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Monday Train Blogging: Failed Designs

by DoDo Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 10:28:36 AM EST

back from the front page

Homo sapiens, we call ourselves, and see all the products of our technological development as signs of our ingenuity. Yet, in truth, most of that development came by trial and error1 – where we view the (successful) trials as ingenuity, while (if we are shown them at all) we laugh at the errors: this looks ridiculous, what a stupid idea!

Whereas back then, when people had no benefit of hindsight, the errors too had a rationale. For example: if the steam engine could be made into a locomotive, why not put a coal-fired power plant on the rails?

Norfolk & Western class TE-1 #2300 "Jawn Henry", a steam-turbine–electric locomotive (click image for larger version at Gunter's Locomotive Pages)

Go below the fold for more on this one, plus another US and a Stalin-era Soviet failed design.

  1. Or, to prod the Dawkins-allergic in our rounds: it came by memetic evolution.


This post is the middle part of an exotic steam locomotives mini-series, whose three parts are connected, indeed not clearly separated – and indeed the "Jawn Henry" is another Bigger Than Big Boy: it was the longest steam locomotive ever built both with (161'1" / 49.10 m) and without tender (111'7" / 34.01 m), and also the second strongest and second heaviest. The heaviest (and second longest...) was a similar type the N&W TE-1 was inspired by: the Chesapeake & Ohio class M-1 (1,233,970 lbs / 559.7 metric tons with tender, 856,000 lbs / 388.3 t without).

Chesapeake & Ohio  class M-1 "Sacred Cow" #500, another steam turbine – electric locomotive (photo from Gunter's Locomotive Pages)

While the three C&O M-1's built were total failures, the sole "Jawn Henry" prototype ultimately came out of its teething problems – but economic it was not. The obvious problem: just its sheer size. It was maintenance-heavy for several reasons – including turbine fans that didn't like acceleration/braking, coal dust clogging up parts, and the complexity of it all. And starting up and power regulation was nowhere near as flexible as Diesels or [catenary-supplied] electrics.


Triplex

Most of the 'normal' biggest steam locomotives (and all in my Bigger Than Big Boy post) were articulated: two pairs of cylinders drove two groups of coupled wheels. But, why not put a third driving unit under the tender?

The Virginian class XA #700 (photo from Douglas Self's page on Triplexes)

Built during WWI, the Virginian XA was another sole prototype modelled on another railroad's similar class (the Erie class P-1, again 3 built). It was the strongest steam locomotive ever (tractive effort of 199,560 lbs / 887.7 kN) – but that was too strong for the couplers of the time, so the XA broke a few. Also, as a Triplex needed enormous amounts of steam, it could barely accelerate above walking speed. And as the tender got lighter (when water and coal was used up), the wheels under it began to slip.


Septipede

As befitting for a megalomaniac, Stalin had his go for largest locomotive ever, too. What he got instead was perhaps the single most expensive mistake in railway history. It was no articulated – it was the only steam locomotive with seven coupled axles:

The Soviet Railways class AA-20 01 "A. Andreyev" (photo from Gunter's Locomotive Pages)

Now the AA-20 was already straddling the limit to the finishing part in this mini-series, on truly crazy designs: for, more coupled axles mean more stress on rails in curves, and more instable running that throws the locomotive body right and left. On the other hand, there was no obvious limit – and a number of six-coupled loco types ran successfully. Begun in a German factory, finished by a Soviet one, the AA-20 made one single trip in service – and ruined tracks on the entire stretch it travelled.

It expanded curves, ruined switches, derailed repeatedly, and on top of this couldn't accelerate to higher speeds. So after the propaganda run, to not embarrass Stalin, the loco wasn't scrapped – just kept in the engine shops permanently...


Previous Monday Train Bloggings:

  1. (Premiere/ modern Austrian trains & locos)
  2. Adventure
  3. Fast Steam
  4. Heavy Haul
  5. Forgotten Colorado
  6. The Hardest Job
  7. Blowback
  8. Highest Speed
  9. New England Autumn
  10. Trainwreck
  11. Bigger Than Big Boy
  12. Tunnels

Display:
"A. Andrejew" is the German spelling. A. Andreyev would be the English one.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 10:18:50 AM EST
Thanks for the correction - Russian spelling in other languages, given I know four (with each using a different spelling) always confuses me...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 11:02:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
BTW, I decided to keep the frontpage 800 pixels wide (hence 400 pixels wide image), but continue with 600 pixels wide below the fold. If that's not alright with someone, please indicate so!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 11:05:01 AM EST
well not this year. I've just spent four hours exploring Douglas Self's website on retro-technology.

What amazing, outstanding and totally nutty ideas we overevolved apes have come up with over the years.

If only my father was ready to accept the Internet, what fun he would have.

Eats cheroots and leaves.

by NeutralObserver on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 05:34:53 PM EST
If only my father was ready to accept the Internet, what fun he would have.

It's never too late - I had an aunt who'd say every time we met over the last 15 years that computers are over her head, she's too old for this - and now does bookkeeping on one and surfs around for news, material and holiday destinations...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 06:06:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In a book on the Baldwin Locomotive works, I saw a picture of a 19th century single-rail steam locomotive.  The engine was balanced on top of a single line of wheels.  It was pretty ridiculous looking.

Most of Baldwin's work then was custom orders, and they'd make pretty much whatever you would pay them to make, including ridiculous vanity pieces like that.  

I have to go to work, but I may try to scan and post a picture when I get back.

by Zwackus on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 06:22:29 PM EST
Kind of a steam bicycle?... Must look funny!

I believe that would be a crazed design, which I prepared a future diary on for posting on New Years' Day, it would be much welcomed if you can scan it by them!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 06:29:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not sure exactly what counts as a "failed design," but one approach that was frequently tried--and frequently rejected--was the Vauclain compound system, named after Baldwin's President, Samual Vauclain. In this system you have four cylinders, one high pressure and one low pressure on each side, with the cylinders on each side sharing the same valve gear. The idea is that the exhaust from the high pressure cylinder can be used in the low pressure cylinder, to improve efficiency. It sounds good...

This system was used in a lot of engines, including large and small engines with the Consolidation wheel arrangement, tank engines on the Chicago elevated railway, the Pike's Peak cog railway, the Sant Ellero-Saltino Cog Railway in Italy, and at least one city tram system.

But this design has problems, partly because in order to make efficient use of the steam, the low pressure cylinder needed to be very big and the high pressure cylinder very small. On the one hand, the small high pressure cylinders limited the ability of the engine to use steam, while the large low pressure cylinders caused trouble in tight spots where they tended to snag on roadside brush or rocks or bridge trusses. Also, they're complicated and require more maintenance. As a result, many of them were eventually converted to the regular single-expansion type.

So is this a failed design?

by asdf on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 11:01:03 PM EST
I have no knowledge whatsoever on the question in your post, but just wanted to thank you for the awesome pictures.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 04:23:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Seconded - especially for that Lehigh Valley camelback! (And welcome back!)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 08:36:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for this - the only instance I read of Vauclain Compounds (but then didn't knew what it is) was when one was dug up in China (it fell into a river or something 70 years ago):

So is this a failed design?

Possibly - for higher maintenance costs certainly (was a problem with all compounds), but I don't understand the other two problems with it (why would the high-pressure cylinder limit the ability to use steam, and the low-pressure cylinders are supposed to snag only if they aren't within the line's standard cross section). But two cylinders on the same crosshead - that sounds like a recipe for stress cracks to me.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 08:59:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
To fit both cylinders into the available space you have to make the high pressure cylinder smaller than normal. Smaller cylinder => less capacity per stroke => less speed. Because of the extra expansion in the low pressure cylinder, you have to run at high cutoff values, perhaps more than 100% in high power situations.

The Colorado Midland had trouble with their engines snagging because they had such tight curves, some exceeding 16 degrees--which is a very sharp curve for a standard gauge railroad. The concept of "standard cross section" wasn't really in play during the 1890s in Colorado. Here's an explanation of how curves are measured in 'merica.
http://www.du.edu/~jcalvert/railway/degcurv.htm

Here's an interesting account of the terrible snowstorm in 1899 that closed the Colorado Midland for 78 days!
http://www.netreach.net/~rphillips/_pg3_19.html

by asdf on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 08:23:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
To fit both cylinders into the available space you have to make the high pressure cylinder smaller than normal.

I still don't understand this. First, the high-pressure cylinder is where normally the single outer cylinder is, and that can be rather big depending on the locomotive. High-pressure cylinders are smaller by default - force is proportional to the pressure imbalance and the area of the piston, so if say pressure is reduced by 75% between the two cylinders, the high-pressure one has to be half the diameter of the low-pressure one. (In this example, a single cylinder of a non-compound locomotive with the same power would have a diameter sqrt(2) times the high-pressure cylinder's.)

Thanks for that on curves - I saw it a few times, now it makes sense... 16-degree curve, that's a 109 m radius curve, ouch!

Here's an interesting account of the terrible snowstorm in 1899 that closed the Colorado Midland for 78 days!

Also see my earlier Forgotten Colorado diary for more on the Colorado Midland (from which I also linked to the same story)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Dec 21st, 2005 at 10:55:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I wonder if narrow-gauge railways should be considered another kind of failed design.  What I heard was that they enjoyed a sort of faddish popularity in the latter part of the nineteenth century due to their lower construction costs, but that the narrowness of the gauge so restricted potential engine power (by cutting down on the maximum width of the locomotive) that they could never achieve anything close to the efficiency of normal-gauge railroads, ultimately leading to the closing of lines or an upgrade to normal gauge track.

A while ago, I saw another example of a very obviously failed design on Japanese television.  It seemed to be a program on great inventors in Japan, and this episode focused on a man who worked in transportation.  One of his projects was ultra-high speed rail via rocket power.  They showed footage of several small-scale tests he did in the 50's or 60's, with rockets blasting small capsules across fairly short lengths of track.  I couldn't follow the whole program due to my rather limited Japanese, but it seemed like people lost interest in the idea once the Shinkansen bullet trains proved successful.

Finally, on the subject of failed designs, what do people think about magnetic levitation trains?  Despite rather consistent efforts in a few places (China I know has a line from Pudong airport to Shanghai, one that I hear never runs - I've heard something about Germany making efforts in this field as well, but don't know much), I have not heard about a functional commercial mag-lev line.  

Sorry for the late post, but being in Japan, the time difference makes it kind of hard . . .

by Zwackus on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 06:57:07 AM EST
The problem for narrow gauge railways I know of was not motive power: due to smaller amounts to transport, that was not a big issue. The problem is the need to reload: if you have to reload into a standard-gauge wagon after just 20 km, why not transport it on trucks all the way? So surviving narrow gauge with freight transport usually carries normal freight wagons piggyback (i.e., either on special flat cars that have normal gauge rails on them, or on special bogies that are pushed under each axle of the normal wagon).

On the other hand, some narrow gauge railways live on fine as regional transporters or tourists: in Switzerland, there are whole networks.

As for Japanese rocket trains: thanks, never heard of this! I only know that the absolute high-speed record on rails is held by rocket sledges at a US rocket test facility. In 2003, the record was increased, it now stands at Mach 8.5 / 6416 mph / 10325 km/h.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 07:53:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The whole theory behind the Colorado Midland was to avoid the reloading process. A resulting problem was the high operating cost of a standard gauge railroad in the mountains.
by asdf on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 08:27:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sorry, I was a bit too busy to follow up on this. Yes! There was a college engineering professor who invented a rocket propelled grena...no, train. I will post a link if I find any.

I will become a patissier, God willing.
by tuasfait on Wed Dec 21st, 2005 at 03:41:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I hope you'll find a link before the diary slips from the frontpage right-hand bar!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Dec 21st, 2005 at 06:10:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
He can always find the diary by clicking on your name, DoDo, it's not like you'll disappear.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Dec 21st, 2005 at 06:17:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
He can, but others may not - including myself :-)

(I totally forgot to check comments to my October Revolution frontpage story once it slipped, for example...)

DoDo, it's not like you'll disappear.

With that name, are you sure? ;-)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Dec 21st, 2005 at 06:25:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What a shame. I couldn't find any link. The professor was a former army aviation designer. I saw a documentary about his adventure decades ago. The thing was really fast, much too fast for frogs and turtles on board (some of them died when the thing crashed once).

I will become a patissier, God willing.
by tuasfait on Thu Dec 22nd, 2005 at 01:09:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I shortly wrote about them in the comments of the Fastest Speed diary, and again in the Trainwreck diary (see links at the end of this diary), but here is a more basic summary for you (and whoever else cares).

Serious maglev development was done in Japan and Germany. That the former holds the world speed record (at 581 km/h = 361 mph) is due to a longer test line, the German technology (Transrapid) is more advanced. The Pudong to Shanghai line is the first and only commercial Transrapid, it reaches a scheduled 430 km/h (267.2 mph) even on its short strech.

As far as I know, the Shanghai Maglev does run (this November 30, its service was even extended), but rather empty (5 million passengers in 3 years): ticket is expensive, yet the end station is at a metro station in a suburb, so not very practical. The Shanghai authorities spared a tunnel under the city - and the project was expensive enough without it. Cost is also the reason plans to build a line in Germany failed so far (first it was to be Berlin-Hamburg, later across the Ruhr area, now to connect Munich with its airport - but even the latter could fail).

As I wrote in my earlier diaries, I am negative about maglev. It is a superior technology (tough not as superior as in some PR - the latest high-speed trains have come closer in acceleration, while have a better ride quality), but its track is very expensive. And another disadvantage is that while high-speed trains can continue to destinations on conventional lines (at least in Europe - but Japan also has three-track slow lines with Shinkansens), you'd have to build maglev tracks everywhere to offer similar service.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 08:29:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
BTW, would my American readers here have difficulties if I stopped giving every figure both in metric and Imperial?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 08:30:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No, as long as we can describe curvature in terms of degrees per 100 foot chord!
by asdf on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 08:25:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I did some searching on passenger numbers of the Transrapid Shanghai - and they look somewhat better. The first of its three years in service was only pilot operation, with 0.5 million passengers. For April 2004, I saw daily figures of 4000, so the second year's total must have been around 1.5 million - leaving 3 million for this year. That's some improvement, tough still a far cry from the originally predicted 10 million (and fares were reduced, so the income must be an even smaller part of the planned).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 03:56:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You probably know this crazy project of a high-speed train running at 600 km/h in low-pressure tunnels ? Two tunnels were planned: Geneva-Sankt Gallen (about 250 km) and Basel-Bellinzona (200 km).
by Hansvon on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 02:21:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
How far was that project advanced? Was it just wild phantasizing by an engineer put out to the press, or were politicians discussing it, or were there even feasibility studies prepared - and (if yes failed I suppose) referendums on it?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 02:51:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Prof. M. Jufer from EPFL did start the project in 1992. Several feasibility studies were paid through the Swiss Confederation. The last one (Projekt HISTAR II, mostly computer simulations) ended last September with encouraging results.
A postulat is asking the Swiss Government for further funding (about 1/1000 of the transportation budget, about 7 mio CHF/5 mio €) for the year 2006-2008. Decision will be made next spring.
by Hansvon on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 06:02:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Wow! And I was thinking the project is dead!

What are the currently projected costs? Considering the cost of €10 billion for altogether 100 km of tunnels in NEAT, I'd expect something like €50 billion at least, but maybe there are economies of scale and spared elements (track for one)?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 06:52:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The cost for the pilot between Geneva and Lausanne (60 km) will be about 2.5 mia CHF (1.7 mia €). I've seen the following figure for the whole project: between 25 and 28 mia CHF (18 mia €), split as 13 mia CHF for the line between Geneva and Sankt-Gallen, and 12-15 mia CHF for the line between Basel and Bellinzona.
For comparison, Rail 2000 was 7.4 mia CHF and Alptransit 14 mia CHF.
by Hansvon on Wed Dec 21st, 2005 at 10:46:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
25 and 28 mia CHF (18 mia €)

Whoa - much cheaper than I thought! (BTW, in English, there is no Milliarde - these uneducated barbarians call it a billion :-))

For comparison, Rail 2000 was 7.4 mia CHF and Alptransit 14 mia CHF.

Planned - the former was put into service after remaining waaay below budget (CHF 5.9 billion), but the latter became more expensive (due to inflation, project changes and some geologic problems), now projected to cost CHF 16.40 billion (€10.55 billion) in the end.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Dec 21st, 2005 at 11:09:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The common theme in this post is "logical extensions of existing technology that failed."  There's a related theme also worthy of study, called "anticipations of technologies not yet available."  Consider a slight variation in putting the steam power plant on wheels.  Instead of imitating the electric generating station with a steam or pulverized coal turbine, use a maritime-style inline engine to turn the alternator.  (More details at Mr Self's site.)

The biggest difficulty in an electric transmission locomotive is matching the output of the power source to the load placed on the generator or alternator.  That problem was solved a few years later with the maritime inline steam engine giving way to a Diesel...

Stephen Karlson ATTITUDE is a nine letter word. BOATSPEED.
by SHKarlson (shkarlson at frontier dot com) on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 02:31:37 PM EST
Good addition and great way to frame it!

As a further incentive for other readers to visit SHKarlson's links, I note word is about a then revolutionary French design from the 1890s, the Heilmann steam motor locomotive. (A list with pictures with these and other, non-electric steam motor locomotives also at Gunter's.)

Oh, and you can read an interesting trip report around Chicago by SHKarlson.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 03:40:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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