Retrotechtacular: The Fell Locomotive

If you were to visit a railway almost anywhere in the world, you would find that unless it was in some way running heritage trains, the locomotives would bear a similarity to each other. Electric traction is the norm, whether it comes from a trackside supply or from a diesel generator. In the middle of the last century, as the industry moved away from steam traction though, this was far from a certainty. Without much in the way of power electronics, it was a challenge to reliably and efficiently control a large traction motor, so there were competing traction schemes using mechanical gearboxes or hydraulic drives. One of these is the subject of an archive film released by the oil company Shell, and it’s a fascinating journey into a technology that might have been.

A model of a gearbox, in black and white.
The Fell differential gearbox.

All diesel locomotive designs struggle with the problem of transmitting the huge torque required to start a fully loaded train at low speeds, and because of the huge force required, it’s impossible to design a locomotive-sized conventional gearbox to do the job in the way it might be managed on a truck. Electric and hydraulic drives exploit the beneficial torque characteristics of electric and hydraulic motors, but the mechanical gearbox isn’t quite done for. The subject of the video is British Rail number 10100, otherwise commonly known as the Fell locomotive, and it was a one-off prototype that took to the rails at the start of the 1950s designed to test a very novel gearbox design.

At the heart of the Fell gearbox is a set of differential gears the same as you’d find in the axle of a car, and in the locomotive they are used to combine the output of more than one engine. The loco had four smaller-than-normal diesel traction motors that could be combined, but even then, it wasn’t done. To achieve variable torque, they employed superchargers driven by a set of even-smaller diesel engines, resulting in an ungainly multi-engined beast but with the desired characteristics for both starting heavy trains and for moving them at high speed. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Fell Locomotive”

Unbricking Trains, Uncovering Shady Behavior

The first clue was that a number of locomotives started malfunctioning with exactly 1,000,000 km on the odometer. And when the company with the contract for servicing them couldn’t figure out why, they typed “Polish hackers” into a search engine, and found our heroes [Redford], [q3k], and [MrTick]. What follows is a story of industrial skullduggery, CAN bus sniffing, obscure reverse engineering, and heavy rolling stock, and a fantastically entertaining talk.

Cutting straight to the punchline, the manufacturer of the engines in question apparently also makes a lot of money on the service contracts, and included logic bombs in the firmware that would ensure that revenue stream while thwarting independent repair shops. They also included “cheat codes” that simply unlocked the conditions, which the Polish hackers uncovered as well. Perhaps the most blatant evidence of malfeasance, though, was that there were actually checks in some versions of the firmware that geofenced out the competitors’ repair shops.

We shouldn’t spoil too much more of the talk, and there’s active investigation and legal action pending, but the smoking guns are incredibly smoky. The theme of this year’s Chaos Communication Congress is “Unlocked”, and you couldn’t ask for a better demonstration of why it’s absolutely in the public interest that hackers gotta hack. Of course, [Daniel Lange] and [Felix Domke]’s reverse engineering of the VW Dieselgate ECU shenanigans, another all-time favorite, also comes to mind.

Steamy Hack Chat Vents Some High Pressure Wisdom

Ask the average person about steam power and they’ll probably imagine a bygone era, a time when the sky was thick with smoke belched out by coal-burning locomotives and paddle-wheel ships. Steam is ancient technology they’ll say, and has as much to do with modern living as the penny-farthing.

Naturally, the real story is a bit more complex than that. Sure the reciprocating steam engine has fallen out of favor as a means of propulsion, but the concept of running machinery with steam is alive and well. In fact, unless you’re running on wind or solar power, there’s an excellent chance that a steam turbine is responsible for keeping the lights on in your house.

In honor of all things steam, we invited Quinn Dunki to host this week’s Hack Chat. Those who follow her exploits on YouTube will know that over the last several years she’s built a number of steam engines, from miniature scratch-built models to commercial kits that can do useful work. Who better to answer your burning steaming questions?

The first questions in the Chat were logical enough, with several users wanting to know just how hard it is to build a functional steam engine if you don’t have access to a mill or other means of high precision machining. According to Quinn, while better equipment will certainly allow you to build a more powerful and efficient engine, the basic premise is so simple that it doesn’t take much to get one going. If you’ve got a mini lathe and some bar stock, you’re half way there. In fact, they are so forgiving that she opines you’d struggle to build a steam engine that didn’t at least turn over — though that doesn’t mean it will necessarily run well.

Naturally some comparisons were drawn between the complexity of building a steam engine and putting together a small internal combustion engine (ICE). But while they might seem conceptually similar, Quinn cautions that building a working ICE from scratch is far more difficult and dangerous. She explains that steam engines have a tendency to fail gracefully, that is, mistakes in the design or poor tolerances generally result in little worse than wasted steam and extra noise. Comparatively, a faulty ICE design could easily turn into a bomb on your workbench.

Of course, that’s not to say working with steam is without danger. You certainly don’t want to underestimate high pressure steam, which is why boilers that are over 6 in (15 cm) in diameter or that produce more than 100 PSI will often require the operator to be licensed. They may also need to be inspected, though Quinn notes that your local government official probably won’t be able to make heads or tails of your homebrew build — so if you need an official stamp of approval, your best bet is to find a local model engineering club or society that would have the appropriate connections. All that being said, most hobbyists make it a point to try and get their engine running at the lowest pressure possible, so unless you’ve got something really massive in mind, you’ll probably never need to build up more than 60 PSI or so.

A DIY electric boiler and small steam engine.

Another topic of discussion was how to fuel the boiler itself. An electrically powered boiler is perhaps the easiest option, but is somewhat counterproductive if you hope to put your steam engine to useful work. Coal and wood fires are an option, and indeed were commonly used in the old days, but the soot and ash they produce can be a problem.

Quinn also notes that if you’re using such fuels, you need a way to quickly remove the firebox from the boiler in an emergency; something she likens to the starship Enterprise having to eject its warp core before it explodes. For her own projects, Quinn says she uses either an electric element or a camping gas burner.

While most of the questions during this Hack Chat had to do with the work Quinn has already featured on her blog and YouTube channel, naturally there were questions about where things go from here. After she completes the steam engine kit she’s working on currently, she says she’ll likely to back to another scratch-built engine. She also plans on coupling some of her engines to generators, as she’s gotten many requests about seeing these machines put to useful work. Looking further ahead Quinn says she’s interested in casting her own bronze and aluminum components, and specifically wants to work with “lost PLA” casting, which is a variant of lost wax casting that uses a mold based on a 3D printed part.

We’d like to thank Quinn Dunki for stopping by the Hack Chat and sharing some insights into this unique hobby. While a handcrafted boiler or a desktop steam reciprocating engine might not be on the average Hackaday reader’s list of future projects, it’s still fascinating to see how they work. We owe much of our modern life to steam power, so the least we can do is show it some respect.

The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to make sure you don’t miss out.

Powering A Backyard Railway With Compressed Air

When you’ve gone to the trouble of building your own backyard railway, chances are pretty good that at some point, you’re going to want to add a locomotive of some sort. After all, nobody wants to be stuck using muscle power to move carts around. But what exactly are you going to power your locomotive with? And will it be up to the tasks you envision it handling?

Answering such questions calls for rigorous calculations using established engineering principles — or, if you’re [Tim] from the Way Out West channel on YouTube, just throwing a pneumatic engine on wheels and seeing what happens. The railway that [Tim] built is for his farm in County Cork, where he plans to use it to haul wood that he’ll make charcoal from. We’ve seen a little about his rails and rolling stock before, which has been a low-budget and delightfully homebrewed undertaking. So too with his pneumatic engine, seen in the video below, which uses cam-operated valves to control a pair of repurposed hydraulic cylinders to turn a big flywheel.

Using scuba tanks, [Tim] was able to power the engine for a full fourteen minutes — very encouraging. But would the engine have the oomph needed for real farm work? To answer that, [Tim] plunked the engine on a spare bogie, connected the engine shaft to one of the axles with a length of rope, and let it go. Even with no optimization and zero mechanical advantage, the engine was easily able to move a heavy load of sleepers. The makeshift pneumatic railway even managed to carry its first passenger, [Tim]’s very trusting wife [Sandra].

There’s clearly more work to do here, and many problems to overcome. But we really appreciate the “just try it” approach [Tim] employed here, and with a lot of what he does.

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To Make Reproduction Train Whistles, The Old Ways Are Best

Late last year, artist [Steve Messam]’s project “Whistle” involved 16 steam engine whistles around Newcastle that would fire at different parts of the day over three months. The goal of the project was bring back the distinctive sound of the train whistles which used to be fixture of daily life, and to do so as authentically as possible. [Steve] has shared details on the construction and testing of the whistles, which as it turns out was a far more complex task than one might expect. The installation made use of modern technology like Raspberry Pi and cellular data networks, but when it came to manufacturing the whistles themselves the tried and true ways were best: casting in brass before machining on a lathe to finish.

The original whistles are a peek into a different era. The bell type whistle has three major components: a large bell at the top, a cup at the base, and a central column through which steam is piped. These whistles were usually made by apprentices, as they required a range of engineering and manufacturing skills to produce correctly, but were not themselves a critical mechanical component.

In the original whistle shown here, pressurized steam comes out from within the bottom cup and exits through the thin gap (barely visible in the image, it’s very narrow) between the cup and the flat shelf-like section of the central column. That ring-shaped column of air is split by the lip of the bell above it, and the sound is created. When it comes to getting the right performance, everything matters. The pressure of the air, the size of the gap, the sharpness of the bell’s lip, the spacing between the bell and the cup, and the shape of the bell itself all play a role. As a result, while the basic design and operation of the whistles were well-understood, there was a lot of work to be done to reproduce whistles that not only operated reliably in all types of weather using compressed air instead of steam, but did so while still producing an authentic re-creation of the original sound. As [Steve] points out, “with any project that’s not been done before, you really can’t do too much testing.”

Embedded below is one such test. It’s slow-motion footage of what happens when the whistle fires after filling with rainwater. You may want to turn your speakers down for this one: locomotive whistles really were not known for their lack of volume.

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Hackaday Visits The Electric City

Much to the chagrin of local historians, the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania is today best known as the setting for the American version of The Office. But while the exploits of Dunder Mifflin’s best and brightest might make for a good Netflix binge, there’s a lot more to the historic city than the fictional paper company. From its beginnings as a major supplier of anthracite coal to the introduction of America’s first electrically operated trolley system on its streets, Scranton earned its nickname “The Electric City” by being a major technological hub from the Industrial Revolution through to the Second World War.

Today, the mines and furnaces of Scranton lie silent but not forgotten. In the 1980’s, the city started turning what remained of their industrial sites into historic landmarks and museums with the help of State and Federal grants. I recently got a chance to tour some of these locations, and came away very impressed. They’re an exceptional look into the early technology and processes which helped turn America into an industrial juggernaut.

While no substitute for visiting these museums and parks for yourself, hopefully the following images and descriptions will give you an idea of what kind of attractions await visitors to the modern day Electric City.

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The Arduino Hits The Rails

Certain hobbies come in clusters. It isn’t uncommon to see, for example, ham radio operators that are private pilots. Programmers who are musicians. Electronics people who build model trains. This last seems like a great fit since you can do lots of interesting things with simple electronics and small-scale trains. [Jimmy] at the aptly-named DIY and Digital Railroad channel has several videos on integrating railroad setups with Arduino. These range from building a DCC system for about $45 (see below) to a crossing signal.

There are actually quite a few basic Arduino videos on the channel, although most of them are aimed at beginners. However, the DCC — Digital Command and Control — might be new to you if you are a train neophyte. DCC is a standard defined by the National Model Railroad Association.

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