Jumper Cables Block Trains

Standing Rock, North Dakota has been the site of a major protest this year against the Dakota Access Pipeline project. Protesters have sought to delay the pipeline’s progress by a wide variety of means, and both sides in the conflict have been accused of a variety of misdeeds.

An anonymous group supporting the protesters has released a video describing how they stop trains without the use of physical barricades. The video begins with police removing automobiles used to block the tracks and escorting trains through level crossings, showing how these traditional methods have been ineffective.

The video then goes on to outline what is described as a “sneaky” way of halting trains. Most railroads use what is known as a track circuit — a current run through the rails of the track detects when a train passes over it by the axles completing an electrical circuit between the two. By using a standard automotive jumper cable to connect the two rails together instead, the circuit is completed and falsely indicates to the railway signalling system that a train is present on the track in question. Due to the safety-critical nature of the railway, no trains can be run on the track until the short circuit is removed, else there is a great risk of collisions between trains on the network.

Intended as a practical guide, strategies to maximize disruption are outlined, such as hiding the cables under snow and painting them in black to evade detection as long as possible. Instructions on how to best make a solid connection to the rails are also shared.

It goes without saying that interfering with major infrastructure is risky, dangerous, and highly illegal. Protesters have already been arrested for physically blocking trains. Perpetrators of this method will surely be arrested if caught, and circumventing the technology could easily result in harsher charges associated with electronic security and safety systems. This is sabotage (deliberately obstructing) and undermines the validity of peaceful protest.

This shows how ingenuity is often spawned by turmoil and frustration. Reflect on human nature, and catch the video below the break.

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Catching A Rogue Train With Data

If you have been a regular traveler on one of the world’s mass transit systems over the last few decades, you will have witnessed something of a technological revolution. Not necessarily in the trains themselves, though they have certainly changed, but in the signalling and system automation. Nineteenth and twentieth century human and electromechanical systems have been replaced by up-to-date computers, and in some cases the trains even operate autonomously without a driver. The position of every train is known exactly at all times, and with far less possibility for human error, the networks are both safer and more efficient.

As you might expect, the city-state of Singapore has a metro with every technological advance possible, recently built and with new equipment. It was thus rather unfortunate for the Singaporean metro operators that trains on their Circle Line started to experience disruption. Without warning, trains would lose their electronic signalling, and their safety systems would then apply the brakes and bring them to a halt. Engineers had laid the blame on electrical interference, but despite their best efforts no culprit could be found.

Eventually the problem found its way to the Singaporean government’s data team, and their story of how they identified the source of the interference makes for a fascinating read. It’s a minor departure from Hackaday’s usual  hardware and open source fare, but there is still plenty to be learned from their techniques.

They started with the raw train incident data, and working in a Jupyter notebook imported, cleaned, and consolidated it before producing analyses for time, location, and train IDs. None of these graphs showed any pointers, as the incidents happened regardless of location, time, or train.

They then plotted each train on a Marey chart, a graph in which the vertical axis represents time  and the horizontal axis represents stations along a line (Incidentally Étienne-Jules Marey’s Wikipedia entry is a fascinating read in itself). Since it represents the positions of multiple trains simultaneously they were able to see that the incidents happened when two trains were passing, hence their lack of correlation with location or time. The prospect of a rogue train as the source of the interference was raised, and analyzing video recordings from metro stations to spot the passing train’s number they were able to identify the unit in question. We hope that the repairs included a look at the susceptibility of the signalling system to interference as well as the faulty parts on one train.

We’ve been known to cover a few stories here with a railway flavor over the years. Mostly though they’ve been older ones, such as this film of a steam locomotive’s construction, or this tale of narrow gauge preservation.

[via Hacker News]

[Main image source: Singapore MRT Circle line trains image: 9V-SKA [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Weaponizing Elementary Science Experiments

[austiwawa] was playing around with one of those simple linear motors people build as friendly little science experiments. There’s an AA battery in the middle of a set of magnets. When you put it inside of a spring it zips around inside until you run out of spring or magic pixies in the battery.

Of course, the natural question arose, “How do I make it go fast!? Like fast!” After making explosion and woosh noises for a bit (like any good hacker would) he settled down and asked a more specific question. If I made the coil the barrel of an air gun, and then shot the battery out… would it go faster?

So, he built an air cannon. It took some ingenuity and duct tape, but he managed to line the barrel with a copper coil. After that he built an experimental set-up, because making something dangerous is only okay if it’s science. That’s the difference between sensible adults and children.

He shot three “dead” rounds through the cannon, and got a baseline result. These dead rounds were made so by placing the magnets at the improper polarity to forego the motion-boosting properties. Then he shot three live ones through. It went measurably faster! Neat!

What’s the silliest thing you’ve ever seen properly characterized? Let us know in the comments below.

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Train Time Ticker Will Save Your Morning Commute

The fatal combination of not being a early riser and commuting to work using public transit can easily result in missed buses or trains. Frustrated with missing train after train while fumbling with a complicated transit schedule app, [Fergal Carroll] created a Train Time Ticker to help his morning routine run right on time.

A Particle Photon hooked up to a 2.2″ TFT screen — both mounted on a breadboard with a button — fit the purpose tidily. Weekday mornings, the Ticker pulls — from a server he set up — the departure times for the specific station and platform along [Carroll]’s commute every three minutes; at all other times, the Ticker can be manually refreshed for any impending trips.

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Electric Train Demonstrator

If you ever want to pique a kid’s interest in technology, it is best to bring out something simple, yet cool. There was a time that showing a kid how a crystal radio could pull in a radio station from all the way across town fit the bill. Now, that’s a yawner as the kid probably carries a high-tech cell phone with a formidable radio already. Your latest FPGA project is probably too complicated to grasp, and your Arduino capacitance meter is–no offense–too boring to meet the cool factor criterion.

There’s an old school project usually called an “electromagnetic train” that works well (Ohio State has a good write up about it as a PDF file). You coil some bare copper wire around a tubular form to make a tunnel. Then a AAA battery with some magnets make the train. When you put the train in the tunnel, the magnetic forces propel the train through the tunnel. Well, either that or it shoots it out. If that happens, turn the train around and try again. There’s a few of these in Internet videos and you can see one of them (from [BeardedScienceGuy]) below.

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Retrotechtacular: Railroads In The Jet Age

The front of the Soviet jet train on a monument in Tver, Russia. By Eskimozzz [PD], via Wikimedia Commons.
The front of the Soviet jet train on a monument in Tver, Russia. By Eskimozzz [PD], via Wikimedia Commons.
It started with one of those odd links that pop up from time to time on Hacker News: “The strange and now sadly abandoned Soviet Jet Train from the 1970s“. Pictures of a dilapidated railcar with a pair of jet engines in nacelles above its cab, forlorn in a rusty siding in the Russian winter. Reading a little further on the subject revealed a forgotten facet of the rivalry between Russians and Americans at the height of the Cold War, and became an engrossing trawl through Wikipedia entries, rail enthusiast websites, and YouTube videos.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: A Broke Hackers’ Model Train

Model railroads are the wellspring of hacker culture; the word itself comes from the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club sometime in the early 60s. These old timers at MIT had incredible resources available to them – multimillion dollar computers, vast amounts of plywood, and real metal tracks to run their trains on. [Szabolcs] doesn’t have any of this, so for his Hackaday Prize entry he’s building the Broke Hackers’ Model Train layout.

Nothing except for the most basic components in this train layout is pre-bought. The tracks are 3D printed, motor control is done through homebrew electronics, and the locomotives will be controlled through a custom protocol. It’s the apex of a hacker’s model train layout, and when you consider how much effort goes into building a normal train layout, [Szabolcs] is looking at a lot of work.

With all the work ahead of him, things haven’t exactly gone smoothly for [Szabolcs]. To print off all the parts for this project, he bought a Makibox, one of the biggest failures in the world of crowdfunded 3D printers ever. The company doesn’t exist anymore, so [Szabolcs] shelled out the cash for an i3 clone. The new printer works great and plastic parts are coming out. A little hiccup, but a great example of what it takes to put a project together for The Hackaday Prize.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by: