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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Coffee Tables, Computers, And Railways

If you were a British kid at any time from the 1950s to the 1980s, the chances are that your toy shop had a train set in it. Not just any train set, but a full model railway layout in a glass case roughly the size of a pool table, with a button that when pressed started a timer and set a little tank engine off on a circuit with a pair of coaches. Magical for a generation raised on black-and-white TV, but probably not something that would cut it with today’s youth. A modern take on the glass-case layout comes from [Jack Flynn], who has created a coffee table with an automated and computerised N-gauge railway layout inside it. And this is definitely a railway rather than a railroad, the main locomotive is a Brush Type 4, a British Rail Class 47 diesel.

The modelling is a work of art, with a slightly idealised British street scene in an oval of double track against a backdrop of a rocky hillside. In the hill is an unexpected surprise which you can see on the video we’ve  placed below the break, and beneath it lie the electronics. A Teensy handles the track switching and all the various LED lights around the board, a Sprog DCC controller takes care of the trains, and overseeing everything is a Raspberry Pi running some custom software in Python with a web interface for control. We probably wouldn’t be able to resist a bit of remote-control railway action if our coffee table had a layout like this one!

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Retrotechtacular: Operation Smash Hit

Judging by the number of compilations that have been put online, one of the not-so-secret vices of the YouTube generation must be the watching of crash videos. Whether it is British drivers chancing their luck on level crossings, Russians losing it at speed on packed snow, or Americans driving tall trucks under low bridges, these films exert a compelling fascination upon the viewing public intent on deriving entertainment from the misfortunes of others. The footage is often peripheral or grainy, having inevitably been captured by a dashcam or a security camera rather than centre-stage on a broadcast quality system with professional operation. You can’t predict when such things will happen.

There was one moment, back in 1984, when predicting a major crash was exactly what you could do. It was a national event, all over the TV screens, and one which was watched by millions. The operators of British nuclear power stations wished to stage a public demonstration of how robust their transport flasks for spent nuclear fuel rods were, so after all the lab tests they could throw at one they placed it on a railway test track and crashed a 100mph express train into it.

Water escaping during drop test.

This was as much a PR stunt as it was a scientific endeavour, and they lost no time in promoting it across all media. The film below the break was part of this effort, and takes us through the manufacture of the flask forged in one piece from huge billets of steel, before showing us the tests to which it was subjected. The toughest of these, a drop-test onto a corner of a fully laden flask, resulted in a small escape of the water contained within it. It was thus decided to conduct the ultimate test to ensure full public confidence in nuclear transport.

The Old Dalby test track is a section of a closed-to-passengers line in the English Midlands that was retained by British Railways as a proving ground for new locomotives. In the ultimate test of rail transport for nuclear waste, a flask was placed on its side across a piece of the track, and a train formed of a withdrawn 1960s locomotive and a short rake of 1950s carriages was accelerated without a driver over several miles to 100mph.

An instant before impact, we see the underside of the derailed car. The flask is between it and the locomotive.

[Nigel Harris] for Rail magazine wrote an almost funerial description of the destruction of locomotive 46009 25 years later in 2009, and as he reported the flask survived with only superficial damage and a tiny loss in pressure. The event was hailed as a success by the nuclear industry, before fading from the public consciousness as nuclear power station operators prefer to remain out of the news.

It is questionable how much the Old Dalby crash was for the cameras and the public, and how much it was for the scientists and engineers. But such destructive tests do serve as a means to gain vital test data that could not be harvested any other way, and have been performed more than once in the aviation industry. Later in the same year a Boeing 720 was crashed for science in the USA, while more recently in 2012 a Boeing 727 was crashed in Mexico.

Crashing an express train into a nuclear flask is something not likely to be seen again, it was a one-off event. But one thing’s for sure, our inability to turn away from watching a train wreck is nothing new. YouTube and ubiquitous cameras certainly make crashes available with a few keystrokes. But from the 1984 cask crash test, to the the spectacle of Crush, Texas back in 1896, the sheer power shown in these crashes seems to have a siren song effect on us.

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Retrotechtacular: How To Repair A Steam Locomotive

Steam locomotives, as a technological product of the 19th century, are not what you would imagine as fragile machines. The engineering involved is not inconsequential, there is little about them that is in any way flimsy. They need to be made in this way, because the huge energy transfer required to move a typical train would destroy lesser construction. It would however be foolish to imagine a locomotive as indestructible, placing that kind of constant strain on even the heaviest of engineering is likely to cause wear, or component failure.

A typical railway company in the steam age would therefore maintain a repair facility in which locomotives would be overhauled on a regular basis, and we are lucky enough to have a 1930s film of one for you today courtesy of the British London Midland and Scottish railway. In it we follow one locomotive from first inspection through complete dismantling, lifting of the frame from the wheels, detaching of the boiler, inspection of parts, replacement, and repair, to final reassembly.

We see steps in detail such as the set-up of a steam engine’s valve gear, and it is impressed upon us how much the factory runs on a tight time schedule. Each activity fits within its own time window, and like a modern car factory all the parts are brought to the locomotive at their allotted times. When the completed locomotive is ready to leave the factory it is taken to the paint shop to emerge almost as a new machine, ready for what seems like a short service life for a locomotive, a mere 130 thousand miles.

The video, which we’ve placed below the break, is a fascinating glimpse into the world of a steam locomotive servicing facility. Most Hackaday readers will never strip down a locomotive, but that does not stop many of them from having some interest in the process. Indeed, keen viewers may wish to compare this film with “A Study in Steel“, another film from the LMS railway showing the construction of a locomotive.

LMS Jubilee class number 5605, “Cyprus”, the featured locomotive in this film, was built in 1935, and eventually scrapped in 1964 as part of the phasing out of steam traction on British railways.

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And The Grandfather Of The Year Award Goes To…

Hacker dads often have great plans for all the fun projects they’ll build for their kids. Reality often intrudes, though, creating opportunities for hacker grandfathers who might have more time and resources to tackle the truly epic kid hacks. Take, for instance, [rwreagan] and the quarter-scale model railroad he built for his granddaughter.

Taking inspiration from a 1965 issue of Popular Mechanics, grandpa hit this one out of the park. Attention to detail and craftsmanship are evident from the cowcatcher to the rear coupler of this 4-2-0 steam engine replica, and everywhere along the 275 feet of wooden track — that’s almost a quarter-mile at scale. The locomotive runs on composite wood and metal flanged wheels powered by pair of 350-watt motors and some 12-volt batteries; alas, no steam. The loco winds around [rwreagan]’s yard through a right-of-way cut into the woods and into a custom-built engine house that’ll make a great playhouse. And there are even Arduino-controlled crossbucks at the grade crossing he uses for his tractor on lawn mowing days.

The only question here is: will his granddaughter have as much fun using it as he had building it? We’ll guess yes because it looks like a blast all around. Other awesome dad builds we’ve covered include this backyard roller coaster and a rocketship treehouse.

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Jumper Cables Block Trains

Standing Rock, North Dakota has been the site of a major protest this year against the Dakota Access Pipeline project. Protesters have sought to delay the pipeline’s progress by a wide variety of means, and both sides in the conflict have been accused of a variety of misdeeds.

An anonymous group supporting the protesters has released a video describing how they stop trains without the use of physical barricades. The video begins with police removing automobiles used to block the tracks and escorting trains through level crossings, showing how these traditional methods have been ineffective.

The video then goes on to outline what is described as a “sneaky” way of halting trains. Most railroads use what is known as a track circuit — a current run through the rails of the track detects when a train passes over it by the axles completing an electrical circuit between the two. By using a standard automotive jumper cable to connect the two rails together instead, the circuit is completed and falsely indicates to the railway signalling system that a train is present on the track in question. Due to the safety-critical nature of the railway, no trains can be run on the track until the short circuit is removed, else there is a great risk of collisions between trains on the network.

Intended as a practical guide, strategies to maximize disruption are outlined, such as hiding the cables under snow and painting them in black to evade detection as long as possible. Instructions on how to best make a solid connection to the rails are also shared.

It goes without saying that interfering with major infrastructure is risky, dangerous, and highly illegal. Protesters have already been arrested for physically blocking trains. Perpetrators of this method will surely be arrested if caught, and circumventing the technology could easily result in harsher charges associated with electronic security and safety systems. This is sabotage (deliberately obstructing) and undermines the validity of peaceful protest.

This shows how ingenuity is often spawned by turmoil and frustration. Reflect on human nature, and catch the video below the break.

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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.

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