Sunday, August 01, 2004

Vintage Rails 

I was quite pleased with my first perusal of the magazine "Vintage Rails". Although you might think it is about early - turn of the 20th century trains, it is actually a collection of stories and photos of trains before today. The magazine does not seem to have a particular theme other than information on trains in the 19th and 20th centuries.

A story on a particular "fallen flag" railroad may be followed by a story on brake pipe hoses. Incidentally, I found the brake pipe hose story fascinating. In order to maneuver a train through a switch tree with the locomotive pushing such as the case where trains have to be spotted on tracks in a terminal, the pilot needed to be at the front end of the train. Because the engineer is in the locomotive at the back end of the train there had to be a method of communicating and applying the brakes from the end of the train. By connecting a hose with a valve to the "gladhand" on the last car, the pilot could stop the train by venting the brake hose with a valve just as the engineer does from his end. By controlling the air carefully the pilot could gently stop the train exactly where it need to be without using any signals, radio or whistles. The brake hose device usually had a whistle built in so the pilot could signal for other purposes - such as to warn people or vehicles that the train was coming. Apparently these brake pipe hoses were is great demand and the most elegant designs were copied and sometimes stolen by other brakeman who saw that they were superior to the devices that they had to use. The brakeman locked up their brake pipe hose adapter in their locker when they were not on duty as there was a high demand for the well designed units. Imagine the convenience of having a brake control at the tail of the train as it is being shove into a depot in the winter with heavy snow so you cannot even see the locomotive from the end car.

Another story might feature a particular locomotive or class of locomotives and the whereabouts of them. In this issue that was the case with some Southern Pacific locomotives and each survivor was noted and where they were.

A story on the self-propelled cars that were made for the Illinois Central and the Pennsylvania Railroads was quite interesting as well. These were something like long light rail or trolley cars that ran on the high rails as passenger trains. Similar to the Budd Zephyr self propelled cars, they were a solution looking for a problem. The American Car Factory built these as commuter trains that could hold perhaps 120 people and have a staff of 2. They were two cars joined together and some of them had motormen's positions on both ends to simplify the operation when you reached the end of the line. There were only four built and the Illinois Central decided that the two that they had were not useful after using them for a while in their operations so they returned them to the factory where they were refurbished and sent to the Pennsylvania Railroad who really liked them. At least two of the trains were in accidents which resulted in damage to their outside sheet metal.

Another story was about collectible items - specifically the chimes used by the dining car steward to announce meal times. There was a photograph of a chime and a story about the use of chimes and the end of the tradition on the trains.

The ads in the magazine seem to be the same as other railfan magazines - book & video suppliers as well as tours and trips. Some train dealers and prototype train item dealers are advertising in "Vintage Rails" as well.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Rail News 

I have been working my way through a large quantity of Rail News magazines that were given to me by a long-time subscriber. The main subscriber for this magazine is a die-hard rail fan. The issues focus on current operations by the large railroad operators in the US - including Amtrak. Each major rail line has a chapter devoted to its own information. The reports are laced with photos and offer real insight into the problems and services that the lines have. Many reports feature financial information as well as equipment additions, trades, donations and scrapping. It may seem interesting to read about the minute goings on of the rail lines but I find myself skimming over much of the material.

There is a feature story each month and several columns that are quite interesting. One column is called "From the Cab" as I recall. This is a recent Amtrak locomotive engineer who writes about things that he has done or seen. My personal opinion is that he is a talented writer and after reading a few of his stories, I was wishing he had written a book of these stories. He has and it is available from Pentrex.

The feature story is usually loaded with pictures and detailed in its subject matter. It may be about a place where there is a main line that crosses another or perhaps a story about a valley in an Eastern state where the railroads have to cross a river and each others lines routinely.

One further point is that a section of the magazine is devoted to "traction". This is the broad class of vehicles that encompasses subways, elevated, trolley and light rail. There are many cities and metropolitan areas that are starting, operating, planning or overhauling traction. This section abounds with stories about these and other subjects.

Advertisements fill this book and they plug magazines, timetables, videos, books and other magazines as well as train travel and tours. If it is rail connected, there are ads about it. Sometimes I find the ads almost as interesting as the stories.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Live Steam Magazine 

My latest issue appeals to me because it is not devoted to steam engines, in fact the cover story is about a heat operated fan! The title is perhaps somewhat of a misnomer in that the magazine seems to be actually more targeted at machinists who like mechanical projects than live steamers (scale railroaders). This is not to say that the average live steam railroader would not get anything out of the magazine - far from it. The comment was made to convey the broad spectrum of projects they feature with some (oddly) not even steam related!

I started a subscription to Live Steam Magazine last summer and although it is not dedicated to steam railroads specifically, it does have a great relevance to people who love steam locomotives (of all sizes). The magazine includes steam boats, machine tool information, steam locomotives and stationary steam engine information as well as traction engines. Certainly steam locomotives are the main focus but it is an eclectic magazine. There are ads for steam castings and electric motors as well as other related products such as machine tools and gas and electric powered scale locomotives. If you want to get just one magazine to see what the live steam hobby has to offer, this is probably the magazine for you. You could become intimidated by the articles but if you realize there are people of great skill and ability reading this magazine as well as beginners you can read those articles about the complicated projects to gain insight into just what goes into building a machine like a steam engine.

Simple engines are covered as well as detailed instructions to build your own live steam locomotive. Currently they have articles about building three different locomotives by three authors. It is interesting to see what detail each one finds important. One man writes about making the handles for the valves and mentions that he found prototype handles and his are based on those. Other authors buy valves and handles or make crude handles themselves. The contrast is amazing between the various builders, but then, steam locomotives at the club also vary greatly in detail and finish.

More than locomotives can be found - steam boats, steam motors and machining tips and instructions for making metal projects. If you have an interest in building or owning a steam related machine, then this is the magazine for you. You do not have to build or machine anything yourself as there are resources that can supply what you need ready-to-run in many cases. If you have a curiosity about metal work or steam power then you cannot be without this magazine.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Book Review - The Life and Times of a Railroad Engineer - Steffes  

This book was written by a man who was an engineer in the Los Angeles area on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Resembling a diary in some ways, when Steffes writes about things that happened on particular trips he writes in detail and he sometimes includes very personal comments such as when he writes about his marital infidelity. He does give you a sense of the life he led and what happened on the railroad. He is certainly forthright about his viewpoint and you might feel he is somewhat pigheaded in his response to some of the situations he mentions. His book is not a polished literary work but a tale of his life and it is in print - warts and all.

Throughout the book you gather he has a code of conduct that he adheres to. He struggles with his sexual situation and does not see his actions as problematic with respect to that code. He tends to see the work life as a separate entity from his personal life. I am not trying to say that he does not live a life of respect for marriage and his family rather I am saying his struggle for personal fulfillment seems at odds with his professional conduct code from time to time. He certainly does not act in the most honorable way at all times on the job either but it seems there is a dichotomy.

As an engineer, Steffes, appears to grasp the concept of doing the right thing and what he lacks in personal relations with his first wife and some other people at the railroad, he makes up with his concern for doing a good job. He constantly mentions the safety aspects of railroading and tries to operate only in a safe way - even if it will get him into trouble with the railroad. While the railroad seems to be motivated by money over safety, he and many others I am certain, want to do their job professionally to make sure they all get back home safely when the job is done.

Although the book is illustrated with a few drawings, it is relative devoid of images. You will have to use your imagination as you peruse the text. I almost prefer this as I get images in my mind as I read along and they are more vivid than the pen and ink drawings are.

The book is about an inch thick but it is printed on cheap paper like paperback books are printed on that is thicker than regular paper. There are a lot of train stories and he mentions names of the people he worked with and for at various places when he remembers their names. The stories are usually uneventful but just as you are lulled into thinking this is all there is, a story about a train wreck comes along. He diverges to talk about his personal business he and his wife have on the side - a landscape nursery. He writes about his friend who joins him in the venture and the results which are interesting to say the least.

He has little good to say about the railroad officials who seem to have a sole purpose to interfere with the smooth and proper operation of the railroad. Detailing some of the incidents and his reaction to those incidents you get a picture of grave disharmony between the working train crews and the railroad head office people. Obviously a great deal of history is missing from his book as some of his reactions to the officials make him come off as a jerk for no apparent reason. I suspect there are more unrelated stories under the surface that would help us to understand why he has such a strong animosity about the company but they are unwritten.

As an engineer he shows us that the main work he did was somewhat mental. When he reported for a "call", he would get his orders to designate his motive power and crew. He would then go to the locomotive or group of locomotives and begin checking them for operational status. Then he would look at the tonnage of the load and calculate the motive power needed and the amount of brakes to stop such a load. They would then proceed to the "consist" and hook up and after getting a go-ahead signal, do a brake test to ensure the ability of the brakes to stop the train. If all was okay, they would get train orders for the trip and permission to leave the yard or siding. The engineer and conductor worked together to ensure the train would make it safely to its destination. He has a high regard for the brakemen and firemen that he worked with and lamented the loss of the firemen from the trains mainly because it was not as safe to have just a single person looking.

Accidents are rare with trains but never the less they do happen. Steffes relates several in the book and we are spared the gore that could have been a part of their descriptions. He does not waste emotion on the incidents but in his remarks it is obvious that he was affected by each of them.

The book ends with kind of a whimper. Rather than a wrap up and transitional story, it sort of just stops and leaves you wondering what is the rest of the story.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Book Review - The Railroad That Came Out At Night - Frank Kyper  

This book is about the railroads running through the Boston area. In the city of Boston there were two terminals that served the city - a North and South terminal. After a short time they realized that they needed a connection between them but the city was reluctant to allow any trains to go through the city. Finally a compromise was reached with the city that they could build a railroad that would connect the two stations and service the piers along the waterfront if they restricted their operations to the nighttime hours. This provided the basis for the title of the book. Because of the narrow streets where they laid their double main line, they had to adopt the left side running or English system of running as the spur line curves were too sharp to connect with the track on the same side of the street. This made the track department a lot of extra work as they had to cut the rails of the second main track and put in diamonds to keep the wheels on the track at each spur. Since the street was not built on a high quality road base (actually it was built on a land fill) the tracks did not have much support so they constantly needed repair and alignment. The speed of the trains on the railroad was less than 10 miles an hour and even that was a risky speed for some stretches of the track.

There were factories and warehouses along the streets they operated on and when the First World War came about they were pressed into service to carry the raw materials for the munitions plant in Boston and the finished munitions to the docks for shipping over to Europe. One cargo item for the munitions plant was molasses and while conveying a large amount of the material it's railcar had an accident and a huge amount of it spilled on the ground. Unfortunately, molasses and railroading do not mix as it is slippery and very difficult to remove from rails and wheels. They had their shops people out for ages scrubbing and scraping molasses from everywhere. I can imagine the molasses attracted insects and vermin as well.

After the war they went back to their old routine but more was being shipped by trucks and less by rail. The manufacturing plants started closing during the depression and that cut further into their business. Although some fishing ships still came into Boston Harbor, the catches were dropping as the fishermen were over fishing the fishery. The railroad still transported fish from the B & M Fish Company but the business was dwindling. The Second World War brought more shipping bound for the docks to go to Europe but after the war ended, that business was gone and the railroad laid off more workers. They switched to diesel locomotives as they were more reliable and required fewer people to operate and this put more people out of work as well. The track got worse and the work petered out so the railroad eventually called it quits.

Other railroads played a part of the Boston railroad history. The Fore River was an interesting outfit. They were a part of the shipyard founded by Thomas Watson of the Bell Telephone fame. He got into ship building with a small shipyard and after getting a government contract for ships for the Great War, he expanded his shipyard at a new site near the mouth of the Fore River. His shipyard eventually became a part of General Dynamics but that is getting ahead of the story. His need for transportation into the shipyard of the raw material and assemblies was hampered by poor road service. Wagons and early trucks could not reliably deliver the material his factory needed to operate so he built rails. After using horses to pull the loads initially, he purchased locomotives and extended the tracks until they were about 3 miles long to where they connected up with another railroad. He came up against a wealthy landowner where he needed to make a curve to connect the track to the other railroad and the landowner would not sell the unused land to Watson. The man insisted Watson buy the entire estate so eventually that is what Watson did. The railroad proved to be an excellent aid in supplying the shipyard and even after the depression Watson's shipyard was again pressed into service for World War II with the Fore River Railroad working hard to make it all possible. The steamers were wearing out and the railroad stared buying diesels which proved to be underpowered for their needs. But the die was cast and larger diesels were purchased and soon the steamers were retired and scrapped. Not too long afterwards, the railroad was to see its last run. The shipyard ran out of work and the other industries along the track started to rely on trucks.

The book details other railroads in the area that came into Boston (i.e. Boston & Albany Railroad, New Haven, et al) and their relationship to each other. Since the author had been a crossing gate attendant for one of the railroads - the Boston & Albany, he had some first hand knowledge of the railroad situation in the Boston area. He also was involved with railfan groups in the Boston area and planed and took part in many railfan tours on the local railroads. He illustrates the book with photographs of many of the trains and places he mentions in the book. He was working when fire swept through the Chelsea area near Boston where he had been a crossing gate attendant and he tells his story about the fire and what he and others did to save the old buildings and railroad property.

There is a chapter with photos of Alan Flagler's train "The Flying Scottsman" when it came to the US back in the 1980s. They show it being unloaded from the ship that brought it over and the cars being unloaded as well. The green locomotive was in this country for almost three years and the story is interesting to read. It was sent on a trip around the country as a promotional tour for the English and served that purpose well.

I found it an entertaining book that was somewhat small but sold at a small price to match. The pictures are worth the price for the tome and the stories were interesting - even if you are not from the Boston area.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Book Review - So You Want To Build A Live Steam Locomotive  

I am slowly working my way through this book. I got the book in late July or early August and expected to read it within a few days. The book is somewhat hard for me to describe - it is written by a man that has been into Live Steaming for quite a few years. He has a background that encompasses metal work and has been in Live Steaming clubs for a long time. He sprinkles his text with personal experiences and makes flat statements about an assortment of issues. He seems to enjoy the hobby and wants to impart some of the knowledge he has accumulated over the years. On the other hand, he is not the best writer of prose I have come across.

Illustrating his pages are pictures of various steam engines and information about who owns them and where they are from. Many of the pictures are fairly old and the book itself is fairly old - as a matter of fact. It is still quite enjoyable for me to see the locomotives that were built over the years and perhaps are not available for me to see in person anymore. If you see the book as a primer on live steam locomotives and not as a textbook or your only guide to building your own locomotive it is a very useful book.

It covers major parts of locomotives and some general knowledge items as well such as water, metals, silver soldering and welding. There is a drawing of a steam locomotive with the various items called out for identification. I do have to admit there is a difficulty for non-railroaders reading this book as the author refers to things that he has not defined. A reference to a mud ring is early in the book but is not explained up to that point in the book. A glossary might be a good idea for future editions as well as a foldout of a steam locomotive with a parts callout. The author is not one to make very many recommendations so it is somewhat difficult to see what he prefers for the points where there are several choices that can be made. An example is when he discusses check valves. He points out there are ball check valves and plain check valves but does not point out if one is superior to the other or why you would chose one for one application and the other for another. Another example is the Belpaire boiler. Although he refers to it and details the problems for fabricating such a boiler he does not describe what it is nor does he say what advantage there is to a Belpaire over a standard boiler or why a person would want one. While looking at the drawings, I was able to understand what it is and why he might recommend you do not try to build one but he never says anything about it.

The cross-sectional drawings are a help in understanding the operation of a part and I applaud his use of the cross-sectionals. They are used for illustration in many areas in the book.

A part of the author takes it for granted that you have a machine-shop background and understand the tools and methods of such a place. This is not to say that the author talks over one's head, actually he seems to be truly interested in imparting his knowledge to beginners.

Chapters that stick in my mind are "valve motions" and boilers. Valve motions are a difficult subject as there were quite a number of them and there are variations of somewhat standard motions. The Stephenson valve motion is a fairly well known motion that is covered in some detail. Also the Baker has a prominent place in the chapter. Why is this important to a Live Steamer? The valve motion is perhaps the single most important part of a locomotive. The valve motion is the factor that decides when the steam is added to the driving cylinder and exhausted. Using a valve motion driven from the driving wheels or cams on the main driving axels is the only way to get a locomotive to automatically sequence the steam process for an efficient and powerful forward motion of the main driving wheels. The steam engine designers struggled with various valve motions over the years to find a mechanism to properly operate the valves to deliver the most horsepower for the amount of steam available with the least wear on the mechanicals. After you get it all to work correctly and efficiently going forward, then there is the problem of how do you get the locomotive to go in reverse?

Boilers are a subject all their own. The author elaborates on how a boiler is designed and fabricated from steel and copper. He touches on stainless-steel but draws the conclusion that a stainless-steel boiler is a better choice to use as it is more durable and easier to steam. My associates tell me that it may be far more durable but they are notoriously hard to keep up to temperature as the steel does not transmit the heat from the firebox to the water boiler efficiently. The main boiler may keep the heat once it is input to the boiler but getting the heat into the boiler is a nightmare. Actual construction details of steel and copper boilers are included as well as pictures and drawings of the process. Since this is the main point that the locomotive can be truly dangerous I suggest that you leave boiler fabrication to the experts. Running too fast for conditions and derailing is a major problem for railroaders and having a boiler blow up from a weak spot is another thing you do not want to be around when it happens.

A chapter is devoted to what hapens on a run day for a live steamer. It covers what steps to go through to get a locomotive fired up and prepared to run. He disusses the various methods of getting a draft in the boiler firebox and the pros and cons of each. He discusses fans and what speed and capacity of air movement is necessary for the locomotives. He explains what to use to get a fire started in the cold firebox (he recommends kerosene soaking your starting materials and using a fan) and what to put in to keep it going.

Another chapter deals with care of a steam engine. After you have one and want to fire it up and run the thing, what do you have to do to keep it runing and working at peak efficiency? Cleaning the boiler tubes, water issues to rakeing the fire grate are all important maintenance issues. Lubricating the moving parts and arranging the coal in the firebox are covered as well.

Operating rules and whistle signals are covered as well as advice about how engineers should operate with courtesy and safety as touchstones. There is information about how to manufacture your own tools to help in construction such as tube rollers for making the seal on boiler tubes during construction of boilers or refitting boilers with burned out or damaged tubes. Other tools are described for building and maintaining your steam locomotive.

Although the book is somewhat dated with much material from the mid to late 1900s, there are many photographs and illustrations that will be of value to a live steam enthusiast. I you are trying to decide if this is the hobby for you, this book may or may not convince you to give it a try. I think it gives a perspective that from a technically inclined mechinistists viewpoint. The author does not lose the sense that the whole purpose of the hobby is to have fun with trains. It is too easy to get wrapped up in the machining and building and never actually enjoy the hobby of sharing time with others while using your train.

Sunday, June 22, 2003

7+ Railroader Magazine 

For rail fans of all sorts this is an excellent magazine to subscribe to. The publication is heavy in pictures and descriptions of railroad operations. There are ads for just about all manner of railroad information. You can find out where tourist trains are running and order books and videos about trains as well as find out what trains are discontinuing operations and where you can buy railroad equipment. The stories seem to be fact filled essays illustrated liberally with pictures and are tailored to people who want to know everything there is to know about trains.

In the copy I just finished reading, there was a story about the Wisconsin Central railroad ceasing operations. They showed the locomotives and talked about he trackage and the people that put the railline together from scraps of other railroads. The stories and facts were crafted together to make the piece interesting to the reader and especially to a rail fan.

If you are looking for a magazine targeted to folks who own and build 1.5" scale trains, then this is your magazine. The usual articles feature equipment and locations that feature rail for the 7.25 and 7.5" equipment. This is the most popular riding size made. The scale may be 1.4, 1.5 or 1.6 or larger, if the maker is modeling narrow gauge, depending on the design. Most live steam sites seem to include 7.5" track (or 7.25" if out east) as a matter of standard. The articles are easy reading and appeal to most live steamers. This is a definite to subscribe.

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