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Posts Tagged ‘History’

Jets and Atoms – Powering Bizarre Trains Train History

Friday, April 11th, 2014

The annals of history are full of strange and intriguing bits of curiosity, providing plenty of fodder for a blog such as this one. We’ve covered plenty of odd topics on the blog before – from ghost horses to “perfunctory peck spots” – but we’ve never really mentioned any of the New York Central’s more bizarre trains, and they’ve had a few. The king of strange, however, is probably an experimental jet powered train from 1966. I present to you the “Black Beetle:”

Jet powered train

Essentially, the M-497, better known as the “Black Beetle,” is an RDC-3 with a shovel nose to be more aerodynamic, coupled with jet engines of a B-36. Tested in Ohio, it achieved a speed of 183.85 MPH. Eventually, the jets were removed, and the RDC was returned to service, albeit much slower.

Though far more tame than the jet-powered train, it is too difficult for me not to mention the Xplorer, which has always looked a bit comical to me.

Xplorer
The New York Central’s Xplorer, as shown in a 1956 edition of Popular Science.

The Xplorer was one of many trains designed to be “high speed” in the United States, in this case, high speed was 120 miles per hour. Running from Cleveland to Cincinnati, the goal was a smooth train that banked into turns. Alas many said the ride was actually rather rough. A similar variant was produced for the New Haven, and ran into Grand Central.

AeroTrain

Also falling under the category of bizarre-looking trains is the Aerotrain. Built by GM, a particular focus was placed on looks, leading to a rather unique aesthetic. Used by the New York Central between Cleveland and Chicago, the “lightweight with a heavyweight future” failed to gain popularity. Passengers found the ride rough and the cars uncomfortable. After only a few months, the New York Central’s Aerotrain went to Union Pacific, where it ran between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Will atomic energy power tomorrow's railroads?
Will atomic energy power tomorrow’s railroads?

Although the aforementioned trains may fall under the category of bizarre, none can really claim the title of strangest train ever conceived. That honor may go to the X-12. Picture the AeroTrain shown above, but put a nuclear reactor inside it – that is pretty much the X-12. Thought up by physicist Lyle Borst and his students at the University of Utah in the 1950s, the X-12 was a concept for a nuclear-powered train. Though that sounds a little bit outlandish today, one must think of the climate during the early years of the Atomic Age. Some of the world’s brightest minds had come together to discover the secrets of the atom, culminating in the first atomic bomb. That bomb caused unprecedented death and destruction. Who would want that to be their legacy? Thus many scientists involved in the bomb later focused on the peaceful applications of the atom, and something more worthy to be remembered for.

x12

x12_1

x12_2

x12_3

x12_4
Diagrams of the X-12, from Life Magazine, June 21, 1954./

Many people, however, were overly optimistic when it came to nuclear power. They imagined nuclear reactors one day as small as bricks, and a world where we no longer needed to mine coal, and where gas stations would be a thing of the past. Proposals for nuclear powered submarines, planes, trains, and even automobiles were all made. In fact, the US military spent well over a billion dollars trying to come up with a design for a nuclear-powered plane that could roam the skies indefinitely, never having to land for a fuel fill up. The nuclear plane was actually to be a modified B-36 – the same plane whose engines graced the “Black Beetle.”

X-12 Diagram
Diagram of the X-12 from Railway Age magazine, June 1954.

The X-12 concept locomotive was 160 feet long, and contained a cylindrical Babcock and Wilcox-designed reactor, which measured three feet in diameter and a foot long. Fueled by Uranium-235, the locomotive was designed operate continuously for several months without ever having to refuel. Hypothetically, with eleven pounds of fuel it could run for an entire year, but in practice the fuel would likely need to be changed a few times a year. In total, the X-12 locomotive would weigh 360 tons, 200 tons of which would be a protective shield from the radiation of the reactor. Behind the locomotive would be a 65 foot radiator car, required for cooling the reactor.

To fit into the limited clearance required of a locomotive, unconventional machinery would be required for the X-12, designed to squeeze into tight spaces. And in order to operate such a small reactor to also fit in that space, the fuel had be highly refined, weapons grade uranium. Besides the 200 ton shielding protecting the reactor, in the event of a crash a forcible impact from any direction would cause the reactor to immediately shut down.

Inside the "Hot Engine"
Diagram of the X-12 from Popular Science, April 1954.

Unlike the aforementioned bizarre trains, the X-12 was never actually built. Though more feasible than the atomic aircraft, the locomotive would be expensive to build – at least $1.2 million. Maintenance on the locomotive would have been very difficult, as the inner workings would have become highly contaminated with radiation. And despite assurances that the reactor would be highly protected, safety would be sketchy at most if it were ever in an accident.

Safety is, of course, a very big consideration for any type of nuclear power. Though it could be argued that the effects of radiation on people were not fully known until after the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan, we eventually learned that nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, fever, and hemorrhaging were all hallmarks of exposure to ionizing radiation. In the optimism of the Atomic Age, many thought that these effects could be reversed, but in truth the effects of nuclear exposure were cumulative, and defects caused could even be passed on to future generations. Because of these very reasons, anti-nuclear sentiment began to spread, and the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster pretty much sealed the deal. Although there are many risks, nuclear power is truly a novel way of generating electricity without releasing the greenhouse gases that result in global warming, but you probably won’t see it operating your trains anytime soon.

Three Mile Island
A Norfolk Southern freight passes Three Mile Island, where there was a meltdown in 1979. The two dormant cooling towers on the right are from the second unit where the meltdown occurred, which has since been decommissioned.

Around the Country in Railroad Art Advertisements History

Friday, March 21st, 2014

As the weather starts to warm up, perhaps you’ve been thinking about vacation. There are plenty of cool spots that one can visit, all by train. As we’ve certainly covered on the blog before, America’s railroads had in their employ both painters and illustrators to create works to entice travelers. Leslie Ragan is certainly one of my favorites – he worked for the New York Central as well as the Budd Company – and about this time last year we were posting some of his spring-like imagery.

This time I thought it would be fun to take a tour of the country through railroad art. There are countless examples of awesome posters and ads, but these are some of my favorites. Perhaps it will even give you some ideas on places to travel this year.

Maybe a nice shorter trip will be in order? Cape Cod, New England, Atlantic City and even Washington DC are all possibilities. Artist Sascha Maurer designed for both the New Haven and the Pennsylvania Railroads. The New England and the Atlantic City art below was designed by Maurer. Ben Nason also designed an array of posters for the New Haven Railroad, including the Cape Cod poster below.

  
  

Maybe you’d like to travel to a different city, a litter further away? Maybe you should visit Cincinnati!

Despite the fact that I’m not a big fan of the Pennsy, you it is impossible to not love this poster by Mitchell Markovitz.

Chicago is always a lovely place to visit!
  

Did I say tour the country? I lied. Maybe a visit to Canada is in order?
 

Now who doesn’t love a nice trip to America’s National Parks, the Pacific Northwest, or even California? Maurice Logan, William and Kenneth Willmarth designed some of these lovely views of the western United States.
   
  
  

Maybe a nice jaunt to the southwest? Artists Don Perceval and Oscar Bryn created these lovely posters for the Santa Fe.
   

Are mountains more your thing? Austrian artist Gustav Krollmann worked on these lovely designs…
 

Oh forget it, let’s just go everywhere! The awesome Amtrak posters designed by illustrator David Klein in 1973 make me want to see the entire country. Klein has a large body of work that is travel-themed, stretched over his entire career. His most known works were for Trans World Airlines, but he also produced work for Holland America Cruises and travel website Orbitz. Klein’s undeniably gorgeous work made railroads once again appear glamorous, just as they were in yesteryear.

 
  

Now that we’ve traveled around the country through railroad art, are you planning to take a vacation to some interesting locale? Are you going to go by train? Let us know in the comments!

Shore Line East and Old Saybrook Train Photos

Friday, March 7th, 2014

In keeping with last week’s theme of exploring Connecticut, today we take a quick visit to the southern coast of the state to check out Shore Line East. As part of the important Northeast Corridor, many of the stations along the line have a long history with the old New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. Though some of the railroad historical buildings are still around (like the freight house, now restaurant in Old Saybrook), most of the Shore Line East stations are of relatively new construction (the exceptions being New Haven, which we’ve visited before, and New London, which deserves its own post at some point in the future).

Shore Line East is operated by Amtrak, so you’ll often catch CDOT locomotives in the old New Haven Railroad scheme, Amtrak locomotives, or a horrible mixture of both (hey boss, I put our sticker on the front, and painted over the Amtrak logo!). The service itself is fairly young – Shore Line East trains began running in May of 1990 – and the line was only supposed to be temporary while construction was being done on Interstate 95. Due to its popularity, however, Shore Line East became permanent.

   
  
 
 
Some views of the smaller stations on Shore Line East – Branford, Madison, Guilford, and Clinton.

Of the newer Shore Line East stations, Old Saybrook is probably the nicest, and a pretty good place for capturing trains. Besides the Shore Line East trains, about eighteen Amtrak trains stop here daily (which is actually more than Hartford, which we visited last week). Three tracks run through Old Saybrook, and the station consists of a side platform, an island platform, and an overpass connecting the two. Because it was started as a temporary operation, little money was spent on Shore Line East stations. However, once the service became permanent, proper stations were constructed, the first being Old Saybrook in 2002. Branford, Guilford, and Clinton were opened in 2005, and Madison in 2008.

Most Shore Line East trains terminate at Old Saybrook, though a few do go on to New London. The bane of Connecticut’s railroads are definitely the many movable bridges found along the shore line. Some are over a hundred years old, and cause slowdowns and nightmares for Metro-North. In Shore Line East’s case, the challenge to operating more service to New London is that trains must cross several movable bridges, bridges that the Connecticut Marine Trades Association fights to keep open for boats, as opposed to closed for trains. While some have big plans for the service (like connecting it to Rhode Island), it is these local issues that will have to be addressed first (not raiding the state’s Special Transportation Fund is another…).

  
 
  
 
  
   
 
   
 
  

A Fiery Centennial – Hartford Union Station Train History Photos

Friday, February 28th, 2014

Exactly one hundred years ago, Connecticut was gripped in a frigid and snowy winter, much like the one we are currently experiencing. And exactly one hundred years ago last Friday, Hartford’s Union station was ablaze. On its own, a fire can be pretty devastating enough, but coupled with the snow, firefighters had difficulty getting to the station to put the fire out. Ultimately there were several small explosions, one of which displaced a large section of the roof, pieces of which fell and destroyed the ticket office. The station was heavily damaged, and much of the items in the baggage room – where the fire started – were destroyed.

Hartford Union Station Fire
Hartford Union Station Fire Hartford Union Station Fire
All fire photos are from the Connecticut Historical Society, accessible at CTHistoryOnline.org

Originally constructed in 1889, Hartford’s Union station was built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, which first gained popularity in the Boston area and was used for several stations along the Boston and Albany Railroad. Conceptually designed by local architect George Keller, the bulk of the design work fell to architectural firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, successors of Henry Hobson Richardson (which is where the “Richardsonian” part comes from. Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge also designed a few stations we’ve featured: Chatham, Dobbs Ferry, Irvington, Tarrytown). The station featured the typical arches and rusticated stonework characteristic of his style, using stone quarried in Portland, Connecticut.

Hartford Union Station Fire
Hartford Union Station Fire Hartford Union Station Fire

Besides the 100th anniversary of the fire, the station is also celebrating the centennial of its rebirth. The entire building was not completely destroyed by the aforementioned fire, but the roof and interior were both gutted. Though some of the decorative arches at roof level were only slightly damaged, it was decided that the rebuild would not be to the exact specifications of the old station. Roof-level decorative elements were removed, and stonework was repaired – now bearing the date “1914″. The “new” Union Station boasted a full third story, and, as one would imagine, a fireproof roof.

Hartford Union Station Fire
The station after the fire was put out. Note the detail on the roof that no longer exists.

Despite spending the first twenty plus years of my life living in Connecticut, I am mildly embarrassed to admit that I had never visited Hartford’s Union Station until recently. Likewise, I must also admit that I was unaware that Hartford’s Latin motto is Post nubila, phoebus (after clouds, the sun). That motto can be found within the station, above the doors that once led out to the platform, flanked between the past and present of railroading – steam and electric.

Train at Hartford
A northbound train at Hartford in the late 1940s. Note the Capitol visible in the background. [image source]

These days, Hartford is not the hub it once was. No longer are the days where trains were plenty, and it has been many decades since quasi-celebrity citizens like Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe called Hartford home. About twelve trains stop daily at the station, the station is along Amtrak’s Vermonter, and Northeast Regional routes, and is a station stop on the New Haven – Springfield shuttle. Technically trains don’t run from the historical building – Amtrak occupies out of an addition underneath the viaduct carrying the railroad over the city, along with bus operators and a few fast food kiosks. One can, however, enter the addition from the historical depot.

If you’re ever passing through Hartford, the old station is at least worth a look. The stonework and detailing found on the exterior is undoubtedly beautiful, only marred by a few trappings of today – you’ll find security cameras just above decorative elements, and a garish Subway logo above a once more graceful arch. Be sure to check out the artwork at the top of the steps, and keep your eyes peeled for views of the the Capitol building from the platform.

 
  
   
  
   
  
 
 
 
  
 
  
  
 

Winter on the Harlem Line, 1888 and 2014 Train History Photos

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Right about now I am really looking forward to summer. I’m never a fan of the cold (despite sleeping in an ice hotel, and visiting Alaska in winter…) and this winter feels exceptionally so. The winter we’ve thus endured, however, pales in comparison to the winter of 1888. The Great Blizzard of 1888 is one of the most severe blizzards ever recorded in the US, with 22 inches of snow in New York City and 48 inches of snow in Albany. It took the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad eight days to clear the snow from their main line to New Haven. The New York and Harlem Railroad’s attempts were less successful, recorded as a small blip in the annals of history.

Meet Old Eli. This comical looking contraption was one of the first snowplows built for the New York Central Railroad in 1864. The plow was mounted on a six-wheeled truck, and connected to an engine with an old-fashioned push bar. The plow usually required several steam locomotives to push it, and for the 1888 blizzard the plow was being pushed by a total of five. It is worth mentioning that this plow was hardly an ingenious innovation, instead of pushing snow to the side, it often pushed the snow up and above the engine – a grievous issue when traversing an extremely narrow rock cut.


Scene from the wreck at Coleman’s during the Great Blizzard of 1888.

Heading north from White Plains, Old Eli was to clear the snow from the Harlem all the way to Chatham, but instead met doom at Coleman’s. The narrow rock cut there was plugged with snow, and the aforementioned deficiency of the plow ensured that the lead locomotive was thoroughly buried in the snow. All five locomotives derailed, Old Eli was destroyed beyond repair, and five crew members lost their lives, three of which were boiled alive by the lead steam locomotive.

 
New York City in the Great Blizzard of 1888, a subject that was heavily covered by the news of the day

Thankfully, most of our winters have been far less eventful, except maybe for the random guy running around wearing a horse mask. I’ve wandered around the Harlem Line during the past few snowstorms, capturing the trains and the people that make them run… so let’s take a little tour of the Harlem Line in the snow…