Retrotechtacular: 6207, A Study In Steel

If you ever encounter railroad or railway enthusiasts, you may have heard the view that at some point in the past there was a golden age of rail transport that has somehow been lost. It’s something that’s up for debate as to when that age was or even whether with a selection of new super-high-speed trains snaking across our continents we’re in a golden age now, but it’s true to say that the rail business has had its fair share of decline in the last half-century.

It’s quite likely that when they talk of a golden age, they really mean a golden age of steam rail transport. At which point depending on where you live in the world it’s easier to put your finger on a decade. For UK residents a good candidate would be the 1930s; steam locomotive design had reached its peak, the rail network hadn’t been worn out by the demands of wartime, and private car ownership hadn’t eaten into their passenger numbers. The country was divided up into a set of regional rail monopolies, each of which had their own locomotive works and designers who were in fierce competition to show that their machines were the best and the fastest.

The LMS, the London Midland and Scottish railway company, served the northwestern segment of the country, North Wales, and the West of Scotland. Their high-speed express trains were in hot competition with those of the LNER, the London and North Eastern Railway, who served the eastern side of the country, to offer the fastest service from London to Scotland. It’s difficult to grasp through an 80-year lens, but this battle was one of national excitement, with the fastest locomotives becoming household names nationwide. The railway companies were justifiably proud of their engineering expertise, and so featured their locomotives as a key part of their marketing to the general public.

And so we come to the subject of today’s Retrotechtacular piece, a film below the break from 1935 following the construction of a high-speed express locomotive from start to finish in the LMS’s Crewe railway works. 6207 was one of a class of thirteen 4-6-2 Pacific locomotives designed by the company’s chief engineer [William Stanier], built between 1932 and 1935 and known as the Princess Royal class, all being named for princesses. In the film we see the various parts of the locomotive being cut, cast and forged from raw metal before being assembled in the Crewe plant. All the machinery is human controlled, and one of the surprises is sometimes the number of people involved in each task. The level of skill and experience in precision metalworking to be found in plants like Crewe was immense, and in some cases it is very difficult to find its equivalent in our own time.

The majority of the Princess Royal class including 6207 were scrapped in the early 1960s as part of British Rail’s modernisation programme, but a couple of the class made it into preservation. The last locomotive built at Crewe left the works in February 1991 and was a British Rail Class 91 high-speed electric locomotive.

We’ve featured the odd bit of railway engineering before here at Hackaday. Our recent piece on the epic hacking that saved the Tal-y-Llyn Railway for example, or when we featured laser scanning locomotives to help with their preservation.

Thanks [Michael Boswell] for the suggestion.

47 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: 6207, A Study In Steel

          1. I always just stick the unique ID part at the end of (e.g.) a YouTube link into our search bar. Works (almost) all the time!

            And when it doesn’t, someone in the comment section always has the link for us. :)

  1. Quite a lot of the expertise is still around in the UK. Two new steam locos – Tornado and Flying Scotsmn – have been built by a company in the north of England and are now running on British railways. Some of the components admittedly were made abroad, but all the fitting, testing and approval were done in the UK. There is yet another steam loco being built, a copy of the famous P2 class 2-8-2, and will be called the Prince of Wales. Watch out for it in a few years time. The last time that class was seen was 1944. it was rebuilt as an ugly 4-6-2 by Edward Thompson.

    1. Maybe, but using an untested aluminum alloy for a high pressure boiler is just begging for a repeat of the De Havilland Comet disaster. :) James Taggart should have pointed that out, had Ayn Rand given him enough brains to make him a better antagonist.

    2. Something you learn–quickly–about locomotive construction is that one of the most important engine parameters, tractive effort, is inexorably tied to to the weight of the engine (similar to the inescapable law of aerodynamics which imposes increased drag on any attempt to increase lift).
      This ‘tractive effort’ phenomenon is demonstrated by the use of “slugs”–remotely controlled, un-manned power units which are basically only wheels and a power source inserted in the train’s ‘consist’ for the express purpose of increasing motive power availability to the train, and hence, revenue.
      One more very important fact: “slugs” require enough volume to accommodate the requisite amount of wet sand needed for the weight to produce the desired tractive effort.
      It is highly doubtful that you will ever find, in the entire history of railroad locomotive design, light weight as a design goal.

  2. Rail was superseded by highways beginning in the 30’s and increasingly until the 50-60s….. so yeah rail probably peaked in the 30’s.

    A rail renaissance probably wouldn’t be a bad idea… to reduce the burden of trucks on our highways that serve to clog and wear them out faster. Most traffic that isn’t on rail is local anyway though… so reduction of highway traffic would require increased rail installation. It would certainly be interesting if all industrial area’s in most major cities had rail currently they don’t.

    1. The trouble is that you still have to load and unload a truck to get the stuff on the rails, so simply taking the same truck all the way to the destination saves a bunch of time and money even if it is less efficient.

      1. And the truck can deliver to multiple places along the way on the same trouble, which would all require their separate local delivery trucks to get stuff off the train, which would then slow the train down for all along its route whereas the trucks don’t appreciably slow each other down. You could run your stuff on a freight train, but that would ironically increase the number of trucks on the roads.

        Usually when you think about these things and ask the question why something isn’t done anymore like it used to be, such as running goods around by train, the answer normally ends up being because the old way was worse overall.

      2. If the only alternative were to manually unload boxes from train cars into trucks to drive that last mile I would think you have a good point.

        We do have rails still where I live although a bit of them are removed every year and we do have far more semi traffic than train. Anyway… occasionally (very rarely) I see trains of flat cars with semi trailers on them. I assume that the semis must be waiting at the depot, they must have some sort of ramp so that the trucks just pull up, hook to the trailer and drive it away for that last mile. How hard can that be?

        Maybe somebody can design a dual-use trailer. I see railroad company trucks all the time that drive on the road and have train wheels that lower onto the track when they are doing maintenance. How about a box-car semi-trailer hybrid? Keep the trucks that pull the trailer when not on the tracks local.

        1. Most goods aren’t transported by the standard shipping container, because they simply don’t fill as much. I used to work at a furniture factory, and a single truck would load up pallets and packets for 10-20 different customers. Since the packets were of varying sizes and shapes and weights, there were no other option but to load and unload them manually. Some could be stacked, others not etc. etc.

          The problem of loading trucks on trains is the speed, because it takes incredibly long to go through the procedure to unload a train even if it’s just rolling a truck off, and you have to get to and from the train station anyhow rather than driving directly towards your destination. The average speed due to having to stop every 25 miles to drop something off means that the truck is there faster driving by itself rather than taking a ride on the train – or – the train could stop less frequently to maintain higher average speed but then the trucks have to drive further distances to and from the stations.

          It’s the same problem as with public transportation. You can hop into your car and drive off, or you can walk to the bus stop and wait 10 minutes. By the time the bus takes off, you would have already been at your destination by car. If you increase the number of bus stops and the number of busses to approach the speed and convenience of the car, you’ll eventually be running a service with one bus per customer waiting at each stop… at which point you’ve just re-invented a very inefficient version of private car ownership.

        2. Shipping containers are pretty close to what you describe. They allow for using a crane the size of an office building to load the containers off a ship onto a train, then the trains run from the port to an inland distribution hub where the containers are picked up off the train and attached to a truck trailer for the last leg of the journey.

          1. Yeah. The problems start when the shipping container contains goods for 10 or 100 different destinations.

            A shipping container is the size of a small apartment.

        3. The idea of putting train wheels on trucks and dropping them off onto rail for longer hauls could kinda work. It’s just the sparsity of the rail network and insertion points that is the problem. You can’t just inject yourself onto a railway from any point, like you’d join a highway.

    2. don’t let the teamsters hear you when you talk about having less trucks on the road. I see alot of trucks in one particular industry that could be replaced by local rail lines and or even installing some light rail lines for doing local deliveries of assembled parts to the local assembly plant. Some of those assembly plants are already doing auto unloads of a semi trailers of the metal racks specifically made to hold x number of parts per rack.But like I said I’m sure the rail and trucking unions may have an issue with this. One of the main reasons why I never brought it up at any of those plants.

  3. “with a selection of new super-high-speed trains snaking across our continents”

    I shall now assume until told otherwise that Jenny List has never been to North America.

    Or.. she happens to live in North America but her entire experience is limited to some small, very progressive area of North America that is not at all representitive of the rest of the continent and she has rarely if ever left it.

    1. I’m afraid the part of North America I’m most familiar with doesn’t have any high speed trains, more’s the pity. I’d love to be able to speed across the prairies at 200mph, but will probably never get the chance.

      Other continents, Europe/Russia, China, do have growing high-speed rail networks though, and they are rather awesome.

  4. Why don’t we have more trains (in the US)? How did we get to this point?

    Ok, my own anecdotal experience may or may not be representive of the whole country but I suspect it is, or at least representitive of most of it. (probably Canada too, just my guess) I drive about 30 miles of expressway to work and the same 30 back every day. The whole trip I am surounded by semi trucks. Sometimes it’s scary, tall walls of moving metal surounding me on all four sides. No doubt some of these are making local deliveries but most have out of state plates. Many have plates from states (or Canadian provinces) over 1,000 miles away!

    Surely for long distance shipping it would be more efficient to put those trailers on a train pulled by one big engine than 1000 individual trucks wouldn’t it? I imagine freight train depots in every city and every industrial area. Short-haul trucks would be waiting at the depot to grab the trailer off of the train and take it a short distance to it’s destination. Wouldn’t that save companies money by consuming less fuel, help the environment by the same, save the state money by reducing wear on the roads and save us all money, time and sanity by reducing road congestion? Why is there ever a truck taveling for days at a time? It makes no sense!

    1. The same trucks stop at multiple places along the way to drop off and pick up stuff, which would be impractical with the train because you have to get to and from the train station which may be 100 miles out of your way. It’s just logistically more efficient to have a truck snake around the roads where the trains don’t go, because you minimize the distance between each loading point and that minimizes the ton-miles of freight.

      In other words; the trucks don’t just pick up stuff from Florida and drop it off in Seattle – they pick and drop at many points along the way and plan their routes accordingly, which is why you see trucks from 1,000 miles away in Canada. Most likely the truck was nearby to drop something off, and loaded something else to carry it another 100 miles north, and in that way they drift around in big meandering loops around the entire North America, each time doing only a short haul.

    2. I hear you, and I read what Dax said. Hmm … My take is this. Since car fuel used to be so inexpensive in the 20th century, cars just made more economical (never ecological) sense. In capitalism, economy (low cost) always wins. Now, when price of fuel increases sufficiently, we will see gradual return to trains and ships for transport, because they are more economical per weight unit transported than cars or airplanes. Until then, or until we switch to lightweight electric cars with solar panels on top.

      1. Trains are not economical per unit weight when the source and destination of the delivery are nowhere near a train station.

        Of course you could move everything close to the train station, but that would involve re-building the whole infrastructure – either by criss-crossing the countryside with a ridiculous amount of tracks, or uprooting businesses and homes and packing everyone around the railroads like it was 1800’s again.

        1. The other problem with trains is that the infrastructure is so complex and unwieldy. If you want to switch cars, you need a huge switching yard with parallel tracks and turntables and tractors and so-on, and you need that at every loading point. A train station is a whole complex operation, so you can’t have very many train stations or it gets massively expensive. That also means your transoprt infrastructure is very sparse – it’s only got so many inputs and outputs, and that means congestion and poor coverage.

          If you want to switch truck trailers, you just drop it down anywhere. Australian road trains are a perfect example of this – you got up to six trailers behing a tractor and you can easily leave one down along the highway, where someone else picks it up and carries it to wherever it needs to go. The infrastructure cost is next to nil.

  5. This is very good, informative, and extremely well written and researched piece of material. It is also apparent that not a small part of the excellence is due to Ms. List’s love of the subject.
    Ms. List probably already knows of this; the rest of you will find an excellent video and information–as well as some history–on the NEW Flying Scotsman initiative at
    VERY well done.

  6. Actually, the golden age of railways is yet to come. Global urbanization, dwindling energy resources and increasing pollution will one day end the era of privately owned motor cars

    1. We are on the brink of switching to almost limitless cheap energy. And it will all be electric energy which works well with cars but also with trains and ships (and electric planes is still on the table). The oil-age won’t end because we ran out of oil.

      1. Electric energy will be converted to synthetic fuels for stockpiling, which means there will be plenty of fuel for conventional cars, and advanced fuel cell vehicles which can use conventional fuels as well as synthetic fuels.

        If the world tries to get by on renewable power, synthetic fuels are inevitable because there’s no other practical, cheap and scalable way to store energy. Everything else is peanuts and penny poker in comparison.

        If the world instead picks nuclear fission and fusion, it’s going to have plenty of energy to produce synthetic fuels for all the cars.

    2. Dwindling energy resources are a matter of choice.

      Of course if you try to scrape by on windmills and generally wearing a sack and throwing ash on yourself, then yes.

      The future of motoring is going to be synthetic fuels in solid oxide fuel cells. Twice the efficiency, twice the mileage and the only emissions will be CO2 and water.

  7. 1. I’d have to think the rant about hard hats and OSHA isn’t part of the original documentary. Only the willfully ignorant would insert that or go “hell yea” upon reading it. Regardless of the energy source rail has to make sense for transporting much what the USA still produces internally. Coal, grain, lumber products, and ore to start a list. Yea that last mile is important, but I think it’s importance is overstated by those fearful they may have to start paying more of the cost of their motor vehicle traveling freedom. Then again I could be overestimating their intelligence.

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