Month: November 2016

The Shiny Irons in Fire and Ice

The latest of many “first missions to Mars” took place on the silver screen in 2015. In “The Martian”, actor Matt Damon played NASA Astronaut Mark Watney, whose bum luck left him stranded on the Red Planet as his crewmates flew home. Hatching a plan to trek cross-… umm… -planet to a leftover NASA spacecraft from several missions back, Watney must deal with the dread consequences of cold feet.

Good news, I may have a solution to my heating problem. Bad news, it involves me digging up the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator. Now, if I remember my training correctly, one of the lessons was titled… “Don’t Dig Up the Big Box of Plutonium, Mark.”

Y’see, it’s really cold there, Mars being 1-1/2 times farther from the sun than our balmy world. On average, the Martian mercury hovers around -60 degrees Centigrade!! Back here on Earth, a safer heat source than that used by Watney was discovered in 1972 in the far north of Russia (at the time, the USSR). The Bovanenkova natural gas field is up there where the snow-bunnies play, and the production facility had transportation issues from opening day. Product could be moved to the coast by pipeline, but equipment, parts, creature comforts for the crew, etc. had to be moved overland… er, over-snow. In 2012 the facility began production, with the heavy hauling being done over the Obskaya–Bovanenkovo Railroad Line. This stretch of the Chilly Irons was built in 2010 and runs 525km. northward from Obskaya. The line has the frigid distinction of being the northernmost operational rail line on Mars… excuse me, on Earth. The gas company’s polar parka’d passengers will contend with the same issue as Astronaut Watney — staying warm, as winter temps can drop to -60C here as well. Good thing it’s a natural gas facility!

Cold is not the only extreme condition the shiny irons must brave. Another far north rail line is the Hay River line operated by the Canadian National Railway. First opened as the Great Slave Lake Railway in 1964, the line was built by the Canadian government to facilitate the transport of lead and zinc from the now defunct Pine Point Mine, among other mines. The sub-arctic terrain on which the rail line rests is hard frozen in the winter, but turns marshy and soft in the spring. When summer arrives, the ground becomes a hard pan, and with the onset of autumn, the cycle repeats. This continual change of consistency provides “job security” for track bed maintenance crews!

Actual northern latitudes of the northernmost rail lines in North America. The Arctic Circle is 66 degrees 33 minutes 46.4 seconds, so these rail lines will actually have some daylight even during the winter.

Hay River, NWT: 60 degrees 49 minutes 59 seconds
Fort Nelson, BC: 58 degrees 48 minutes 21 seconds
Churchill, MB: 58 degrees 46 minutes 9 seconds
Fort St. John, BC: 56 degrees 24 minutes
Skagway, AK: 59 degrees 28 minutes 7 seconds
Anchorage, AK: 61 degrees 13 minutes 6 seconds

After serving as the King of Gondor in the Peter Jackson retelling of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy, actor Viggo Mortensen took a job as a cowboy in “Hidalgo”. The meat of this story concerned a horserace across the Rub al Khali, or “Empty Quarter” in the Arabian Peninsula. This inviting tract of land is the largest continuous expanse of sand on the planet. While the consensus among geographers, historians and horserace handicappers is that there never was such a race across this scorching sand box, there is… a railroad. The Saudi Railway Company is one of two government-owned railway companies in Saudi Arabia. Partnering with three U.K. -based companies, the Saudi company is developing a rail line to provide 200km/h service over a variety of routes… and since this is a desert, the equipment and infrastructure is required to provide this speed rating at 55 degrees Celsius, or 131 degrees Fahrenheit. The rail line from Jeddah, through Riyadh, to Dammam does not actually go through the Rub al Khali, but skirts the northern extent of the ever-shifting sand. After all, it’s hard to lay train tracks on a surface that won’t stay put long enough to support lizard tracks!

Cold and swamp and desert sand, we’ve laid track on most every land… at least in the short term. Perhaps the most challenging terrain, though, is that through which humans have struggled to pass for most of our history:


One of the early transportation problems in the United States was the moving of coal from the Allegheny mountains to the population centers. An early solution was the “Grand Old Ditch”, more appropriately, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. With 78 locks, the canal flows 185 miles from Georgetown to Cumberland, Md. The engineering required to move water up an elevation of 605 feet was, for it’s time, astounding. However, the Industrial Revolution spurred the development of new technology which was the death knell for the man-made rivers of the 18th century. A proposal to extend the ‘Ditch to Pittsburgh was tabled, then dismissed as the shiny irons proved their worth. An old and notable utility you will remember from the Monopoly board game, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad soon mastered the mountainous miles to Steel City, no locks needed.

The craving for coal led to some feats of engineering in the Appalachian Mountains which were equal to that which gave us the C&O Canal. George Lafayette Carter, director of several coal production facilities in southern Virginia, needed a way to transport his “black diamonds” to users in the metropolises. The shiny irons had much experience in this type of work, so Carter obtained financing to build a railroad into the hills. Some bankers doubtless questioned his sanity, as this likely seemed the equivalent of building a canal to Pittsburgh. Carter was not dissuaded and resolved to not only build the railroad, but to build it to higher standards than any other. The result was thirty five tunnels, six main bridges, innumerable large cuts and fills, and 211 miles of irons, rising from the 948-foot elevation of Bostic, N.C. to a height of 2629 feet at the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Called “the costliest railroad in America”, the Clinchfield Railroad not only hauled coal out of the mountains but also brought the outside world into those mountains. An engineering marvel within this engineering marvel, the Clinchfield Loops allowed the rail line to climb the mountains’ imposing slopes and still maintain a 2% grade. The Loops were completed in 1908, after three years of gritty, extremely dangerous work by an estimated 4000 workers. Blasting, digging and hammering their way over, through and under the Blue Ridge Mountains, rock slides and cave-ins were common, and it is estimated that twice as many deaths occurred in the building of the Loops as in the building of Hoover Dam. George Carter’s vision of a quality railroad has been borne out, as the Clinchfield did not have to make sacrifices in speed or tonnage as locomotives and rolling stock modernized, though at 14 degrees, some of the curves are sharper than common minimums.

In 406, a Visigothic king, Alaric I laid siege to Rome, bringing “eternity” to the Eternal City. Barbarians of all stripes had long dreamed of attacking the city but had always exhausted themselves going around. Going around the Alps. This impressive mountain range has long separated northern Europe from the wine and pasta of the Mediterranean states, but does so no more! At 57.09 kilometers (35.5 miles), the fourth longest tunnel, and the longest railway tunnel in the world, Switzerland’s Gotthard Base Tunnel blasts a line under the Alps, connecting Erstfeld in the north with Bodio in the south.  Here is a cross-section of the tunnel streaking under the St. Gotthard Massif.  Note the scale of altitude on the left, showing the nearly 10,000 foot height of the mountain above the tunnel.


Photo: AlpTransit Gotthard AG


Bridges and tunnels have aided us for millennia in our quest to move from here to there, and for the Irons, they have often changed the course from “not possible” to “smooth and fast.” Here are some record length, height and even depth of bridges and tunnels.

Thank you for joining us, and keep the rails shiny!!

Play a Train Song

The Clinchfield would never have plowed its way into Appalachia without the help of those strapping railroad workers who swung the nine-pound hammers. “The Legend of John Henry”

From an episode of “Midwestern Hayride”, Merle Travis, with some commentary.

A Tale of Gauge (or, How Wide is a Railroad?)

Related by John Moody in “The Railroad Builders” a story is told of a conversation between New York Central Railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt and a minor competitor…. The owner of the small railroad suggested trading free passes with The Commodore, who replied,

“Why, my dear sir,” exclaimed the Commodore, “my railroad is more than three hundred miles long, while yours is only seventeen miles.”
“That may all be so,” replied the other, “but my railroad is just as wide as yours.”

Before the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, travelers made the 2000-mile trek on foot, carrying their belongings in a wagon. A digital simulation of this voyage, the computer game “Oregon Trail” has a lot of places where the player can “meet their maker.” One of them is the Kansas River crossing near Topeka. The well-heeled sojourner will pay for the ferry ($5 as I remember), while the hardy will caulk their wagons against encroaching water and float them across. The latter is a dangerous play on what was, at the time, a most dangerous journey. For the modern traveler recreating the voyage, the river crossing will be much more manageable, given the fine bridge available on U.S. Highway 75 just west of town. Moving through the high plains of Nebraska and Wyoming, the latter-day pilgrim will also find the trail still visible, and still very much as it was in those bygone days. Even after 150 years, a line of parallel ruts marks the path of those who came (long) before. Called “wagon swales”, these ruts have been forged by the iron tyres of countless wagons, packing the fertile soil into a hard pan that even the tenacious grasses of the prairie are helpless to penetrate. As the ruts developed over the years, they not only served to mark the trail, but also made a smoother track for the wagons that followed. It was this need for a “smoother track” that drove the development of the railroads, both on the European continent and here in the “colonies.” The abysmal condition of what roads did exist meant commerce between towns would be slow at best, and vagaries of weather could bring it to a halt. Construction of a tracked road provided the smoother track and helped minimize the effects of bad weather.

Before the development of the steam powered locomotive changed the face of commerce, goods were moved over long distances by water-borne transport. The wagon or tram ways, precursors of the modern railroads, needed only the capacity to enable movement within a community, to nearby communities, and of course, to the docks where a barge or ship waited to do the “heavy hauling.”

The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries led to an avalanche of new manufacturing processes, including the rolling of steel. This process was quickly turned to the production of steel rails for tram ways. At the same time, as the steam engine became smaller and more powerful, it was adapted to power the wagons on the tram ways. The technology matured and ever heavier loads could be carried at ever higher speeds, making the railroad a truly viable solution for long distance travel….

Except for one small detail…


The distance between the rails of a railroad is called “gauge”. It is measured from the inside of the head of one rail to the inside of the head of the other rail. For most of its history, the development of rail ways had been a local affair. There was ample interchange of ideas, but the engineering decisions were made by the local builders, with no thought given to standardization. After all, the rail roads were miles apart, and any long-distance shipping was done by waterways, not wagonways. As a result, the gauge of different railroads was not always the same.

The first railroads in the were built to a bewildering variety of gauges, each of which worked well in isolation. The fledgeling industry asserted itself as a long-distance transportation mode and it became necessary to transfer loads from one railroad to another. If the gauge was different, this meant unloading one rail car and loading the freight on another… not an efficient system! Other solutions varied from the sublime to the ridiculous; a third rail set between the other two gave two different gauges, wheels were made able to be moved inward on the axles to a different gauge, even steam-powered machines to lift an entire car off its trucks (the wheelsets the railcar rides on are called “trucks”) and set it on another set of different gauged trucks! As one contemprary writer quipped;

“not a prominent point could be found … without its ‘hoist’ and acres of extra trucks.”

The best solution, of course, is to make the gauge the same for all railroads. This certainly had its advantages, and for the most part, everyone could agree on which gauge to use… THE ONE I’M USING!!!  Reluctant and recalcitrant railroad regauging led to conflict in many places. These disagreements, called “gauge wars”, ran the gamut from heated town council meetings, to lawsuits, to open fighting. In a series of events in Erie, Pa., there was even a faction arguing against standardizing at all!! Local labor was employed to unload and load train cargo, and local restaurants and hotels grew flush on the dollars of passengers laying-over while the cargo was transferred. Such a revenue stream made finding a permanent solution to the gauge problem less enticing.

By the middle of the 19th century, the U.S. Railroad industry was running on as many as twenty different gauges of track, with no fewer than five gauges covering the lions share of the miles. In England, the railroads had standardized on a gauge set at 4′-8 1/2” (1435mm) by Order of Parliament in 1846. This was the spacing favored by George Stephenson for the 1826 Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and had been used in about three-fourths of the track mileage in England. Correspondingly, this gauge was used on many railroads in the northeast U.S., as those builders had used equipment purchased from England and built to that gauge. By the 1850s, the problem was widespread enough to generate serious action toward standardization.

The “last straw” would be the Civil War. Break of gauge slowed shipments of men and materiel to areas of need, and the decision was made to standardize gauges nationwide. With Pacific Railway Act of 1863, the federal land grant transcontinental railroad offered impetus for standardization, mandating a 4′ 8-1/2” gauge for that long-legged stretch. By 1886, all major U.S. Railroads had changed to what had become “standard gauge.”

In the southern U.S., this national push for standardization led to one of the most amazing construction feats in the history of travel. Over two incredible days in May, 1886, 11,500 miles of track was changed from 5′ gauge to the standard gauge. Planning and preparation for this changeover had been ongoing since early February, when the officers of the railroads affected met in Atlanta. A date was chosen and a general plan of action formulated. The “standard” gauge in this case was not the U.S. Standard of 4′-8 1/2”, however. The Pennsylvania Railroad had adopted a gauge of 4′-9”, which proved to work adequately in interchange with rolling stock designed for 4′-8 1/2”. A number of Southern railroads had interchange requirements with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and as a consequence, the Convention adopted this target width for the regauging endeavor. In the weeks leading up to the changeover date, materials were distributed to maintenance shops throughout the south. Only one rail would be moved, and since the gauge was being narrowed, the ties which were in place could be used. The inside spikes were driven into each crosstie in preparation for the change, and outside spikes and rail fastening hardware were placed nearby. Then, beginning on 30 May, 1886 the change was made. In approximately 36 hours, the entirety of the southern U.S. 5′ gauge trackage was regauged to 4′-9”. The change did not affect only track, though. A huge number of locomotives and railcars needed to be changed as well. These were refitted with wheels spaced for the new gauge in the months leading up to the changeover date. The wind was in the wire regarding the U.S. Standard gauge, and most rolling stock was fitted to work optimally on a 4′-8 1/2” gauge. The formation of the Southern Railway Company in 1884 put the final “spike” into mis-matched gauges and in the course of normal maintenance, all Southern Railway track was changed to 4′-8 1/2” gauge.

There are still several railroads using “other” gauges, however. Some railroads in the U.S., mostly in mountainous regions, use a “narrow gauge” instead of the U.S. Standard, and Maine has many miles of 2′ gauge track. The reasons for choosing the narrow gauge vary, in many cases it was to cut construction costs. In the mountainous west, the choice was made by the terrain rather than by the architects. On the steep granite mountainsides, clearing a “shelf” for track was arduous, expensive and dangerous. The less rock to be moved, the better. Narrow gauge was the obvious choice for these railroads, and many of them are still in operation. The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is one of the most famous tourist railroads in existence. A survivor of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway, the Durango was originally opened in 1882 as an extension from Antonito, Colorado to serve the gold, silver, tin and other ore mines around Silverton, Colorado. It now operates a breathtaking 45 miles of track between it’s two eponymous towns.

Other fine narrow gauge rides include the Cumbres and Toltec Senic Railroad in Colorado and New Mexico and the White Pass and Yukon Route in Alaska and Canada.

There are still places on the Shiny Irons where break-of-gauge exists, mostly at international borders. The gauge problem is usually approached in the Old Way, either the passengers change trains, the train cars are re-trucked, or the wheels of the train cars are moved to the new gauge. For a crossing from France to Spain, an innovative automated regauging station was developed. The passenger rail industry in western Europe is very modern and very proud of its high speed service. All of the available solutions required a train to stop for regauging, which was not acceptable. The automated system slows the train to 20kmh,

and as the wheels pass through guide rails, the wheels are physically moved inboard or outboard on their axles and locked in place. This allows the train to keep moving…

And moving is how we keep the rails shiny!!

Play A Train Song

Canadian balladeer Gordon Lightfoot sings about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in maple-leaf country, “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”

from his 1967 album “The Way I Feel”