The Iron Way—Here to Stay?
By Awake! correspondent in Britain
HOW to transport goods and people overland cheaply and speedily is an ever-present challenge. Since the industrial revolution increased the demand for raw materials, the railway (sometimes called the iron way) has played a part in solving this problem. Amid today’s growing reliance on the combustion engine and the concern about pollution, many are taking a fresh look at the railroad.
How did the iron way develop?a What role does it play in modern society? What is its future?
In 1804 a steam locomotive, designed by Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick, dragged ten tons of iron bars along nine miles [14 km] of rails at a speed of five miles [8 km] an hour. But this early success of the iron way did not last, for the flimsy track soon collapsed under the engine’s weight. The challenge then was to design an engine that would be heavy enough to grip the iron rails and prevent slipping but that would not damage the track.
Eight years later, John Blenkinsop devised a rack rail for locomotives at a Yorkshire colliery. Then, William Hedley overcame the adhesion problem by applying steam power through gears to more than one pair of the engine’s wheels. Thereafter, trains generally ran on smooth track. By 1820, wrought-iron rails in 20-foot [6 m] lengths supported the bigger and heavier steam locomotives that were being developed.
England’s Stockton & Darlington Railway achieved fame in 1825 when the world’s first steam-powered public passenger train hauled 69 tons of freight and more than 600 people along 21 miles [34 km] of track at a peak speed of 15 miles [24 km] an hour. One of those passengers, American Evan Thomas from Baltimore, Maryland, returned home and persuaded fellow businessmen to opt for the iron way in their city instead of a canal. Thus, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was formed in 1827.
Steel rails, some 60 times more resilient than wrought-iron rails, became the norm. In Britain that occurred from 1857 onward. By 1870 the country’s rail network stretched more than 15,000 miles [more than 20,000 kilometers]. The impact was “enormous,” notes The Times of London. “Until the railways came, most people had barely travelled outside their own villages.”
Elsewhere, too, railroads were proliferating. For example, in 1847 the wealthy people of Zurich, Switzerland, began sending their servants to nearby Baden on the newly inaugurated railway to collect their coveted Spanish buns (brötli). Thus began a 150-year-long association between the Swiss and their railways.
Railways played a huge part in the development of the United States. In 1869 the first transcontinental line was completed in North America, from the East Coast to the West Coast. It opened up the western part of the United States to rapid settlement. In 1885 the first transcontinental line was completed in Canada, from Montreal, Quebec, to Vancouver, British Columbia. Indeed, all over the world, railways blossomed.
As time passed, railway managers began to explore ways to run their systems more efficiently. They found that diesel and electric locomotives, some two and a half times as efficient as steam engines, were more economical to run. Though diesel locomotives cost more to build than steam, their greater flexibility meant that fewer were needed. Electric traction had the advantage of being faster and relatively pollution free. Even so, steam power continued to be used in many lands.
In France, even before World War I, electrically driven locomotives powered suburban trains, and following the war they were used over long-distance lines. Likewise, in Japan the transformation from steam to diesel to electric traction is virtually complete. “Rising costs of fuel and labor are the main reasons,” notes Steam Locomotives of Japan, adding: “Another major reason may be that the steam engine has become an anachronism, unpleasant to many up-to-date people. The ordinary passenger does not enjoy traveling with smoke in his face; he wants comfort and speed.” A spokesman for Indian railways agrees. “We cannot cling on to steam engines. Everyone wants to go fast. The steam engines are relics. Nor are they environmentally friendly.”
Because speed and capacity are crucial factors to success in running a modern railway, managers have studied other developments. In Britain many modern electric passenger trains are made up of a fixed formation of coaches with a locomotive at one end and a guard’s van with driving compartment at the other.
The electrification of the iron way has not been without problems. Both third-rail and overhead systems that use direct current require numerous electricity substations to maintain power. But the development of alternating current systems of relatively high voltage that use lighter overhead wires has combined with smaller and lighter weight electric motors to bring about a cheaper railway. Now long-distance trains that feed from variable power sources run along their routes without interruption.
Revitalized by Light-Rail Transit
One area where the iron way is now making a return is in the development of light-rail transit.b New tramway systems are opening up in the world’s ever-expanding urban areas. In Sydney, Australia, where transport chiefs reportedly believe that they were wrong to scrap the city’s trams, light-rail vehicles are back.
In contrast with what happened in many British towns earlier in this century, most European cities retained their 100-year-old tram networks. ‘In Zurich, the tram is king,’ reports The Independent newspaper. “When a tram approaches a traffic light, it triggers off a green signal ensuring it does not have to wait. . . . The trams always run on time.”
While metro or subway systems work well in cities with populations that number in the millions, tramways succeed best in cities that have populations of half a million or less, claims one Italian environmentalist.
Trams can run in much the same way as other road vehicles do. As light-rail vehicles have less load on their axles than conventional rail locomotives and carriages do, both track and bridges can be less substantial. What happens inside can be seen through the vehicles’ large windows, adding to passengers’ security. “Thanks to its unrivalled alignment flexibility the modern tram compounds the speed of the train with the accessibility of the bus,” observes a study of Sheffield, England, transport entitled Tram to Supertram. Trams add “cleanliness, ambience and high marks on the ecological front for good measure.” The Times comments: “Trams are quicker in the rush hour than motor vehicles, and more environmentally friendly.”
Faster and Safer?
Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV), InterCity Express, Eurostar, Pendolino, the bullet trains of Japan’s Shinkansen (New Trunk Line) system—the variety of modern high-speed trains appears limitless. In a desire to offer greater speed and safety, train designers have developed innovative ways to cope with high-speed rail traffic. The construction of rail lines that avoid sharp curves along their welded track allowed France’s TGVs to travel at speeds of well over 100 miles an hour [200 kph].
Eurostar trains now link London with Paris and Brussels via the Channel Tunnel. After leaving Britain’s old rail tracks that curb train speeds, Eurostars speed through France and Belgium at 186 miles [300 km] an hour. Travel times of three hours from London to Paris and of two hours and 40 minutes from London to Brussels have brought the iron way into serious competition with both ferries and aircraft. But how have such increased speeds been made possible?
In Japan, to ensure good adhesion to the rails, engineers developed a lightweight train with carriages that have a low center of gravity. In contrast with the conventional system of having sets of wheels on two bogies slung underneath each carriage, Eurostar trains (18 carriages between two driving units) run two carriages with a wheel bogie shared between them. This reduces vibration and weight and allows for a smoother and faster ride.
Signaling systems for high-speed trains are vastly different from the semaphores of yesteryear or even the trackside lights still common on many conventional lines. Onboard computers display all that the driver needs to know as his train speeds along. Sophisticated communication systems allow centralized signaling stations to control entire routes.
Railway planners have also examined how to increase the speed of trains running on conventional tracks. One innovation is the tilting train. The Pendolino trains, which run in Italy and Switzerland, feature this technology, as does Sweden’s X2000. The latter covers the winding line between Stockholm and Göteborg at a top speed of 125 miles [200 km] an hour. Because of a clever combination of suspension dampers and radial self-steering bogies, passengers feel few unpleasant sensations from centrifugal forces as the train swings through curves along its way.
Reports of ever higher speeds for trains and of horrendous derailments prompt the question, Is safety being sacrificed? In the wake of a fatal rail accident in Britain in 1997, The Sunday Times reported that in the future “track infrastructure will have digital controls to foresee emergencies more quickly.” A new Transmission Based Signalling system will convey radio messages directly to the driver’s cab from the rail network’s management center. Additionally, the Automatic Train Protection braking technology will become standard in Britain’s trains, as it already is in many European countries and elsewhere. If the driver fails to respond to trackside cautionary signals, the train automatically applies the brakes to secure a safe stop.
A Magnetic Future?
To the passenger used to the screeching and clanking of average rail travel along heavy-duty tracks or even on city metro lines, the welcome feeling of a smoother, quieter ride is a delight. The train cars that run on rubber tires on some lines of the Paris Metro offer city dwellers there some relief. But this pales into insignificance compared with the latest iron way development.
The steel rails on which conventional trains run limit their speed. To achieve higher speeds, engineers are now developing magnetic levitation trains (maglevs), which float over a metal guideway. Virtually frictionless, these trains use powerful electromagnets to lift them above the track and achieve speeds of over 300 miles an hour [500 kph]. Indeed, The Times of London reported, on December 13, 1997, that a Japanese maglev set a world speed record of 329.96 miles an hour [531 kph] on both manned and unmanned runs.
Judging by the tenacity of steam buffs—people who preserve and restore steam locomotives—and now others who champion diesel and electric traction trains, the future of railways is assured. How trains and their tracks will develop or whether they will change completely, time will reveal. At least for now, the iron way is here to stay.
a According to The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the terms “iron way” and “iron road” were first coined in the United States, back in the 19th century.
b Light-rail vehicles are, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “a technological outgrowth of streetcars (trams).” They can run on segregated tracks as well as on the streets.
[Box on page 22]
Palaces on Wheels
Britain’s Railway Museum located in the city of York is home to a remarkable collection of vintage carriages used by royalty. Between 1842 and 1977, 28 royal trains ran in Britain. During the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), no less than 21 trains were built for her use. On completing her first railway journey, she pronounced herself ‘quite charmed’ by the experience.
Victoria’s son King Edward VII chose not to ride in the carriages built for his mother. Instead, he used three new trains. Later, King George V and Queen Mary modernized these and added the first bathroom ever on a train.
[Box on page 24]
To cope with crime, railways are tightening security and using cameras and locks. But what can you do to travel more safely on a train? Here are some suggestions:
• Do not flaunt any valuables.
• If you are in a compartment, lock the door and secure the window.
• Pack your valuables in several places in your luggage and clothes.
• Do not fight back if threatened.
• Consider carrying a decoy purse containing a small amount of money.
• Carry photocopies of your identification documents.
The Daily Telegraph, March 22, 1997.
[Pictures on page 22, 23]
1. “Lake Shore Flyer,” 1886, U.S.A.
2. Schweizer Centralbahn, 1893
3. Class B1, 1942, Britain
4. Bödelibahn “Zephir,” 1874
Early American Locomotives/Dover Publications, Inc.
[Pictures on page 24, 25]
1. Shinkansen, Model 500, Japan;
2. Eurostar, France;
3. Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV), France;
4. THALYS PBA train, France
Copyright: Eurostar/SNCF-CAV/Michel URTADO
Copyright: Thalys/SNCF-CAV/Jean-Jacques D’ANGELO