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Posts Tagged ‘train’

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.

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.

 
  
   
  
   
  
 
 
 
  
 
  
  
 

A final look at the Alaska Railroad Train Photos

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

In 2013 I spent a lot of time talking about the Alaska Railroad – I got a chance to visit Alaska in both February and September, and had quite a few photos (and videos) to share. This post, however, will probably be the last time I talk about Alaska for a while. This is the last set of photos that I’ve not yet posted, for the most part showing the route from Fairbanks to Denali, along with some views of the Alaska Railroad’s passenger coaches and domes.

If you missed any of our previous Alaska posts, here is a complete listing:
February
Alaska Railroad, Part 1
Alaska Railroad, Part 2
The Dalton Highway & Arctic Circle
Chena Hot Springs

September
Alaska Greetings
Seward, Coastal Classic Route
South of Anchorage
Palmer & Airport Branches
The Whittier Tunnel
Fairbanks area
The Anchorage Shops
Tanana Valley Railroad Museum

Someday I’ll probably get back to Alaska, but because of the very few vacation days I get, I’d prefer to go places I’ve never been before. But if Alaska is on your list of “must visit” places – GO! All seasons offer entirely different experiences – from the never-setting sun in summer, to the icy cold aurora viewing in the winter. Despite what you’d probably think, visiting Alaska in the winter isn’t totally crazy if you are adequately prepared (a thermal base layer is essential). In fact, traveling over the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and then visiting the Chena Hot Springs (located about an hour outside of Fairbanks) is actually pretty popular. Popular enough for the Alaska Railroad to be offering additional mid-week trains in March. But trust me, soaking in an outdoor hot spring in negative degree weather is pretty awesome.

Anyway, I won’t regale you with any further Alaska stories. I think all my previous posts do that fairly effectively. As you check out my final glimpses of Alaska, I have my eyes focused at some interesting places in Eastern Europe for later on this year…

 
   
   
  
 
   
  
 
  
   
  
 
   
  
  
 
 

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…

 
  
   
 
  

   
  
   

   
 
   
  

   
   
  
   
  
   
 
  

The Keys to Grand Central Terminal – 3D Printing a railroad key fit for the centennial History Photos

Friday, December 27th, 2013

Just five days before the opening of Grand Central Terminal, Miles Bronson was appointed the General Manager of the New York Central’s greatest station. Born in India to missionary parents, Bronson returned to the United States for education and got his first railroad job at the tender age of fifteen. Appointed to the job of Grand Central’s General Manager at the 37, Bronson had worked for the New York Central for thirteen years, and he served as Grand Central’s general manager for 21 more years before retiring due to illness (he passed away a short time after).

As festivities kicked off celebrating the opening of the new Terminal, meals were served, music was played, and Mr. Bronson was presented with the keys to the Terminal in a ceremony next to the information booth. While we’ll probably never know exactly what those keys looked like, I’d like to think that they were embellished with the logo of Grand Central Terminal. Maybe something a little like this…

Key in polished brass

In my most recent endeavor with 3D printing (if you’ve been around a while, you may recall that my first 3D model ever was of Brewster station), I set about the task of making a Grand Central key as a gift for a friend who is a Metro-North conductor. 3D printing keys isn’t a unique concept – in fact Shapeways and KeyMe have joined up to print house keys. But what if you’re looking for a key for something different… like say, a train? Maybe a Metro-North train?

From sketchbook to reality
From sketchbook to reality…

The key was modeled in 3D using Tinkercad
The key was modeled in 3D using Tinkercad, and then 3D printed using Shapeways.

Metro-North’s trains usually have two different keys – one for operations, and the other for opening panels and doors, which all conductors have. I sketched and measured a panel key, and built it in 3D using Tinkercad. Instead of the standard key end, this key is customized with the Grand Central logo – a stylized version of the letters GCT. For testing purposes I made a few versions of the key in plastic (or as Shapeways would call it, Strong and Flexible – a laser sintered nylon)…

Key in Black Strong and Flexible

And then made a gift version in polished brass…

Key in polished brass

These days railroad keys aren’t made in brass, but historically they were made in that material, and I figured it would be perfect to create this key. Polished brass is still a trial material at Shapeways, but considering how awesome this key looks, you’d probably never know. With a red velvet ribbon and pouch, the key is ready for gifting. Though the key does work on trains, most likely it will only be used for decorative purposes so it doesn’t get lost.

Three keys - WSF, Polished Brass, Black SF

Because of the somewhat sensitive nature of this key, I’m not making this item available for sale (yes, I know, plenty of people that don’t work for Metro-North have these keys, but I’m not going to make it easy. An exception could potentially be made if you’re a railroad employee, or if you’d like a key that doesn’t actually work for decorative purposes only). However, a few of my other Grand Central themed 3D prints are available if you’re interested…

Grand Central Constellation Pegasus:
Constellation Pegasus
3D Printed in Colored Sandstone, this little item can be used as a pendant, keychain, or decoration. I’ve used it in the past as a fancy tag for a gift. It features the constellation Pegasus from Grand Central’s sky ceiling.
See it in 3D.

Grand Central Snowflake:
Grand Central snowflake
This snowflake ornament is modeled after the acorn motif found throughout Grand Central Terminal. Acorns are found throughout the Terminal as they were the adopted “crest” of the Vanderbilt family. This specific design can be found embellishing the ticket windows.
See it in 3D.

While 3D printing is already changing model railroading – Shapeways has a category devoted to it, and companies like Flexiscale are producing kits using parts fabricated on 3D printers – it is always fun to create something railroad related for the “real world.” Though 3D printing has immense promise in allowing the masses to fabricate things they could previously only imagine, and creating things that were previously impossible, it is also interesting to take an already functional object and make it more attractive. Suffice it to say, nobody was thinking about how pretty a railroad key would be when they were first designed. Now we can have both – a working key fit for Grand Central Terminal’s centennial.