ever done this before, there was no body of expertise and certainly no handy suppliers to call when parts were required. To rebuild their line the Tal-y-Llyn volunteers had to reach into their own well of initiative gained over the “Make do and Mend” war years and build their own way out of any challenges they encountered. In case you were wondering what the relevance to Hackaday readers has been in the last few paragraphs there’s your answer: what would you do if you were handed seven and a quarter miles of run-down track and a single barely serviceable locomotive that is one of the oldest in the world still running?
We are fortunate that in 1953 an American film maker, Carson “Kit” Davidson, visited the line, and through his affectionate short film we have a portrayal of the railway’s state in the early stages of preservation. When the footage was shot they had secured a second serviceable locomotive courtesy of the nearby and recently closed Corris Railway, but had yet to replace the majority of the worn-out and overgrown track. It’s a treat to watch, and sets the stage very well for the home-made machinery that is to follow.
What’s surprising about the subject of this week’s Retrotechtacular is that the subject is not from that long ago. But looking at the way in which the work was done makes it feel so far in the past. In 1974 the British Railways Board set out to modernize and interconnect the signaling system. What you see above is one of hundreds of old signal control houses slated to be replaced by an interconnected system.
These days we take this sort of thing for granted. But from the start of the project it’s clear how the technology available at the time limited the efficiency of the development process. We’re not talking about all of the electro-mechanical parts shown during the manufacturing part of the video. Nope, right off the bat the volumes of large-format paper schematics and logic diagrams seem daunting. Rooms full of engineers with stacks of bound planning documents feel alien to us since these days even having to print out a boarding pass seems antiquated.
With fantastic half-hour videos like this one available who needs television? We’d recommend adding this to your watch list so you can properly enjoy it. They show off everything; manufacturing the cables, stringing them between the signal towers, assembling the control panels, testing, and much more.
The word hacking got its start with model railway clubs, and the state of the art belies the current advancements in computer control and very, very small microcontrollers. [Jim] put together a great tutorial for driving model locomotives with a microcontroller, in this case an ARM-powered mbed.
Low-end model locomotives are controlled with DC, so an H-bridge and a PWM out on the mbed makes sense to drive these trains. [Jim] wired up a Pololu H-bridge driver, connected it to his mbed, and everything ran great.
Rail switches are another matter entirely. These allow trains to move from one track to another, but having them go to the left or right requires powering a fairly high current solenoid with 15 to 24 volts. For this, [Jim] used a MOSFET power control board to switch the rails and came up with a pretty neat demo that shows a small locomotive going back and forth over a single rail switch.
There is another class of model locomotive – ones with Digital Command Control. This setup is just a small decoder chip that fits inside an engine and tells the locomotive to turn on a lamp or run a motor digitally, allowing the conductor to control multiple trains on the same track.
[Jim] goes through the basics of DCC using the mbed, allowing two trains to switch positions in a rail yard using computer control. It’s really cool stuff that leaves us wanting a little more room in the basement to start building a huge computer controlled model railway.
He used Google SketchUp to design the frame for the signal, then purchased all of the PVC parts to match those specifications. Some grey spray paint goes a long way to making it look like steel tubing. But this is much easier to work with and he should have no trouble internalizing the wiring later on. The lights themselves are tail lights for a trailer with a decorative trim piece added. He designed his own driver board to switch the lights and ring the doorbell which give the signal some sound. His first version used a 555 timer, this one upgrades to microcontroller. We like what he’s doing in the video after the break, but think the bell speed needs to be doubled for it to mimick the real thing just about perfectly.
While at Maker Faire K.C. this year, I was sure to take my family to a spot we tend to visit every time we are near: Fritz’s. Fritz’s is a restaurant with an interesting food delivery method. The food itself is your standard faire of burgers and fries, however the railroad theme comes into play when your food is delivered by a model train on a track that runs along the ceiling. Your tray of burgers is deposited safely on a platform that is lowered (hydraulically?) to your table. The whole thing doesn’t look terribly complex, but it is fantastic fun.
This train layout is so small it nearly defies photography as much as it defies expectations. Built by model railroad enthusiast [David Smith], this is a model of a model: an N scale (1:160) layout inside a Z scale (1:220) world! For size reference, the entire layout is shown under a ballpoint pen tip in the photo above. And it actually runs!
Of course with this being Hack a Day you know there’s going to be some shenanigans involved. Pause the hi-def YouTube video at the 0:50 mark and see if you can puzzle it out first. The remainder of the video and [David’s] project page reveal how this all works, and it’s no less amazing even with the trick exposed. Check out his other ludicrously small mechanical wonders as well!