As most developed countries around the world continue to modernize their transportation infrastructure with passenger rail, countries in North America have been abandoning railroads for over a century now, assuming that just one more lane will finally solve their traffic problems. Essentially the only upside to the abandonment of railroads has been that it’s possible to build some unique vehicles to explore these tracks and the beautiful yet desolate areas they reach, and [Cam Engineering] is using an ebike to do that along the coast of central California.
On the technology spectrum, railroads would certainly seem to skew toward the brutally simplistic side of things. A couple of strips of steel, some wooden ties and gravel ballast to keep everything in place, some rolling stock with flanged wheels on fixed axles, and you’ve got the basics that have been moving freight and passengers since at least the 18th century.
But that basic simplicity belies the true complexity of a railway, where even just keep keeping the trains on the track can be a daunting task. The forces that a fully loaded train can exert on not only the tracks but on itself are hard to get your head around, and the potential for disaster is often only a failed component away. This became painfully evident with the recent Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, which resulted in a hazardous materials incident the likes of which no community is ready to deal with.
Given the forces involved, keeping trains on the straight and narrow is no mean feat, and railway designers have come up with a web of sensors and systems to help them with the task of keeping an eye on what’s going on with the rolling stock of a train. Let’s take a look at some of the interesting engineering behind these wayside defect detectors.
Southern California is known for its nearly perfect year-round climate, excellent surf, and extremely high cost of living, but once you get away from the coast things are radically different. Rural California has huge tracts of land run by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is publicly accessible to anyone willing to venture into the deserts. There’s not much in the way of infrastructure out there, but [Ryan] does have a unique way of traveling through it using abandoned railroad lines and this custom rail cart.
The frame of this cart is simple enough, it’s little more than 2×3 framing with a plywood deck. Some extra support is added for the motor mount and for the seating location. It uses slightly longer go-kart axles to accommodate the width of the railroad, and a small six horsepower gas engine with a single gear to power the rear axle. There are no brakes other than the riders’ shoes, and while this all seems straightforward enough the real hack here is [Ryan]’s custom wheels. He found that steel or cast wheels were not particularly comfortable on long journeys so after a few attempts he has come up with a home-built polyurethane wheel which is cast in a mold around a steel go-cart wheel and then trimmed on a lathe.
For pure exploration, there’s almost no better place to go than the American west thanks to all the public BLM land available. In this cart, you can explore long distances using an extremely low-cost method of transportation. We’ve added another video of [Ryan] exploring this area below the break to show the cart being used, too, but if you’d like a more multipurpose vehicle to use on abandoned rail near you, take a look at this bicycle which is converted to operate on the railroad.
There’s no denying that while railroads have switched to diesel and electric as their primary power sources, there’s a certain allure to the age of steam. With that in mind, a group of Pennsylvania train fans are bringing the alleged fastest steam train back from extinction.
It takes real dedication to build a 428-ton device from scratch, but these rail aficionados seem to have it in spades. Armed only with the original blueprints and a lot of passion, this team has already finished construction of the boiler and nose of the Class T1 replica which is no small feat. This puts the train at approximately 40% complete.
Some changes are planned for the locomotive including a change to fuel oil from coal and replacing the poppet valves prone to failure with camshaft-driven rotary valves. While not original hardware, these changes should make the train more reliable, and bring the world record for the fastest steam locomotive within reach. If the T1 replica can reach the 140 MPH storied of the originals, it will smash the current record of 126 MPH held by a British train, the A4 Mallard, which would be exciting indeed.
Speaking of Pennsylvania and steam, a trip to Scranton is a must for anyone interested in the age of rail.
For those who live in countries where there are plenty of abandoned railways, a popular way to explore them has been by means of home made rail carts. These are usually rudimentary rail trolleys with a small internal combustion engine, and a host of fascinating videos of them can be found online. Such a trolley has one disadvantage though — it’s not the most compact of devices. [Cato] has come up with a rail cart that’s extremely portable by replacing the engine with the guts of a pair of hoverboards.
The chassis of the machine is made from aluminium extrusion, and its deck from plywood. The wheels are the stock hoverboard wheels with flat flanges applied, which while they don’t have the ideal flange profile of a rail wheel are good enough to keep the thing on track. Finally to control the thing a rather stylish little 3D printed single-axis joystick serves as a combined throttle and brake.
Those of us who hail from places where abandoned railways have their track speedily ripped up can only gaze in envy and imagine speeding along the rails on one of these. The build starts with a warning never to use one of these on an active track, but should you wish to drive a real train there are plenty of places to do that.
In everyday life, the largest moving object most people are likely to encounter is probably a train. Watching a train rolling along a track, it’s hard not to be impressed with the vast amount of power needed to put what might be a mile-long string of hopper cars carrying megatons of freight into motion.
But it’s the other side of that coin — the engineering needed to keep that train under control and eventually get it to stop — that’s the subject of this gem from British Transport Films on “The Power to Stop.” On the face of it, stopping a train isn’t exactly high-technology; the technique of pressing cast-iron brake shoes against the wheels was largely unchanged in the 100 years prior to the making of this 1979 film. The interesting thing here is the discovery that the metallurgy of the iron used for brakes has a huge impact on braking efficiency and safety. And given that British Railways was going through about 3.5 million brake shoes a year at the time, anything that could make them last even a little longer could result in significant savings.
It was the safety of railway brakes, though, that led to research into how they can be improved. Noting that cast iron is brittle, prone to rapid wear, and liable to create showers of dangerous sparks, the research arm of British Railways undertook a study of the phosphorus content of the cast iron, to find the best mix for the job. They turned to an impressively energetic brake dynamometer for their tests, where it turned out that increasing the amount of the trace element greatly reduced wear and sparking while reducing braking times.
Although we’re all for safety, we have to admit that some of the rooster-tails of sparks thrown off by the low-phosphorus shoes were pretty spectacular. Still, it’s interesting to see just how much thought and effort went into optimizing something so seemingly simple. Think about that the next time you watch a train go by.
It’s likely that among our readers are more than a few who hold an affection for trains. Whether you call them railroads or railways they’re the original tech fascination, and it’s no accident that the word Hacker was coined at MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club. So some of you like us watch locomotive YouTube videos, others maybe have an OO layout tucked away somewhere, and still more cast an eye at passing trains wishing they were aboard. Having a proper railway of one’s own remains a pipe-dream, but perhaps a hardcore rail enthusiast might like to take a look at [Way Out West Blow-in blog’s] video series on building a farm railway.
On a smallholding there is always a lot to be moved around, and frequently not the machinery with which to do it. Using a wheelbarrow or handcart on rough ground is as we can attest, back-breaking, so there’s a real gap in the market for anything to ease the task. So a railway becomes an attractive solution, assuming that its construction cost isn’t prohibitive.
The videos below the break are the first two of what will no doubt become a lengthy series, and deals with the construction of the rails themselves including the sleepers cut with a glorious home-made band saw, and then fishplates and a set of rudimentary points. The rails themselves are off-the-shelf flat steel strip laid upon its edge, and secured to the sleepers by short lengths of galvanized tube. It’s clear this isn’t a railroad in the sense that we might understand it, indeed though it uses edge rail it has more in common for its application with some early mining plateways But assuming that the flat strip rail doesn’t twist we can see that it should be perfectly adequate for hand-driven carts, removing the backbreaking aspect of their moving. It will be interesting to follow this project down the line.
Farm railways haven’t featured on Hackaday before, but your inner rail enthusiast might be sated by the world’s first preserved line.