Retrotechtacular: The Last Main Line

If you were to nominate a technology from the 19th century that most defined it and which had the greatest effect in shaping it, you might well settle upon the railway. Over the century what had started as horse-drawn mining tramways evolved into a global network of high-speed transport that meant travel times to almost anywhere in the world on land shrank from months or weeks to days or hours.

For Brits, by the end of the century a comprehensive network connected almost all but the very smallest towns and villages. There had been many railway companies formed over the years to build railways of all sizes, but these had largely conglomerated into a series of competing companies with a regional focus. Each one had its own main line, all of which radiated out from London to the regions like the spokes of a wheel.

A Ruston steam navvy excavating near Wembley, London. S.W.A.Newton/Leicestershire County Council (Fair use)
A Ruston steam navvy excavating near Wembley, London. S.W.A.Newton/Leicestershire County Council (Fair use)

By the 1890s there was only one large and ambitious railway company left that had not built a London main line. The Great Central Railway’s heartlands lay in the North Midlands and the North of England, yet had never extended southwards. In the 1890s they launched their ambitious scheme to build  their London connection, an entirely new line from their existing Nottingham station to a new terminus at Marylebone, in London.

Since this was the last of the great British main lines, and built many decades after its rivals, it saw the benefit of the century’s technological advancement. Gone were the thousands of navvies (construction workers, from “Navigational”) digging and moving soil and rock by hand, and in their place the excavation was performed using the latest steam shovels. The latest standards were used in its design, too, with shallow curves and gradients, no level crossings, and a wider Continental loading gauge in anticipation of a future channel tunnel to France This was a high-speed railway built sixty years before modern high-speed trains, and nearly ninety years before the Channel Tunnel was opened.

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Split-flap Train Display Uses Punch Cards; Serviced with Station Ingenuity

short but highly detailed documentary by [Krzysztof Tyszecki] explores the split-flap display system in place at the Łódź Kaliska train station in Poland as well as the efforts needed by the staff to keep it running and useful to this day. Split-flap displays might be old technology, but many are still in use throughout the world. But even by those standards, the unit at Łódź Kaliska is a relic you wouldn’t expect to see outside a museum. “I doubt you’ll find an original anywhere else,” says a staff member. It requires constant upkeep to remain operational, and meeting the changing demands of a modern station within the limitations of the original system takes some cleverness. “In general the failure rate of the device is terrible,” he adds.

Operator console for Czech PragotronThe system runs on punch cards. You can’t buy them anymore, so a local printer makes them – several hundred are needed every time there is a schedule change. The punching pliers (which also can no longer be purchased) get so worn out they replace the pins with custom-made ones from a local locksmith. The moving parts of the card reader have split-pins which need to be replaced every week or two – the stress of repeated movement simply wears them away. There’s nothing to do but replace them regularly. The assembly needs regular cleaning since dust accumulates on the cards and gets into the whole assembly. The list goes on… and so does the station.

There is no computation in the modern sense – it’s an electromechanical signing system managed and updated by human operators. It has more in common with a crossbar switch based telephone exchange than anything else. The punch cards are just a means of quickly, accurately, and repeatedly setting the displays to known states.

The short documentary goes into a lot of detail about every part of the system. The cards themselves are described in detail (1:07), as is the operator’s routine (2:27). We even see the back end controller (9:41), as well as see a split-flap module taken apart and tested (14:33) with an old tester the staffer isn’t sure will even work – but as with everything else we see, of course it does.

Split-flap displays are fascinating pieces of technology. We have even seen people build their own split-flap displays from scratch!

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Live Steam… chugga chugga

At Maker Faire this weekend. tucked in between a building full of homegrown foodstuffs and a rock polishing booth is the Bay Area Garden Railway Society (BAGRS). They’re running a few live steam locomotives, and they’re beautiful works of engineering and modeling. None of these trains are electric; they all move by boiling water with either coal or butane. It’s a true, proper locomotive running on 45mm gauge track.

[David Cole] of BAGRS gave me the walkthrough of their booth. It’s a simple oval track that took a solid day to level out. There are technically three sets of tracks, two G-scale, and another O scale sharing a rail with a G-scale track. Each and every one of these locomotives is powered by steam produced when water is heated by either coal or butane. Butane is the fuel of choice because of its ease of acquisition, but BAGRS had a few coal-fired locomotives with tiny shovels shoveling anthracite into tiny fireboxes. After loading up with water and getting the firebox nice and hot, these locomotives will cruise around the oval track for about half an hour, with the speed of the locomotive controlled by a servos and RC gear.

Maker Faire isn’t the headline event for BAGRS; in July 2016 they’ll be hosting the National Garden Railway Convention in San Francisco. If you’re local to the Faire, it will be a cool event to check out.