Sunday, April 6, 2008

It's a train kind of day in the blogosphere

I know it's national autism month and I should be full of insightful stories. And maybe I am. If you want to find out, come see me in Wallingford this Thursday at 6. Meanwhile, today's blog is devoted to trains . . . No one knows why so many Aspergian love trains, but there it is . . .


If you want to run a train west from Boston to Albany, there are two routes. The southern route is the oldest, being built in the 1840s. That line was the Boston & Albany, then the B&M, then Conrail. Now, it's CSX.


The line is all in good condition, with modern heavy welded rail. Welded rail means that there are no joints, so the trains roll silently and smoothly. Here's a CSX freight climbing the grade at Middlefield, MA:





Everything about the CSX mainline in this area is nice. The track is new and well maintained. The ballast is good, and it's properly graded. It's smooth and fast.

You can see they're running modern AC traction locomotives, three of them, and they're pulling 100 cars up the grade at a good clip. You might also notice they're climbing (going west) in the eastbound lane. That's because (when this was taken) there was another westbound train broken down a few miles back, blocking the westbound track.

The current CSX main line was laid out about 1910. It runs close to the original line, which dates from 1843. The original line was distinguished by it's stonework. The line runs on beautiful stone embankment through the Middlefield cut, and the line crossed the Westfield River on a series of stone arch bridges. Here's one:

These bridges stand today much as they did 165 years ago. They've withstood trains, floods, and weather. The amazing thing is that they are made of 100% cut stone. There's no metal framing, no mortar, and no cement. They are held together by their own mass, shaped by the stonecutters.

Here's a summertime view of the underside of one of the other bridges on this section of line:

The washout that's visible in the lower left corner dates from the 1880s, when a mill dam burst and caused extensive flooding in this section of river. Luckily, it was very rural and there was no loss of life. Two of these massive stone structures, though, were actually washed out and this one suffered damage.

The northern route is a little less state of the art. It's interesting, though, because it goes through the Hoosac Tunnel. The tunnel takes the Springfield Terminal line from Rowe to North Adams through 5 miles of mountain. In this photo you can see two intrepid rail fans gazing into the entrance to the tunnel. You can see a haze that's a combination of diesel exhaust fumes and steam wafting from the tunnel entrance









As you can see, even in April, it's still winter in the Berkshires. The Hoosac tunnel was an engineering marvel back in its day (1877) for a number of reasons, one being that it was the first time nitroglycerin was used in large scale construction instead of blasting powder. There's a cemetery about 1/2 a mile down the tracks for all the nameless workers who died building the tunnel.

The line crosses the Deerfield River right before the tunnel. Here's a shot of the underside of the bridge:





The steel is all wet and rusty, and covered in a slime made from moss, algae, and dripped lubricating oil. Needless to say, I did not venture out onto it. The green water below is about 36 degrees, and moving fast. The next shot shows the main and passing tracks just east of the bridge and tunnel portal:





In the first photo, you saw the nice modern CSX lines. The ST line is quite a bit more run down. In this show, you can see wavy rail, and rotted ties. Some of the track up there is quite old. This section, for example, dates from 1934. You can read the makers mark on the side of the rail. It's actually a testament to the quality of the steel that it's this clean after 74 years outside:






This shot shows the old way of joining rail, with bolts and plates. You can see a few bolts are missing, and the rail has separated enough that there's a flat spot where the two pieces join. Those joints are what made the traditional clakity-clack sound of a train.





17 comments:

The Muse said...

Beautiful photos, John.

Every time I hear the faint roar in the distance of a train passing through town now I think of you. I imagine your glee of watching trains and it makes me smile. Similarly, I love to just sit and admire artwork and beautiful buildings. The harmony and aesthetic beauty is very soothing to my psyche. It acts as a mirror to my internal sense of balance and structure. I suspect that that is what trains represent to you. The love of the machine. The precision and clear logic of each of the components. You identify with the rigid complexity of the industrial design of the machine. I think that your fascination with trains is because you are able to truly grasp the whole. Every component is streamlined and can be analyzed to fulfill a clear function. It mirrors your internal structure and thought processes. Like art, it affirms your sense of balance and unity.

Leah J.Utas said...

Thanks for making some train magic.
I live a block from the train tracks. I see it and hear its haunting melody.
There'll be something extra in it for me now as they go by.

Veggiemomof2 said...

I think Aspergians love trains because they are usually predictable since they don't jump the track often. Plus all the mechanical stuff.

John Elder Robison said...

Veggie mom, I don't know if predictability or not jumping the track has anything to do with liking trains.

Like many Aspergians, my love of trains started when I was 4 or so, and I "drove" the steam locomotives at the museum in Philadelphia.

Those, obviously, were totally predictable and never jumped tracks because they were museum displays, but the same could be said of everything else in the museum and yet I focused on the trains to the exclusion of all else - except dinosaurs, which was another great childhood love.

It's a good thought but my connection came too early for it to be the original answer, I think.

Kim Stagliano said...

Hmm, with all due respect to train lovers (don't forget that 9 car train cake I made you for your RJ Julia appearance) I HATE TRAINS! Why? Because I moved into a beeyooteeful house several years ago. With no idea that just over yonder were train tracks. And CSX had just upped its schedule. Not only did trains sound like they were coming into my bedroom window at night, they got in the way of cars, stalled traffic and meant that EMS had to take a circuitous route to our neighborhood.

I wouldn't mind a trip on the Orient Express though. :)

See you Sunday at Elms John.

polyrhythmia said...

Trains are a great way to haul large quantities of goods. I happen to live a block from the tracks and it seems that train whistles have gotten much louder in recent years. We are so afraid someone might have an accident that engineers are forced to blow, blow, and blow some more. Because of being so close to the tracks, trains are a regular part of my dreams. Sometimes I dream that there is a train track running right through the middle of the house. That said, I do like to see an intermodal train going through this nearby town doing 70 miles per hour. It's exciting, and a bit scary to watch a train go through a crossing where the railbed is soft. Sheesh, what's the big hurry?

John Elder Robison said...

Polyrythmia, you asked an interesting question . . . what's the big hurry?

The implication being that trains run faster today than yesterday.

Our country experienced a long decline in the railroad industry from the end of WWII to the 1990s. At the bottom of the decline, the equipment was old and worn out, tracks were falling apart,and maximum safe speeds were the lowest they'd ever been on many lines.

So you are right. . . capital improvements to the lines have allowed safe speed limits to rise.

At the same time, as traffic volume increased, the "need for speed" increased with the concurrent rise in "just in time" inventory management. That puts pressure on railroads to move the trains faster.

Finally, we have the reality of physics. Cars have high power to weight ratios, so their engines can speed them up at will on any possible grade. Trains, by virtue of their huge size, have tiny power to weight ratios.

That means that a train that encounters a hill will not have enough power to control speed on the hill, unless the hill is very slight. The train slows as it climbs.

By hitting the grade at a higher speed, the kinetic energy stored in the rolling stock assists the train in reaching the top of the grade.

For a given amount of locomotive horsepower, the faster you get the train rolling, the more ups and downs you can traverse without coming to a stop - getting stuck - on an uphill grade. The inertia carries the train over most of the tops.

kevathens said...

Hey John,

I saw a few of your recent videos on YouTube: they look great! You look really comfortable in front of an audience. I'm really jealous.

Chumplet said...

Your post reminds me of my brother in law. He was always a train nut. He's fifty now, and has an extensive trains set which he shares with his new stepsons.

He worked for years volunteering for the Tottenham Steam Railway, rehabilitating an old set of train tracks so the Tottenham Steam Engine could do an hourly run to Beeton and back. I took my son on the train for his birthday. We rode in the mail car.

ChristineEldin said...

I love your photos. And I love trains too.

Chumplet posted about trains on her blog, so I copied the two of you and posted about railroad hobos.

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Polly Kahl said...

Thanks for a deeper appreciation of those beautiful old bridges. This post sounds like my brother could've written it. He collected old railroad nails, license plates and old glass insulators as a kid. No doubt some of our old rr lines in Great Barrington were connected to the ones close to you today.

Shawn said...

To add further depth to John Elders reply to polyrhythmia's comment on current train speeds, aside from intermodal traffic, current freight speeds are usually around 50 MPH, due to the fact that traditional freight trains are much heavier than intermodals.

As far as historic rail traffic is concerned, my grandfather was an engineer for Southern RR. He retired right before the merger with Norfolk Western. He told me that when he was a passenger engineer on The Crescent, the 'E' and 'F' series of locomotives would pull the trains at 110 to 120 MPH. He said that the engine's would start to shake around 80 MPH, but as they approached 90 MPH the ride would smoothe back out. --This may have been due to either the aerodynamic chararcteristics of the old 'E' and 'F' units, design peculiarities inherant to the old Blomberg trucks of these units, or a combination of both.

Comapare this with Amtrak's current speed limits. Aside from the electrified Northeast Corridor, Amtrak's Diesel lineup is limited to a max speed of 79 MPH, despite the use of seamless welded rails, which provide a much smoother ride.

I believe that a good deal of the reduced speeds of current rail passenger traffic is due in part to current saftey regulations regarding passenger rail traffic, as well as the fact that there is more mainline rail traffic today than there was from after WW2, until Amtrak was formed in 1970.

As a personal aside, I remember these portions of the Northern mainline John Elder took pictures of quite well. I rode Boston & Maine's New England 1 from Rigby Yd. in South Portland, Maine to it's terminus at the classification yard at Mechanicsville, NY in early October 1981 when I was 14 years old. It was a nice trip, aside from the fact that for some reason or another, my parents were less than happy about having to pick me up in New York and take me back to Maine after I got caught.

carpocrates said...

In your book, you mention people who have a "touch" of Asperger's.
Does this mean that there are many who have some of these traits, to some degree? This would imply that far more than one in 150 are affected. You also mention creativity and genius. Has anyone written about people who took unorthodox paths to knowledge and may have had a "touch" of Asperger's traits? Where can one learn about this issue from further reading or orgs?

John Elder Robison said...

Carpocrates, that is exactly what I mean. There are many people who have Asperger/autism traits but they are not "intense" enough to get an official diagnosis.

And you are right, that means more than 1 in 150 is affected to some extent.

You ask about genius and Aspergers . . you might want to read the book Unstoppable Brilliance, by a Trinity college doctor.

UmmaGumma said...

Hi! I was curious if you could tell me where that bridge that crosses the westfield river is located. My grandfather is writing a book on railroad tunnels and is having me do research on it. He would like to take a picture of it so I figured I'd ask where it is.
Thanks!

John Elder Robison said...

Those bridges can be seen from the Stone Arch Bridges hiking trail in Chester, MA