Polishing the Shiny Irons

Polishing the Shiny Irons

The story of the Shiny Irons is a story of speed. In 1805, a locomotive designed by Richard Trevithick of Cornwall, England first threw down the gauntlet, running at the pace of 5 miles per hour. Lest we scoff, we in our 150-mph-capable automobiles, remember, this was a time when most travel was done in the time-honored manner of Boy Scouts, soldiers and those whose automobiles have failed… walking. And 5 mph is a brisk walking pace! The ubiquitous equine could add some haste to the hustle, as well as take a load off the traveler’s tired dogs, but the (perhaps legendary) 1830 race between Peter Cooper’s “Tom Thumb” steam locomotive and a horse-drawn cart established on whose back the future would ride. As the Irons evolved, beloved 19th Century scribe Samuel Clemens wrote of a journey “out west” which showed the true nature of the advance:

… our train, with its great, glaring Polyphemus eye, lighting up long vistas of prairie, rushed into the night and the Wild. Then to bed in luxurious couches, where we slept the sleep of the just and only awoke the next morning (Monday) at eight o’clock, to find ourselves at the crossing of the North Platte, THREE HUNDRED MILES from Omaha — fifteen hours and forty minutes out.”

Clearly the rails offered a change not of time, but of the scale of time. By the 1930’s, passenger service between cities at speeds of 130mph was common. Competing for the traveler’s dollar, the railroads offered not just a ride, but an “experience”:

The zenith of passenger rail in the United States came in the 1950’s. The cataclysm of the Second World War brought with it social advances which would conspire to doom the train ride. Though the war spurred a huge increase in railroad construction and use, it also made clear the need for a good highway system, and coaxed the money for such out of the Federal Government. Following the National Defense Highways Act of 1956, the U.S. Interstate Highway system made private automobiles a viable means of travel over the vast expanse of the nation. Also prodded by the war effort, a monumental improvement in aircraft technology gave the fledgeling airlines a huge advantage in speed over even the best rail lines. By the late 1960’s, passenger rail had all but vanished… here.

The Irons in the Old Country. Established in 1883, the “Orient Express” was, and is, one of the most famous trains in the world. Also the oldest International Train, the Express originally carried passengers from Paris to Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey. The ride took one past some of Europe’s most beautiful architecture, including the Munich Station.

Münchner Hauptbahnhof

Much as in the United States, World War Two would herald a sea change in the status of the railroads of Europe. In a brutal irony, the destruction would have the opposite effect on the railroads of Europe, and later of Japan. In the nations where the war was fought, much, if not all of the infrastructure was completely destroyed. Factories, office buildings, roads, bridges… and, of course, railroads, had been brought low by the warring parties in an effort to halt the ability to resist. All had to be rebuilt, and the rebuilding was to be done using the latest techniques. In the post-war 1940s, as in the early 19th century, the easiest and most efficient way to move goods and people was still on the Irons, and so the railroads were repaired first. Built to modern standards and operated efficiently, the railroads quickly became the mode of choice for the inter-city traveler in these countries. Though roads were also rebuilt, Europe and Japan lacked the “car culture” which raved in post-war America. Additionally, with little or no indigenous oil production, gasoline prices were and continue to be very high. These factors made the Irons a lasting part of the transportation infrastructure in the rebuilt economies.

Need for Speed – East Asian Model. Billed as the first dedicated high-speed rail network, construction on Japan’s Shinkansen (literally “new trunk line”) was started in 1959. A largely mountainous island nation, Japan had only a rudimentary inter-city highway system and its railroad network was a circuitous narrow-gauge system ill-suited to carrying passengers at speed. The first leg of the new generation of railroading opened on October 1st,1964 with a route from Tokyo to Osaka. This linking of the modern and ancient capitals of the nation was an immediate success, carrying its one millionth passenger before three years had passed. By 1976, over one billion riders had made the trip. The sleek visage of the power cars and their phenomenal speed, combined with the still-fresh memory of the War prompted the sobriquet “bullet train”, a pseudonym which has become the generic term for high-speed railroading equipment. The first models of the Shinkansen clocked 125mph, and today’s examples regularly run 185mph. To achieve these speeds, the designers made short work of obstacles. Tunnels charge through mountains, bridges and viaducts span rivers and valleys, and intersecting roads and streets are sent over or under the tracks. This gives the bullet train the needed straight shot at the target.

Today, the traveler in Japan can ride the high-speed to most parts of the island nation. The oldest, Tokyo-Nagoya-Kyoto-Osaka, carries the most riders. Shinkansen trains run on time, with the vast majority departing on time to the second. The cars are spacious, comfortable, and safe — Shinkansen records no passenger or crew fatal accidents in its history. Oh, and if I forgot to mention, they are faaaaaast!!!

Need for Speed – the U.K. Europe started quite a bit behind the Japanese in building high-speed rail networks but in the interim, they have aquitted themselves well. In Great Britain, lagging political will and economic resources had left the fastest trains languishing at under 90 mph by the beginning of 1970. Unwilling to build dedicated high-speed trackage as Japan had done, the British turned to rolling stock innovation. The Advanced Passenger Train project began life in the 1960’s as a solution which could maintain high speeds on rail lines mostly built in the 19th century. To tame the twisty tracks, the train was made to… tilt. Like a motorcycle rider entering a curve, the train tips to the inside of the curve, allowing curving speeds up to 40% faster than conventional trains. Unfortunately for the APT, overambitious technology , underambitious funding and… bad weather doomed it to a premature retirement. The first model deployed sported a gas turbine, straight from the Rolls Royce airplane engine works which, unfortunately proved troublesome and fuel and maintenance hungry. In a parody announcement of the time, APT riders were bid;

Welcome aboard the APT, stopping for repairs at Penrith, Crewe, Glasgow, Penrith, and Crewe

Desperate for some good publicity, British Rail launched the APT at Christmas, 1981, a particularly bad time of year for weather-related delays, and during a particularly bad winter. Combined with the aforementioned issues, the project was dead before it had breathed open air. Forgotten amid the clucking of the naysayers was the APT’s revolutionary tilting feature. Riders all over the world today have a much more comfortable riding experience as Italian, Swiss, German and even Japanese and Chinese trains lean into the curves, a technology pioneered, if not perfected, by the ill-fated APT.

Need for Speed – The Continent. The overriding problem facing British Rail was a lack of support, both political and financial. Things were far different across the English Channel. In France, the largest country in Europe, support for passenger rail was found in abundance all across the political spectrum. With this support came an open checkbook. Much as the first Credit Mobilier financial institution had financed the first French railroads, the Declaration d’Utilité Publique was granted, by the French Government in 1976, to build the LN1 (PSE) route from Paris to Lyon. That year, the first TGV (“Train à Grande Vitesse”, or, high speed train) prototype was built by Alsthom (now Alstom) and SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français), the French national railway. In 1981, the first rail line was completed, offering service at high speed for a good portion of the route from Paris to Lyon. By 1989, the TGV had carried its 100 millionth passenger. The French approach to high-speed rail might be summarized as “slapping the problem with a giant cheque-book”, but it has produced a fine rail network, and also avoided the infrastructure, technology and public relations hassles the British encountered.

AVE (Alta Velocidad Española), the Spanish high-speed rail network, came to life in 1986 when the Spanish government sanctioned a 160 km/h (100 mph) maximum speed. The ideal was to connect all areas of the country to Madrid with a maximum travel time of 4 hours, and to Barcelona, the economic hub of the nation, in 6-1/2 hours. To accomplish this lofty goal, the Spanish state rail operator, RENFE, created a special governing body to coordinate and oversee construction and deployment of the AVE network. Following the French model, the AVE system’s new lines take as direct a route from point “A” to point “B” as possible. Additionally, several models of rolling stock were needed, to provide 350 km/h (217 mph), and 270 km/h (167 mph) speeds. Additionally, unique at the time, 50 units were designed to provide variable-gauge service. Gauge is the distance between rails of a track, and Spain has track with both “standard gauge” (1435mm) and “Iberian gauge” (1668mm). The rolling stock is designed to adjust from one gauge to the other by moving the wheels inboard or outboard. The innovative Talgo system accomplishes this task without the train even stopping!

In Germany, the ICE (Inter-City Express) connects 32 major German cities with a network of trains traveling at up to 300 km/h (186 mph). ICE was the brainchild of the German Federal Ministry of Research and Technology who commissioned a 1968 study into the feasibility of inter-city high-speed rail transport in Germany. In the summer of 1980, a three-unit test train capable of speeds of 350 km/h (217 mph) was ready to be tested, and a test track running between Rheine and Freren was being completed. The results were encouraging enough to prompt a 12 million Deutchmark investment by the German Federal Railway, Deutsche Bundesbahn, and the rechristening of the project as InterCityExperimental. A close coordination between Deutsche Bundesbahn, the carbuilding industry and the government resulted in a 1985 delivery of the first InterCityExpress trainset, for testing purposes and also resulted in a 1988 land speed record for rail guided vehicles. ICE began regularly scheduled service in 1991.

In Russia, the “Sapsan” (Perigrine Falcon) high-speed train provides 250 kp/h (155 mph) service between St. Petersburg and Moscow and, later, Nizhny Novgorod. Seimens-built trainsets are part of a 300 million Euro, 30-year contract.


Need for Speed – China. The world’s most populous nation has also become the world’s most prolific high-speed rail builder. In less than ten years, China has gone from no high-speed rail to the world’s leader. The country is interconnected with 12,500 miles of bullet tracks. That’s enough to go from New york to L.A. And back… twice. Much as was seen in the American west in the wake of the rail expansion of the 19th century, economic expansion follows the construction of the Chinese rail network. A large percentage – as much as 40% by some estimates – of the rail passenger traffic into the three mega-cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou is “generated traffic”, people who would not have made the trip if the train were not available. Pro-rail economists in China see this as concrete evidence of the positive economic impact of the bullet trains. By 2020, China is expected to have nearly 20,000 miles of high-speed rail lines in service.

Other’s Need for Speed. Smaller nations are also seeing the possibilities of high-speed rail. A proposal being floated in SouthEast Asia would link Bangkok, Thailand with Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and then to Singapore. An on-again-off-again proposal to link the Brazilian cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo is being pushed by Chinese train and infrastructure building firms. King Mohammed VI and the Moroccan government plan to plug the world’s largest solar farm into an Alstom-built TGV and provide 200 mph train travel from Tangier to Casablanca… no doubt Humphrey Bogart’s “Rick Blaine” (… “we’ll get on a train together and never stop”) would approve.

Need for Speed – U.S. In America, high-speed rail travel of the quality enjoyed in Europe, Japan, China and elsewhere, still eludes the prospective passenger. The Amtrak Acela trains of the Northeast Corridor can run a top speed of 150 mph, but this is only realized for a distance of 35 miles between Boston and New Haven due to curves in the line. A section from New York to Washington, D.C. Allows 135 mph speed. Most of the track used by America’s national passenger railway is owned and maintained by freight railroads. The Southwest Chief, the successor of Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe’s Super Chief, still runs the same basic route it ran in 1936 when it was inaugurated. The first run of “the train of the stars” carried Hollywood royalty from Los Angeles to Chicago and back, offering the luxury service of a Pullman sleeping car train. Gable, Durante, Janet Leigh, Rosalind Russell, made the trip at speeds of over 100mph, and averaged “a mile a minute” over the trip… 5mph faster than today’s Southwest Chief.

Seeing the Need – U.S. Much talk has been shed in favor of (and against) high-speed rail in the United States, indeed, if words were pennies, we’d have 200 mph service to every city. What gets in the way is the sheer volume of pennies needed. Federal grants of several billion dollars have been offered, but no track is laid and no trains run. California’s High-Speed Rail Authority estimates $6 billion for the construction of the first segment of the state’s proposed rail system, running the 130 miles from Madera to Bakersfield… a sobering $46 million a mile. The HSRA, if successful, will use a hobo stew of funding methods, including public money and bond sales. Also available are Cap and Trade funds.

In July 2014 The World Bank reported that the per kilometer cost of California’s high-speed rail system was $56 million, more than double the average cost of $17–21 million per km of high speed rail in China and more than the $25–39 million per km average for similar projects in Europe.

An intriguing proposal put forth by private industry would build a rail line offering 150 mph service to Las Vegas. Called XpressWest, the (on-again-off-again) proposed service would ferry an estimated 5 million passengers annually to ‘Vegas. Running along the I-15 corridor, the rail line would connect Las Vegas with Victorville, California and link to a proposed California High Speed Rail terminal running from there to Palmdale, then to the coastal cities. Most, perhaps all, of the authorization has been granted for the Victorville to Vegas line, with the stickler being, of course, funding. A federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loan was denied the project due to the project’s use of rolling stock which was not American made. Not to be so easily undone, the XpressWest backers are now planning a high-speed rail rolling stock assembly plant, located in Nevada, to go along with their high-speed rail. The RRIF loan was seen to be necessary as the project struggled to raise the estimated $4-$6 billion in private capital needed. The upcoming (possible) move of the Oakland Raiders NFL football team could spur new private capital interest in the XpressWest project, as the (proposed) location of the Las Vegas terminal would be in the end zone of the (proposed) new Raiders Stadium… hmmm, after all, Las Vegas IS for gamblers!

If the U.S. is to have true high-speed rail, we need to be cognizant of the lessons of History. The British put forth a half-hearted effort and got the result which one would expect. The rest of the Europeans and the Japanese went all-in and got wonderful high-speed rail systems. The Chinese dove in head-first and became the world leaders in track mileage, though there is some speculation they may be going too fast. If the return on investment can be seen, we may see private capital put to the test… after all, it was Vanderbilt who sold his fleet of barges and built the New York Central… to the consternation of all. Boston financier Charles Hellier took the bankrupt Charleston, Cincinatti and Chicago Railroad and dug, blasted and bridged a rail line into the then-priceless coalfields of Appalachia… and his contemporaries thought a Sanity Commission should be appointed….

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.

– Orson Welles

Perhaps an Elon Musk, a Jeff Bezos may see the revenue in carrying Los Angeleans, heavy with wallet, to the brightly-lit casinos of Paradise, Nevada… and help build a bullet train factory on the way.

That’ll get the trains moving fast… which will keep the rails shiny!! Thank you for joining us!

We ARE the “Jet Set”

In the 1950s and 1960s, all things seemed possible! Huge rockets were hurling satellites and people into orbit around the Earth, the race to the Moon was in full swing, nuclear power was poised to make electricity cheap in unlimited quantities, and jet powered aircraft whisked passengers across the oceans at unheard-of speeds. As noted, high-speed locomotives were pulling passenger trains across Europe at phenomenal speeds as well. Not to be upstaged by Boeing’s 707 “Jetliner”, the New York Central Railroad experimented with turbojet propulsion as well. Gas turbine engines, which are literally jet engines which, instead of blasting their angry superheated gasses out the rear of the engine, have instead been engineered to turn an output shaft had been used on the Shiny Irons since the Union Pacific’s late 1940’s GTEL project. NYC, however, elected to shelve the output shaft and go full turbojet. The resulting “loco”-motive morphed a fighter jet and a commuter train….

Still the fastest locomotive ever built in America, the “Black Beetle” featured a Budd RDC-3 Diesel power car with the twin-jet pod from a Convair B-36 bomber attached to the roof. The hybrid-on-steroids clocked 183.86 mph in test, and,according to rumor, was slowing down at the traps!


Play a train song

Early love for high-speed rail, the incomparable Hank Williams singing Roy Acuff’s ode to the

“Pan American Flyer”

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