You Too Can Be A Railroad Baron!

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.

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North American Field Guide To Rail Cars

Trains are one of the oldest and most reliable ways we have of transporting things and people over long distances. But how often do you think about trains? Where I live, they can clearly be heard every hour or so. I should be used to the sound of them by now, but I like it enough to stop what I’m doing and listen to the whistles almost every time. In the early morning quiet, I can even hear the dull roar as it rumbles down the track.

I recently got a front row seat at a railroad crossing, and as the train chugged through the intersection, I found myself wondering for the hundredth time what all the cars had in them. And then, as I have for the last twenty or thirty years, I wondered why I never see a caboose anymore. I figured it was high time to answer both questions.

 

Image via GBX

Boxcar

Boxcars are probably the most easily identifiable after the engine and the caboose.

Boxcars carry crated and palletized freight like paper, lumber, packaged goods, and even boxes. Refrigerated box cars carry everything from produce to frozen foods.

Boxcars (and barns for that matter) are traditionally a rusty red color because there were few paint options in the late 1800s, and iron-rich dirt-based paint was dirt cheap.

 

Flat car with bulkheads. Image via YouTube

Flat Car

Standard, no-frills flat cars are the oldest types of rail cars. These are just big, flat platform cars that can carry anything from pipe, rail, and steel beams to tractors and military vehicles.

Flat cars come in different lengths and are also made with and without bulkheads that help keep the cargo in place. Some flat cars have a depression in the middle for really tall or heavy loads, like electrical transformers.

 

Image via Ship Cars Now

Auto Rack

As the name implies, auto racks carry passenger cars, trucks, and SUV from factories to distributors. They come in two- and three-level models, although there have been specialized auto racks over the years.

Perhaps the strangest auto rack of them all was the Vert-a-Pac. When Chevrolet came up with the Vega in the gas-conscious 1970s, they wanted to be able to move them as cheaply as possible, so they shipped the cars on end. If you’re wondering about all the fluids in the car when they were upended, a special baffle kept oil from leaking out, the batteries were capped, and the windshield washer fluid bottle was positioned at an angle.

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The Mostly Forgotten Story Of Atmospheric Railway

It doesn’t matter whether you know it as a railway, a railroad, a chemin de fer, or a 铁路, it’s a fair certainty that the trains near where you live are most likely to be powered either by diesel or electric locomotives. Over the years from the first horse-drawn tramways to the present day there haven’t been many other ways to power a train, and since steam locomotives are largely the preserve of museums in the 21st century, those two remain as the only two games in town.

But step back to the dawn of the railway age, and it was an entirely different matter. Think of those early-19th-century railway engineer-barons as the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos’ of their day, and instead of space and hyperloop startups their playground was rail transport. Just as some wild and crazy ideas are spoken about in the world of tech startups today, so it was with the early railways. One of the best-known of these even made it to some real railways, I’m speaking of course about the atmospheric railway.

These trains were propelled not by a locomotive, but by air pressure pushing against a piston in a partially evacuated tube between the tracks.

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Our Trucks Won’t Need No Batteries! Electric Trucks Look To Overhead Wires For Power

As the world grapples with the spectre of the so-called “hockey stick” graph of climate change, there have been a variety of solutions proposed to the problem of carbon emissions from sectors such as transport which have become inseparable from the maintenance of 21st century life. Sometimes these are blue-sky ideas that may just be a little bit barmy, while other times they make you stop and think: “That could just work!”.

Such an idea is that of replacing the diesel engines in trucks with electric motors powered not by batteries but from overhead cables. An electric tractor unit would carry a relatively small battery for last-mile transit, but derive its highway power by extending a pantograph from its roof to a high-voltage cable above the road. It’s extremely seductive to the extent that there have even been trials of the system in more than one country, but does it stack up to a bit of analysis?

Time’s Up For Those Big Rigs

Siemens and Scania are justifiably proud of their electrified stretch of autobahn and electric trucks in Germany.
Siemens and Scania are justifiably proud of their electrified stretch of autobahn and electric trucks in Germany.

One thing that should be obvious to all is that moving our long-distance freight around by means of an individual fossil-fuel-powered  diesel engine for every 38 tonne or so freight container may be convenient, but it is hardly either fuel-efficient or environmentally friendly The most efficient diesel engines on the road are said to have a 43% efficiency, and when hauling an single load they take none of the economies of scale afforded to the diesel engines that haul for example a freight train. Similarly they spread any pollution they emit across  the entirety of their route, and yet again fail to benefit from the economies of scale present in for example a power station exhaust scrubber. However much I have a weakness for the sight of a big rig at full stretch, even I have to admit that its day has passed.

The battery technology being pursued for passenger cars is a tempting alternative, as we’ve seen with Tesla Semi. But for all its technology that vehicle still walks the knife-edge between the gain in cost-effectiveness versus the cost of hauling around enough batteries to transport that quantity of freight. Against that the overhead wire truck seems to offer the best of both worlds, the lightness and easy refueling of a diesel versus the lack of emissions from an electric. In the idealised world of a brochure it runs on renewable wind, sun, and water power, so all our problems are solved, right? But does it really stack up?

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Considering The Originality Question

Many Hackaday readers have an interest in older technologies, and from antique motorcycles to tube radios to retrocomputers, you own, conserve and restore them. Sometimes you do so using new parts because the originals are either unavailable or downright awful, but as you do so are you really restoring the item or creating a composite fake without the soul of the original? It’s a question the railway film and documentary maker [Chris Eden-Green] considers with respect to steam locomotives, and as a topic for debate we think it has an interest to a much wider community concerned with older tech.

Along the way the film serves as a fascinating insight for the non railway cognoscenti into the overhaul schedule for a working steam locomotive, for which the mainline railways had huge workshops but which presents a much more significant challenge to a small preserved railway. We wrote a year or two ago about the world’s first preserved railway, the Welsh Tal-y-Llyn narrow gauge line, and as an example the surprise in the video below is just how little original metal was left in its two earliest locomotives after their rebuilding in the 1950s.

The film should provoke some thought and debate among rail enthusiasts, and no doubt among Hackaday readers too. We’re inclined to agree with his conclusion that the machines were made to run rather than gather dust in a museum, and there is no harm in a majorly-restored or even replica locomotive. After all, just as a retrocomputer is as much distinguished by the software it runs, riding a steam train is far more a case of sights and smells than it is of knowing exactly which metal makes up the locomotive.

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CCCamp: 5,000 Hackers Out Standing In Their Field

What do hackers do on vacation? What do hackers do whenever they have free time? What do you love to do? That’s right. But how much more fun would it be if you could get together with 5,000 other hackers, share your crazy projects and ideas, eat, drink, dance, swim, and camp out all together for five days, naturally with power and Internet? That’s the idea of the Chaos Communication Camp, and it’s a once-in-four-years highlight of hacker life.

Held not too far outside of Berlin, the Camp draws heavily on hackers from Europe and the UK, but American hackers have been part of the scene since almost the beginning. (And Camp played an important role in the new-wave hackerspaces in the US, but that’s another story.) It’s one thing to meet up with the folks in your local hackerspace and work together on a project or brainstorm the next one, but it’s entirely a different thing when you’re drawing on hackers from all over the world. There was certainly more to see and do at Camp than you could in a month, not to mention in only five days, and this could be overwhelming. But if you dig in, the sense of community that came from shared effort and shared interests was the real take-home. And nearly everything at Camp should have its own article on Hackaday.

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A Turntable For Model Railroads

Way back when, before diesel-electric locomotives were a thing, trains weren’t really able to go backwards too well. Also it’s sometimes necessary to turn carriages around in a small space. For that, the railway turntable was invented. If you want to implement one on a model layout, this project from DIY & Digital Railworld is for you.

The project is at an early stage – thus far, laying out how to set up an Arduino Uno using a potentiometer to control the speed of a stepper motor, which rotates the turntable. The turntable itself is a 3D printed part sourced from Thingiverse, designed to suit the specific stepper motor used.

This has the easy part sorted – rotating a piece of track through 360 degrees to orient a train properly. However, there’s significant work ahead. Power needs to be hooked up to the rails, and a system for accurately aligning the turntable with outgoing tracks needs to be devised. This is particularly relevant for N-gauge setups, where tolerances are everything.

We’d love to know how you’d tackle the various issues to build a working model turntable in the comments. We’ve seen some serious model railroad builds before around these parts. Video after the break.

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