Retrotechtacular: Upgrading Train Signaling Before the Information Age

retrotechtacular-british-railway-signaling

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.

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The model engineer

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As a child, [Mike Chrisp] saw a film featuring one of the great narrow gauge English locomotives. While the story was inordinately heartening, as soon as he walked out of the theatre, [Mike] said to himself that he had to have one of these locomotives. Thus began a lifelong adventure in model engineering.

[Mike] builds model locomotives and other steam-powered means of motive power. Everything from five-inch gauge locomotives to small steam tractors is liable to come out of his small workshop, all built with the machining and engineering excellence only a lifetime of experience can provide.

As for what drives [Mike] to stay in his workshop for long hours, he says his shop is just a place to be, a place to tinker, and a place to simply think about things, even if his hands aren’t getting dirty.  There’s something beautiful about that, even if [Mike] were to hide the products of his skill away from the world.

Preserving locomotives with 3D laser scanning and 3D printing

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[Chris Thorpe] is a model railroading aficionado, and from his earliest memories he was infatuated with the narrow gauge locomotives that plied their odd steel tracks in northern Wales. Of course [Chris] went on to create model railroads, but kit manufacturers such as Airfix and Hornby didn’t take much interest in the small strange trains of the Ffestiniog railway.

The days where manufacturing plastic models meant paying tens of thousands of dollars in tooling for injection molds are slowly coming to an end thanks to 3D printing, so [Chris] thought it would be a great idea to create his own models of these small locomotives with 3D laser scanners and high quality 3D printers.

[Chris] started a kickstarter to fund a 3D laser scanning expedition to the workshop where the four oldest locomotives of the Ffestiniog railway were being reconditioned for their 150th anniversary. The 3D printed models he’s able to produce with his data have amazing quality; with a bit of paint and a few bits of brass, these models would fit right in to any model railway.

Even better than providing scale narrow gauge engines to model railway enthusiasts around the world is the fact that [Chris] has demonstrated the feasibility of using modern technology to recreate both famous and underappreciated technological relics in plastic for future generations. There’s a lot that can be done with a laser scanner in a railway or air museum or [Jay Leno]‘s garage, so we’d love to see more 3D printed models of engineering achievements make their way onto Kickstarter.

Picture frame that scrapes train times from the web

rpi-train-times-fixture

Whenever [Gareth James] needs to catch a train he has only to push a button on this frame and the next three departure times will be displayed. As you can see from the post-processing in the photo, this is accomplished by a Raspberry Pi board using a few familiar tools.

Let’s take a look at the hardware first. He acquired a 7″ LCD display which he removed from its plastic case. The bare screen will easily fit inside of the rather deep wood frame and its composite video input makes it quite simple to interface with the RPi board. There was a little work to be done for power. The LCD needs 12V so he’s using a 12V wall wart to feed the frame, and including a USB car charger to power the RPi. The last thing he added is a button connected to the GPIO header to tell the system to fetch a new set of times.

A Python script monitors the button and uses Beautiful Soup to scrape the train info off of a website. To get the look he wanted [Gareth] wrote a GUI using tkinter. Don’t miss the demo after the jump.

If you need a bit of a primer on scraping web data take a look at this guide.

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Fritz’s, fast food with a robotic slant

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.

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Rail bike conversion is a success, and a failure

There is a long tradition of hacking transportation to work on the rails. People have done it to all kinds of things for many reasons. Some are for rail maintenance, others are simply to enjoy the tracks. With as much unused railways as we have, it seems a shame to waste them. This hack turns a bicycle into into a rail bike with the use of some conduit, a cut up razor scooter, and a fork from another bike.  After some tinkering with spacing to make the whole thing a little smoother on the rails, the whole thing seemed like a success. That is, until the front rail guide caught a railway tie and the rider was tossed. Not only that, the impact destroyed his bike frame.

So, does this wreck mark this as a failure? Or is this simply another step in the iterative process we all tend to use. The only difference is if he carries on to build another.

Retrofitting modern LEGO train tracks for use with older version

So you’re really looking for that [Norman Rockwell] Christmas and want to set up your train to encircle the Christmas tree this year. The problem is that all you’ve got is an old LEGO train set and not enough track for it. You can’t just buy some more, because the technology has changed; or can you?

[Chris] was dismayed to find that newer LEGO train sets have gone to battery operation rather than drawing power through metal tracks. The new tracks are plastic, and buying extra segments of the older version is cost prohibitive. He figured out a way to add power conductors to the new track pieces.

It turns out the design of the new tracks matches the old, except they’re all in plastic instead of having metal rails. He bought a plastic add-on set, then picked up some copper foil from the hobby store which is meant for stained-glass work. It’s adhesive backed, and after working out the best way to apply it, he coated the rails with the stuff. As you can see above, the new mates perfectly with the old, and keeps that locomotive chugging along.

If you’ve got copper foil left over after this hack, there’s tons of other uses for it. Perhaps building your own flex sensors is worth a try.