Category Archives: Railroad

Don’t believe everything you read

I was reading A Walk Through Borate, a short booklet published by the San Bernardino County Museum Association. Borate is a ghost town in the Mojave Desert near Daggett, California. It was established around 1892 by the Pacific Coast Borax Co. In 1903 the company decided to end operations at Borate, and buildings and equipment were moved to Death Valley.

Overall, the book is quite good, with more than half the 31 pages taken up with period photographs. There is, however, one rather bizarre caption on page 23. The photo shows a small saddle tank locomotive, type 0-4-0T. According to the caption, “The ‘T’ indicates that it was supported by a swivel mount on the tender.”

This is, of course, ridiculous. The letter “T” as part of a steam locomotive classification indicates that it is a tank locomotive, meaning that it carries water  and fuel in tanks attached to the locomotive itself instead of pulling a tender. And that is exactly what the photo shows; an inverted U-shaped tank attached above the boiler, and no tender. In addition, a locomotive of any type will be supported by the wheels, which are attached to the frame. It would be completely impossible for a tender to support a locomotive the way this caption indicates.

As I said, this is overall a very good booklet, and I have no idea how one utter absurdity got past the editors. But however it happened, the book makes for a good object lesson in double checking information, even when it seems to come from an expert source.

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Obscure technologies, part 1

In the early years of American railroading, link and pin couplers were used to join cars together into trains. This type of coupler required the brakeman to physically get between the cars while they were being moved, making them incredibly dangerous.

Starting with the invention of the Janney coupler in 1873, railroads in the late nineteenth century gradually began adopting much safer automatic couplers. Ever since 1900, all railroad cars used in interstate commerce in the United States have been required to used automatic couplers. The “knuckle” couplers used on American trains today are directly descended from Eli Janney’s patented design.

Although this change made a significant improvement in railroad safety, it also created a few difficulties. One problem was that cars were closer together using Janney couplers than they were with link and pin. This made it difficult or impossible to navigate tight curves.

One solution to this problem was to an additional auxiliary coupler between cars. The July 1902 issue of Railway and Locomotive Engineering has a couple of pictures of this device here (scroll down to page 330).

(h/t to Darrell Smith, who posted this information on the Early Rail mailing list.)

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Some things just defy human understanding

Our apartment is across the river from the railroad track. And not just any railroad track; it’s part of the very first transcontinental railroad ever built anywhere. I can look out my living room window and watch the trains go past. My wife says our rent is probably a little lower because of this, and my mind boggles at the thought. Do we get a discount because it’s in a low crime area too?

One thing I see quite frequently is trains full of “FEMA prison cars” which have been cleverly disguised as articulated Auto-Max cars, used to transport automobiles. It’s a good thing that a few kooks hardworking independent investigators have alerted us to this threat, as large numbers of railfans and model railroaders all across the country have been fooled by this clever ruse.

Apparently, the government has purchased 102,000 of these “prison cars,” most of which are kept on hidden sidings out of public view. That’s a lot of hidden track! (By way of comparison, according to Wikipedia, Union Pacific owned a total of 94,284 freight cars of all types at the end of 2007. BNSF had 85,338.)

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