The Shiny Irons in Fire and Ice

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.

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