Month: December 2016

The Shiny Irons Go To War

Among the many, many accolades accorded the late Sir Alec Guinness CH CBE, his performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars motion picture series would… not… earn him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This affront notwithstanding, he received a lifetime achievement award in 1980 from the Academy to go with the Best Actor statue bestowed for his performance in the 1957 drama “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Set in the steaming jungle of Burma (Myanmar) during the Second World War, the plot follows the construction of a railroad bridge by the Japanese Army, using conscripted British Army soldiers. Though not a direct plot element, the movie demonstrates the strategic importance of the railroad, through the Japanese effort to complete the bridge and the effort by the allied armies to destroy it. The ultimately successful destruction of the bridge, and of a military train caught on the bridge, allows the redemption on Guinness’ Colonel Nicholson.

From the driving of the first spikes, the railroad has played an important, many times decisive role in conflict. The Shiny Irons transport military supplies and troops to the front or to the docks, and carry raw materials from mine, field and forest to industrial centers where they can be processed into the stocks and stores of victory. One of the first conflicts in which the railroad flexed its steel was the U.S. Civil War. Before the advent of the railroad, the only way to transport soldiers and supplies overland was on foot, on horseback or by horse-drawn wagon. The iron horse was a quantum leap in load-carrying capacity and speed. Though the locomotive still had to “feed”, it could carry enough chow in it’s collier for dozens of miles before stopping for dinner. Once the problem of mis-matched rail gauges was solved, the Irons became a game-changing strategic resource. So vital was the railroad that, in 1862, President Lincoln mandated that the Irons be pushed right across the continent to connect the east to the Pacific.

When you do a word association of “army” and “railroad” it immediately brings to mind the “Troop Train.” Indeed, this was the first use of the railroad in a military sense. By the Second World War,

Over 40 million men and women served in W.W.II and almost every one of them rode a Troop Train during that war. In the latter part of the war on any given day over one million servicemen were riding a Troop Train. The US was averaging 2500 Troop Trains a month.

In the U.S., trains carried the vast majority of troops in wartime up through the Korean War. When the First Infantry Division was ordered to Vietnam in 1965, the 15,000 soldiers rode the rails from Fort Riley, Kansas to Oakland, California; the last major U.S. troop movement by rail. The foot soldier no longer rides the rails,  winged transport having taken over this task. Still, the Shiny Irons are indispensable to the military. Large numbers of vehicles, tons of supplies and massive amounts of equipment still must be moved, and the the Irons love heavy hauling. The U.S. Department of Defense even has its own fleet of flat cars for specialized transport of heavy military vehicles.

When mobilized for war, DoD has access to 5,862 flat rail cars. Of those, 4,504 are owned by commercial railroads. DoD owns the remaining 1,358, which are more robust than their commercial counterparts and carry heavy tracked vehicles, such as M1 Abrams tanks.
M1 Abrams tanks on a heavy flat car

The 65ton M1 tank gets its own 6-axle car to enable the tidy transport of two tanks. The flats are specially designed to enable the heavyweights to be driven up onto the car and chained down. A bit more elbow room will be needed, though, as the 12ft wide tanks are outside of the maximum allowable clearance envelope. As the largest single user of these heavy-duty flat cars, the D.o.D. is running into a problem. The flat car fleet, like so many other rail cars, is reaching the age of mandatory retirement. Though there are programs in place to allow cars to run past this age, the flats are also starting to show their years. Moving into the future, the military may need it’s own olive green flat fleet. According to Curt Zargan, of the Transportation Engineering Agency:

We only own what we need to own,” Zargan said. “We don’t just nonchalantly decide that we’re going to have to own a whole bunch more rail cars, but it would appear that we’re going to have to own several more because industry is not going to replace them, and they’re just not going to be out there.”

At around $150,000 per car, according to Zurgan’s department, an order for 5,000 or so of these cars would be welcome news for the flagging U.S. rail car builders! Here at Starfire Engineering, we’d be happy to make space in our schedule to design some new cars to the latest specifications… our ‘phone number is on our web site.

Extending the strategic usefulness of the Army Irons, the tactical situation has, numerous times required the building of a railroad on the spot! During the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War, a railroad was built by the British Army to ferry supplies from the port of Balaklava to the outskirts of Sevastopol. Though possessed of the pretentious name “Grand Crimean Central Railway”, the railroad was but a modest 7 miles in length, purpose built to haul supplies to the besieging army. Other examples of an army laying a stretch of the Camo Irons include a 9-mile run built by the Union Army during the U.S. Civil war to carry materiel from the James River to Petersburg (now part of Hopewell), Virginia. The River Paraguay got a rail link during an 1867 multi-nation war in South America, when falling river levels left some Brazilian ironclad ships snookered between two Paraguayan forts. Supplies were carried to the ships until the river rose. This line was laid on some land nearly impassible because of continuous flooding. A bit longer stretch of the Irons, the Sudan Military Railroad left the placid Nile river base of Wadi Halfa in 1897 and spiked its way across 200 miles of sweltering Sahara to assist the British in the Mahdist War. During WW1, a network of very light 2-foot (60cm) gauge railways fed, watered and supplied the allied troops in the trenches of France. After carrying war materiel to the front lines, the train cars served as ambulance litters to carry wounded soldiers to the rear. When the war ended, most of the rolling stock was abandoned where last used, and many a train car was converted into a wagon by industrious citizens!

Perhaps the most famous and certainly one of the longest purpose-built military railroads is the Ledo Road. In 1937-38, 200,000 Burmese and Chinese workers hacked a road out of the unyielding jungle of northern Burma and southwestern China. Leaving the railhead at Lashio, Burma, the Burma Road wound through the rain forest and over the mountains to Kunming, Yunnan, China, where, a few years later the American Flying Tigers would earn their wings. The December, 1941 destruction of the United States’ naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the accompanying crippling of the fleet was followed by occupation of much of Southeast Asia by Japanese military forces. Seizing the Burma Road was paramount in the Japanese strategy and success in this endeavour left the allies no way to supply China except feebly, ineffectively by air. Allied engineers planned an alternate route west of the extent of Japanese occupation, to run from Ledo, Assam, India to connect with the northern portion of the Burma Road southwest of Mandalay, Burma. As the first leg of the new supply line, a railroad from Calcutta, India was torn through 1300 uncooperative miles of forest, jungle, mountains and angry rivers to Ledo. From here, the Irons would hand the supplies to the trucks.

For well over 150 years, the Shiny Irons have served the world’s armies in dire times. The combination of speed, smoothness, heavy hauling capacity and sheer logistical might has made the railroad the path of least resistance for the movement of large amounts of goods and large numbers of soldiers. When the time to “lie easy in the shade” finally comes, the Irons are there, too, ready to move the tools of war back to storage and to move the weary troops back to their families and loved ones. The evolution of conflict has seen an increase in the size and weight of the cargoes on the rails, and the infrastructure to carry that increase has been developed. Perhaps we may someday see, as Alec Guinness’ Kenobi saw, “X-Wing fighters” and “T.I.E. Fighters”… if we do, we’ll haul ’em to the Space Port on the Shiny Irons!!

Thanks for joining us, and keep the rails shiny!!!


Tie Hacks

(No, not “tie tacks,” “Tie Hacks”) A couple of great logging songs are Ian Tyson’s 1967 “Summer Wages” and Slaid Cleaves’ 2009 “Breakfast in Hell”. Both tell the tale of logging, the work, the dangers and the men and women who caught the falling trees and tossed them in the rivers. These two bards set their tales in the storied logging camps of Vancouver, and of Georgian Bay, Canada, but there are other places. The mighty wave of advance pushed forward by the building of the U.S transcontinental railroad created a lesser-known logging empire… in Wyoming. Yes, Wyoming. As the Irons were laid across western Nebraska, southern Wyoming, northern Utah and Nevada, the builders needed railroad ties… a lot… no, A LOT of railroad ties. The terrain across which the route ran is very much open plain and while this makes for an easier road bed to clear, the lack of trees meant the railroad planners had to go elsewhere.

In this case, “elsewhere” was the upland and mountain forests of northwestern Wyoming. Enter the Tie Hack. Armed only with a saw, a hatchet and a furious work ethic, these loggers climbed the hills and,

… over the course of seven decades in Wyoming, the Tie Hack would produce an estimated 10 million railroad ties.

Tie hacks were paid ten cents a tie, and earned every… dime. A railroad tie began life as a tree a minimum of 8” in diameter. The tree was felled with a saw, then the limbs were cut off. The industry developed its own tool, a “tie hatchet”. This was a hatchet with a handle length somewhere between a hatchet and an axe, with a single cutting edge which was slightly curved. This was used to limb the felled tree, then the bark was stripped off one side and, in the same operation, the side was cut to a flat about 5” – 6” wide. The other side was stripped and flattened, the two sides parallel to within an “eyeball” measurement. The odd sides were stripped of bark but not flattened. The ties were cut to 8′ lengths and stacked in a bundle. These bundles were bound together and dragged to the nearest running water deep enough to float a log. The vagaries of hydrography meant that much of the product would be moved downriver during the spring snow-melt. Called “The Long Walk”, some of the workers walked the riverbank beside the huge log floes, guiding the logs and clearing jams. This was cold, wet, exceedingly dangerous work. A railroad tie swam down the swollen rivers to the mill in Riverton, Wyoming, where it cured and bathed in preservative, then made its way to the railroad work site and finally laid down under the Shiny Irons somewhere on the high plains.


Play a Train Song

The Irons in troubled times, train driver Virgil Cane tries one last run to Richmond, Va. during the Civil War… Robbie Robertson’s poignant “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”,

Joan Baez, from 1971’s “Blessed Are…”

The Shiny Irons from (Baltic) Sea to Shining Sea (of Japan)

In the early to mid-19th Century, the Russian Empire began to expand into Siberia. Already a nominally Russian territory from Tsarist expansion in the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Industrial Revolution brought a new interest in the wealth of natural resources in this vast expanse of land. Two issues became clear immediately, the resource base was extremely enticing, and getting to the resources was very hard – getting them out was impossible. As we who ride the Shiny Irons have known for two centuries, where there’s a will, we have a way. By 1858, the Empire had a port city on its western shores. Vladivostok is on the Sea of Japan, and anything in the Siberian interior could be shipped from there. Clearly, a railroad across the Eurasian mainland was called for. In 1880, the design process was initiated, and almost immediately, construction began. Stretching the Irons across a country which today spans 9 time zones was an undertaking of mammoth proportions and so was divided into seven separate sections. Each of these was under construction simultaneously. In the spring of 1897, the rail link to the village of Novosibirsk was completed. A 2.83 kilometer cantilever bridge across the mighty Ob River announced the beginning of a new level of engineering challenge… construction of the Trans-Baikal Railway had begun.

The intrepid Russian railroader attempting to build from Moscow (more properly from St. Petersburg) to Vladivostok will hug the southern border as much as possible, as it gets pretty cold as you go north onto the Siberian tundra. Lay enough rails along this course and you’ll find yourself in the city of Irkutsk, on the Angara River. Just past Irkutsk, you will come to a large (very large… really, very large) rift lake. In this huge granite bowl is 1/5 of all the fresh water on earth. This is the “Eye of Siberia”, Lake Baikal. Even the accomplished builders of the Tsar’s team could not bridge this troubled water. At 1400 meters depth, Lake Baikal defies bridge pilings, and the lake is over 50 kilometers across at the outlet of the Angara.

Lake Baikal/Angara River mouth at Irkutsk

After the completion of the railroad to from Novosibirsk to Irkutsk, the problem of crossing the lake was solved in an age-old fashion. A pair of ships were purchased from the U.K., taken apart nut by bolt and re-assembled on the lake. Each was large enough to carry several rail cars which were pushed onto the decks of the ships on the Angara River at Irkutsk, carried to the other side of the lake and pushed back onto the rail line! The geology south of the Angara river outlet on the lake is a huge granite escarpment cut by numerous eroded valleys. The engineering of the rail line at Lake Baikal was, at the time, the epitome of “I’ve got some bad news and… some more bad news.” As noted, bridging the lake is simply not possible, and the two steamers were not a good long-term solution. Going around the lake to the north is daunting, as the lake is 400 miles long, while going around the south requires laying the track on the side of a granite cliff. It was decided that the last was the best of several bad choices, and construction of the Circum-Baikal Rail Line began with surveying in 1894. The first of leg was built from Irkutsk to the lake at Port Baikal. The first leg was the easy one. Next, the railway turned west to follow the north shore of the lake. As noted, this is basically a granite cliff rising from the lake shore, eroded into a series of granite saw-tooth hills. The 84 kilometers of Gritty Irons running from Port Baikal to Kultuk, on the western tip of the lake…

… comprises 424 different engineered features, including 39 tunnels (total length under tunnel is 8.994 kilometers), 200 bridges, and 14 kilometers of supporting walls both under the tracks and beside the tracks. Remember, all this roadbed engineering is in a stretch of track a little over 50 miles long!

The Circum-Baikal section of railroad is called the “Golden Buckle” of the Transcontinental Railroad. “Buckle” because it connects the Far Eastern Railroad to the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and “Golden” because the cost to build the 84 kilometers was more than the cost of all other railroads in Russia at the time, combined!!! Upon completion of the Circum-Baikal line in 1905, the railroad turned east along the southern shore of the lake to the port city of Mysovaya where the ships carrying the rail cars docked. Then, it was “eastward, ‘Ho!’, on to China”!! Excuse me, did I say “China”?? The original route of the transcontinental railroad took it through a sizable chunk of what is now China. The reason has to do with some tortured cartography in the region. Once the Irons made it to the east side of Lake Baikal, it would seem to be a straight shot to Vladivostok. Unfortunately, China is in the way. Two provinces in northeastern China, Hulunbuir and Heilongjiang form a Texas-sized barrier to anyone building a railroad to Vladivostok. The late 19th and early 20th Century was a time of great turmoil in this area, and political intrigue combined with military force resulted in Russian control of much of Manchuria. This allowed the railroad to push from Chita to Harbin in Manchuria (China), and on to Vladivostok. The Trans-Baikal leg of the railroad made possible a journey from St Petersburg on the Baltic Sea all the way across the continent to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan without leaving the Shiny Irons. Not coincidentally, this opened what was at the time the largest untapped resource base in the world for exploitation. Mineral wealth in abundance was there, wildlife, common and exotic, timber and other building materials, coal and later oil and gas, a treasury which made Russia a player on the economic front as well as on the geographic and military scene. The railroad had a few small details to tidy up, but one major hurdle remained… that section of track across Manchuria was not viable, either politically or militarily, in the long run.

By 1966, noted Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa had tired of the domestic film industry and hankered for new scenery. Relocation to Hollywood promised new adventures. His first film in the new decor was to be shot in English, and set on the Shiny Irons. “Runaway Train” concerned a couple of convicts on the skip from an Alaskan prison with an out-of-control train providing the adrenaline. The film, however, ended up being canceled. That flick would eventually be made by a different director, and Kurosawa’s first non-Japanese endeavor would be filmed in Russian. “Dersu Uzula” was made in the Russian Far East, in very much the same location as the story takes place. Based on the memoirs of a Russian Army surveyor, Vladimir Arsenyev, the story takes place in the very early 20th century in the sub-arctic forest north of Vladivostok. Russians had arrived in this part of the Empire carrying the rails which would form the rail line around Manchuria.

The author of the memoir had been a captain and head of a survey party of Russian Army troops charting the area for the railroad engineers. This is the land of Siberian Tigers, so a small band of soldiers needed to be careful, their rifles notwithstanding. Either they’re well led, or the tiger’s well fed. The Irons were to be laid following the path of the Ussuri River from Khabarovsk to Vladivosk on the coast, and in addition to the surveying of the future road bed, Tsar Nicholas II wished to have a look-see at the rest of the area. In the course of their work, Arsenyev’s band was joined by a Goldi tribesman named Dersu Uzula. A hunter by trade, Dersu knew the area well and offered to guide the Russians in exchange for a prize beyond price; a stash of cartridges for his rifle. In addition to being a really good story, Dersu Uzula gives a glimpse into the trials faced by the survey crews, engineers and construction crews tasked with building a railroad through the Siberian wilderness in the early 20th century. Instead of running southeast into China, the new rail line ran north from Chita to Skovorodino, then east to Belogorsk and finally to Khabarovsk on the Ussuri and south into Dersu’s homeland. Running from the eastern shore of the Empire across farm and field, mountain and steppe, over the river and through the woods, and finally to the western shore, the railroad would seem to be complete…? Not quite.

The climate history of Earth is punctuated with “ice ages”, times when the average temperature drops and much more sea water becomes locked up in frozen glaciers. During these times, the Bering Strait disappears, exposing a land bridge between Alaska and Siberia. Having tackled the continent, having overcome the Manchurian problem, having subdued the Trans-Baikal, those intrepid engineers of the Russian transcontinental railroad (well, their great-grandkids, anyway…) now turn their attentions to recreating this land bridge. In 2007, reports surfaced of Russian government approval of $65billion to build a road/rail tunnel under the Bering Strait. This example of extreme engineering would link Siberia to Alaska. Details are sketchy, though as late as 2011, conversation about the project was still being overheard. No specific route for the tunnel has been determined, but the shortest distance would take it from Naukan on the very eastern tip of Siberia across the Strait to Wales, Alaska. This is a straight-line distance of about 60 kilometers, however, intrepid tunnel travelers could come up for air at the Diomede Islands, half-way across. In addition to the tunnel, the route would require about 3500 miles of Icy Irons on the Russian side and about 2/3 as much on the U.S. side to link to existing rail lines. This, across terrain that would challenge the engineers in many new and exciting ways. At this time, the InterBering project seems to be only a discussion point, however we have rode the Shiny Irons through very many landscapes which were considered impassible only a few decades ago. If completed, this rail link would allow the hardy to travel from London to New York the other direction, a train ride almost 3/4 of the way around the world!!

That’ll keep the rails shiny!! Thank you for joining us!!


Old Town Learns New Tricks… Modern Manufacturing in a Medieval Municipality
In the mid-2000s, a group of Russian investors set in motion a plan to build modern freight cars for the Russian rail industry. The plan included the refurbishment of an old tractor manufacturing facility on the southern outskirts of Tikhvin, Leningrad Oblast, Russia. Tikhvin, a city of about 60,000, is a very old cultural center about 200 kilometers east of St. Petersburg. The town was home to a Soviet-era heavy machinery factory known as Transmash. In the heyday of the Soviet industry, as many as 20,000 people were employed by the plant, but post-soviet economic problems reduced the workforce to less than 1000 by 2005. The ICT Group acquired the plant in 2001 and set to task building a world-class rail car production facility. At the time, the Russian rail industry rode on cars from the Soviet era, and most were tired and ready for replacement. New designs of four types of freight car were contracted from Starfire Engineering beginning in 2007, and designs were finalized and manufacturing documentation delivered by 2009. In January, 2012, the Tikhvin Freight Car Building Plant was launched, and the first of a new generation of freight cars was shipped that year.

In addition to the design of modern products, the investors ponied up the funds to build a state-of-the-art factory:


Equipment was purchased from industry leading manufacturers all over the world, and a facility and infrastructure was built to take full advantage of the capabilities. The result is a factory capable of output of 10,000 – 13,000 freight cars per year in addition to annual capacity for metal castings of 70,000 – 90,000 metric tons! The impact on the city of Tikhvin

Housing available for workers (

has been astounding, with the creation of thousands of jobs for highly skilled workers in a town which had been suffering from severe economic depression.


Play a Train Song

Antique balladeer John Fogerty sings about the Shiny Irons… “Southern Streamline”

From his 1997 album “Blue Moon Swamp”