kottke.org posts about trains

The Days They Changed the GaugeSep 26 2014

After the Civil War, the economic recovery of the southern United States hinged on trade with the North and moving goods westward via the railroad. But there was a problem. Tracks in the South had been built with a gauge (or track width) of 5 feet but the majority of tracks in the North had a 4-foot 9-inch gauge (more or less). So after much planning, over a concentrated two-day period in the summer of 1886, the width of thousands of miles of railroad track (and the wheels on thousands of rail cars) in the South was reduced by three inches.

Only one rail would be moved in on the day of the change, so inside spikes were hammered into place at the new gauge width well in advance of the change, leaving only the need for a few blows of the sledgehammer once the rail was placed. As May 31 drew near, some spikes were pulled from the rail that was to be moved in order to reduce as much as possible the time required to release the rail from its old position.

Rolling stock, too, was being prepared for rapid conversion. Contemporary accounts indicate that dish shaped wheels were provided on new locomotives so that on the day of the change, reversing the position of the wheel on the axle would make the locomotive conform to the new gauge. On some equipment, axles were machined to the new gauge and a special ring positioned inside the wheel to hold it to the 5-foot width until the day of the gauge change. Then the wheel was pulled, the ring removed, and the wheel replaced.

To shorten the axles of rolling stock and motive power that could not be prepared in advance, lathes and crews were stationed at various points throughout the South to accomplish the work concurrently with the change in track gauge.

And you thought deploying software was difficult.

Update: In their book Information Rules, Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian point out that sometimes having different standards from the norm is a good thing.

As things turned out, having different gauges was advantageous to the South, since the North could not easily use railroad to move its troops to battle in southern territory during the Civil War. Noting this example, the Finns were careful to ensure that their railroads used a gauge different from the Russian railroads! The rest of Europe adopted a standard gauge, which made things easy for Hitler during World War II: a significant fraction of German troop movements in Europe were accomplished by rail.

They also describe the efforts that the South went through to support the stronger standard of the North without switching over:

In 1862, Congress specified the standard gauge for the transcontinental railroads. By this date, the southern states had seceded, leaving no one to push for the 5-foot gauge. After the war, the southern railroads found themselves increasingly in the minority. For the next twenty years, they relied on various imperfect means of interconnection with the North and West: cars with a sliding wheel base, hoists to lift cars from one wheel base to another, and, most commonly, a third rail.

At home, I have a drawer full of sliding wheel bases and third rails in the form of Euro-to-US & Asia-to-US power adapters.

London to Brighton by trainSep 03 2013

In 1953, the BBC filmed a train trip from London to Brighton. Thirty years later in 1983, they filmed it again and then again 30 years after that, in 2013. Here are all three films synced up and played side-by-side:

1000 extra bonus points to the Beeb for the Star Guitar soundtrack.

Mail trainsJun 21 2010

This is the third part of a 1936 documentary film about a mail train traveling from London to Scotland. Be sure to watch the mail exchange process that starts about 50 seconds in.

The train doesn't even slow down to exchange the mail...the outgoing mailbags are hung low and snared by a net near the track and incoming mailbags are collected up high using a similar net.

Mail train

Drive-through fast food should work more like this. (via sveinn)

Clever train doesn't stop at stationsApr 22 2010

No time is wasted. The bullet train is moving all the time. If there are 30 stations between Beijing and Guangzhou, just stopping and accelerating again at each station will waste both energy and time. A mere 5 min stop per station (elderly passengers cannot be hurried) will result in a total loss of 5 min x 30 stations or 2.5 hours of train journey time!

Factor in slowdown/speedup time and it's even longer. (thx, nick)

Maglev toy trainJun 18 2009

This video of a toy maglev train is a great illustration of how the technology works.

Watch the whole thing...there's a nice bit at the end with tracks mounted vertically on buildings. (via cyn-c)

Popular Science published an article five years ago on the possibility of a trans-Atlantic maglev train that would travel in an airless underwater tunnel at 4,000 MPH and make the trip from New York to London in an hour.

A 4,000-mph magnetically levitated train could allow you to have lunch in Manhattan and still get to London in time for the theater, despite the 5-hour time difference. It's not impossible: Norway has studied neutrally buoyant tunnels (concluding that they're feasible, though expensive), and Shanghai is running maglev trains to its airport. But supersonic speeds require another critical step: eliminating the air -- and therefore air friction -- from the train's path. A vacuum would also save the tunnel from the destructive effects of a sonic boom, which, unchecked, could potentially rip the tunnel apart.

Amtrak across AmericaJul 16 2008

A cross-country Amtrak travelogue. The trip is not without its charms but overall sounds like torture.

A raspy-voiced woman in her 40s, one of the engineers, calls down from the cab and invites a few of us to come take a look. Without hesitation we clamber up. She tells us that they're off duty, as her partner, a mustachioed, red-faced man with faded tattoos, nods. When engineers hit their driving quota, apparently, they're done. It's an unbendable rule. "They knew, though," the woman says, speaking of Amtrak. "They should have had someone here." So this could've been prevented? "Oh yeah," the man says, "but leave it to them and they'll fuck it up." And so we wait, in the middle of nowhere, for new engineers. After a couple of hours a truck pulls up with the new drivers.

Train travel on the increaseJun 23 2008

The number of passengers traveling by train in the US rose significantly in May. Unfortunately, Amtrak is reaching full capacity with no real way to increase the number of trains or routes at its disposal for several years.

In 1970, the year that Congress voted to create Amtrak by consolidating the passenger operations of freight railroads, the airlines were about 17 times larger than the railroads, measured by passenger miles traveled; now they are more than 100 times larger. Highway travel was then about 330 times larger; now it is more than 900 times larger.

Today Amtrak has 632 usable rail cars, and dozens more are worn out or damaged but could be reconditioned and put into service at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars each.

Train travel, particularly high-speed train travel, should be *the* way to get anywhere on the East Coast, mid-to-southern California/Vegas, and between moderately large cities clustered together (Chicago, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Detroit; Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Houston; Florida; Kansas City, St. Louis, Omaha, Tulsa; Portland, Seattle, Vancouver; etc.).

Planes, trains, and automobiles in Europe.Jan 10 2008

Planes, trains, and automobiles in Europe.

Could European airlines such as Air France-KLM, Lufthansa or Ryanair lose business as high-speed rail service expands? After all, the Eurostar now carries more than 70 percent of passenger traffic between London and Paris. And air service between Paris and Brussels has ended altogether now that trains connect those cities in 1 hour and 20 minutes.

(via short schrift)

The last bit of high-speed track hasNov 15 2007

The last bit of high-speed track has been placed, cutting the Eurostar train's journey from Paris to London to 2 hours and 15 minutes. Peak speed is 183 mph with an average speed of 130 mph. For reference, the NYC-to-Boston Acela averages 66 mph (top speed of 150 mph) and the Shanghai Maglev averages 142 mph (top speed: 268 mph).

Twelve tips for travelling across the UnitedMay 29 2007

Twelve tips for travelling across the United States by train. "12. Train Love. I wish you the best of luck in finding a soulmate via subsidized government transportation."

Diagram that shows what it takes toDec 28 2006

Diagram that shows what it takes to move 15,000 people/hour using different modes of transportation (car, bus, light rail, etc.). A fast train with one track going each way (using a space 8 meters wide) moves as many people as a freeway with 7 lanes in each direction (51 meters wide).

Weblog detailing a journey across Russia on the trans-Siberian railwayJun 17 2005

Weblog detailing a journey across Russia on the trans-Siberian railway.

Tags related to trains:
video travel transportation amtrak

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