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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Post Category : Trains : Page 1

Unexpected

I deliberately didn't post this yesterday in case you thought it was an April Fool

Talking about trains: regular readers will be aware that occasionally over the past few months I’ve been banging on about the Brecon & Merthyr Railway, a curious little Welsh concern that until 1922 operated two stretches of railway line. One from Brecon to Merthyr—actually, to Deri, a small village between Dowlais and Bargoed—and the other from Rhymney to Newport. The latter was originally built as a horse-drawn tramroad in the mid-1820s and its southernmost few miles are the last part of the Brecon & Merthyr Railway still in use, now just as a freight branch to serve Machen Quarry. In included probably the oldest viaduct on the railway network, which I’ll write more about another day. Occasionally someone proposes reopening it to passengers, together with the disused line from Machen to Caerphilly, but nothing ever happens about this.

I say “still in use” but the Machen Quarry line is very much only still in use in the hypothetical sense; trains along it are few and far between. Because of this, I was slightly surprised to drive past Rhiwderin station the other day and see a train, stopped, in the disused railway station.

Why was there a train standing still in Rhiwderin station, when it closed getting on for seventy years ago? Well, first, a bit of explanation. The level crossing at Rhiwderin is of the “locally monitored” type. That’s to say, it works automatically. There are signals for the trains, which normally (when the crossing is open to road traffic) flash red. As a train approaches, it hits a switch to operate the crossing. The lights flash, the barriers come down, and the flashing red train signal changes to flashing white. What do I suspect happened? Well, when I drove past, the barriers were most definitely up. Presumably, the first train in many months had hit the switch to operate the crossing, nothing happened, so the train had stopped at the flashing red signal until someone could come along to make sure everything was properly safe.

The Plain People Of The Internet: But surely now, if you have a train on a crossing, nobody is going to drive themselves into the side of the thing are they? It’s bloody huge, is what I’m saying.

Really, you would be surprised. It is certainly not unheard of, for a car to drive into the side of a train that was already blocking the road. Not wanting to risk that happening, is entirely understandable. The interesting thing here is that this train was on its return trip, heading away from the quarry towards Stoke Gifford marshalling yard (or, for non-train people, the sidings next to Bristol Parkway station). Heading up to the quarry, the level crossing must have worked as designed; then on the way back, nothing happened. If I was a rarely-used level crossing myself, I could definitely understand.

I was half-tempted to pull the car over, get the camera out and start taking photos of this train stopped in a station that closed over sixty years ago. There was already a guy leaning over the fence by the level crossing, though, watching the world go by and watching the train very much not going by. Another random (me) turning up with a camera was, no doubt, the last thing the people trying to get stuff moving again actually wanted. Still, I’ll have to keep an eye on the timetables now in case trains start to appear regularly on the stub of the Brecon & Merthyr again, just in case I will have chance next time to pop out with the camera as they pass.

Original footage

In which we consider moving to the mountains

The other day I was rather pleased to discover, on YouTube, a documentary from the 1970s that I’ve known about for a while but had never before seen. The Campbells Came By Rail is a documentary about the everyday life of Col. Andrew Campbell.

Colonel Campbell had a long and successful career in the Black Watch, largely overseas, policing the crumbling corners of the British Empire. Coming out of the Army in the early 1960s, he became county solicitor for Merionethshire (as was). At auction, he bought an equally-crumbling manor house in the northern fringes of the county, which he had fallen in love with at first sight. Its name was Dduallt.

Map of Dduallt

If you’re a regular reader—or paid attention to the title of the documentary—you may well be ahead of me here. Dduallt,* when Campbell bought it, had no vehicular access, but it was alongside the Ffestiniog Railway. At the time, the Ffestiniog were not operating services over that stretch of track; so the Colonel bought a small Simplex locomotive and had a small siding built alongside his new house. The railway let him park his car at the nearest station, Tan y Bwlch, and run himself up and down by train.

The Colonel at Tan y Bwlch

The documentary shows him picking up his loco and a brakevan from Tan y Bwlch and heading off up the line to show the filmcrew round his home, describing it as part of his normal daily commute from the county council offices. Off he heads, past the cottage at Coed y Bleiddiau, up to his own Campbell’s Platform, where he puts the train away.

Shunting at Campbell's

Unlike a modern documentary, you get to see all the detail of the Colonel putting the train staff into a drawer lock, working his groundframe, and then a demonstration of how to use an intermediate staff instrument,** including a spin of the Remote Operator dynamo handle to make sure the section is clear and the instruments free.***

Intermediate METS instrument

As I said above, when Campbell moved into Dduallt, the railway wasn’t operating over the stretch of line past his house. By the time the film was made, that part of the railway had reopened to traffic, and it must have been difficult on a busy summer day to find a space in the timetable for the Colonel to run down to Tan y Bwlch in the daytime. Further north, the railway was rebuilding a couple of miles or so of line that had been drowned by a reservoir, and Colonel Campbell had provided invaluable help. For one thing, he allowed the railway’s civil engineering volunteers to use one of his buildings as a hostel provided they helped restore it, which they did complete with a large London Underground roundel sign on one wall. For another, he was a licenced user of explosives, so was called out each weekend to blow up rocks along the path of the new line. If you look in the background of the documentary you can see a couple of wagons carrying concrete drainpipes are sat in Campbell’s siding, no doubt waiting to be used on the new line.

Eventually, Campbell did get a roadway built to the house, zigzagging steeply up the side of the vale, but only in the last few months of his life. He died in 1982, the same year that the Ffestiniog Railway completed its 27-year reopening process. The Ffestiniog went through a number of significant changes in the early 1980s, and the loss of Colonel Campbell was one of them. He is still an iconic figure to the railway, though, so watching the documentary was a fascinating opportunity to have some insight into who he was, what he looked like, what his mannerisms were. In particular, the upper-class Englishness of his accent startled me somewhat, given he was on paper a Scot. That, I suppose, is what being an interwar colonial Army officer turned you into. There is a whole thesis that could be written on colonialism and the Ffestiniog, given that it was funded in the 1830s by Irish investors and re-funded in the 1950s by English enthusiasts—and considering the long, bitter and quixotic arguments the railway had with Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg in the 1960s and 1970s, arguments characterised by a tone of disingenuous legalistic pedantry on the railway’s side. It’s certainly far too complex a topic to be summarised within this single blog post. In the documentary, Campbell was very clear that after ten years of living at Dduallt he still felt himself to be an outsider; indeed, he gives you the feeling that he didn’t think he would ever truly belong to the land and to the house in the way that his farming neighbours did.

The Ffestiniog Railway is a very different place now, with a very different attitude to the local community. Dduallt has changed hands a few times since Campbell’s death, most recently just in 2020 after sitting on the market for some years. Its final price was a bit over £700,000, less than the sellers wanted but somewhat more, I think, than when Colonel Campbell picked it up at auction. It’s in rather better condition now, of course, not to mention rather more photogenic when shot on a modern camera. Apparently, if you go there (and the Ffestiniog will start running trains past it again next month) you can still see parts of the aerial ropeway that linked the house and its station back in the 1970s.

The documentary is certainly a moment in time, and that time has now moved on. Nevertheless, if you know what the railway is like now, it’s a fascinating watch. If you don’t, maybe it will entice you to visit. It’s certainly worth it.

* The famous-but-controversial railway manager Gerry Fiennes once said that the best way to pronounce Dduallt was by sneezing, which is cruel but more accurate than pronouncing it as if the letters were English.

** Technically speaking it’s a “miniature electric train staff”.

*** The Remote Operator handle and indicator is a Ffestiniog peculiarity, developed to enable the railway to operate with unstaffed token stations and traincrew-operated signalling equipment. There is more information about it in this video about one of the Ffestiniog’s signalboxes.

The railways of your dreams

Or possibly those of my subconscious

A few months ago now, I wrote something about the sheer number of different railways that interest me enough to want to build models of them. It’s a fairly long list, to be frank, of ideas and concepts that I’ve considered over and over to, for one reason and another, very little concrete result.

My subconscious evidently thinks that that long list isn’t enough, because last night I awoke from a dream that a magazine article had inspired me to build an American-set model railway (or model railroad, I suppose). It was based on the concept of a “double terminus”: two lines meeting from opposite directions, built by different companies, without through trains per se but with traffic interchanged.

To be honest, it’s quite an interesting concept. There are a few examples in Britain I can think of. Halesowen, in the West Midlands, was a rather strange station where the GWR and LMS met from opposite directions. Brecon was a slightly more complex example: the Neath and Brecon Railway met the Brecon and Merthyr Railway end-on, with through trains from the Cambrian Railways, and with the Midland Railway using the whole thing as a route to reach Swansea. After 1922 this all became a lot quieter. The ultimate example is probably Wells, which once was served by three separate railways approaching from three different directions, all of them rather meandering and quiet branchlines.

In a way my subconscious was right: America is somewhat more fertile ground for this sort of concept. Britain suffers from its relative lack of railway companies, particularly from 1923 onwards; there would be many more cases of this sort of thing if it weren’t for earlier amalgamations. I said Brecon became a lot quieter: the companies sharing the station both became part of the Great Western Railway, and the Midland’s successor, the LMS, had its own route into Swansea and didn’t need to pay tolls to its competitor to get there. Brecon’s station became a dozy, sleepy place as a result, losing its railways completely in 1962.* Similar things happened elsewhere, or had happened already. Nevertheless, there were always going to be places where different railways or just different ways of working met. Another Welsh example is Nine Mile Point, an entirely arbitrary place whose existence I’ve briefly touched upon before. In 1805 the Tredegar ironworks wanted to build a railway to Newport, but the Monmouthshire Canal didn’t want to lose their income; they agreed to compromise by building half of the railway each, with the dividing line being at the ninth milepost from Newport. For one reason and another the canal company ended up asking the Great Western Railway to buy it out (and the results can still be seen); and the ironworks-founded Sirhowy Railway ended up owned by the London and North Western Railway. Nine Mile Point became a “frontier”, and lasted as such into the 1960s. It’s interesting to speculate how much the Sirhowy Valley suffered by comparison with the valleys either side, through having its railway divided in that way, but of course it can only ever be speculation.

I’m not going to add “random dream-inspired American railroad” to my list of models I might one day build, but it has at least sparked off a bit of thought and imagination in my mind, and led to this blog post at the very least. I’m going to finish it off with a photo of somewhere I might more plausibly build a model of one day.

Rhiwderin

This is the former Rhiwderin station, at the far end of the Brecon & Merthyr Railway from Brecon. It has a properly-scenic model railway feel to it, with the station building, the level crossing (replacing an earlier bridge), a Victorian village school next to the station, and a row of worker’s cottages behind the school. The terraces and the school were built for the workers at a tinplate factory which was built alongside the railway here but had already gone bankrupt by the 1870s. As a model it looks very attractive, with all of the parts in place just so; but it would also be fairly boring to operate as a railway, with trains heading back and forth but not much else going on. That’s the problem with real places for model railways: they rarely combine both an attractive appearence with interesting things going on. Maybe the railways of your dreams have their advantages after all.

* Nothing to do with the infamous Richard Beeching, before you ask; he didn’t publish his report until the following year.

Photo post of the week

More bits of countryside

The ongoing February, which feels as if it is the longest month of the past 12, is sapping my writing energy. Hopefully the oncoming spring will sort that out: today I saw my first queen bumblebee of the year flying purposefully around the neighbourhood looking for a spot to start her nest. This post is something of an appendix to the previous, with a few more photos. I’ve been repeating previous walks, but this time with the good camera.

Countryside

Countryside

Railway

I’ve been repeating previous walks, but this time with the good camera, which is why regular readers might spot some similarities. At some point I will tell you much, much more about the history of this particular railway, but not today.

Railway

It was built in the 1820s, as a plateway; I suspect that low wall on the right was put there in the 1890s when it was widened from single to double track.

Church

River

Hopefully as the weather warms and the seasons change, my writing energy will come back too.

Photo post of the week

Ger y camlas

One aspect of moving house, especially if you move to a completely different neighbourhood or another town altogether, is the joy you can have in exploring the new area, finding all the interesting corners and places to go. In the current hospitals-overflowing stay-at-home situation, this is a bit limited; but at least there is exploration that can still be done on foot. In Bristol I was getting rather jaded of all the places I could visit on foot, even when it led to interesting local history blog posts. Now, there’s a whole new set of avenues of local history to explore.

One of the spots I can reach on foot is a quiet, sleepy canal backwater. You can’t even use it as a canal any more; most of the road bridges have been demolished or flattened out (or are roads that didn’t even exist when the canal was in use), so you can’t get any sort of boat under them. It’s essentially a long pond, busy with ducks and moorhens, and with its towpath busy with walkers.

Along the canal

Along the canalbank there are a few surviving hints of its industrial archaeology. Here, for example, is a mid-19th-century boundary post.

Canal boundary

This post must be from some decades after the canal was built, because “MR&CC” is the Monmouthshire Railway & Canal Company; and the canal company only added “Railway” into its name in the 1850s. The canal—the Crumlin arm of the Monmouthshire Canal—was built in the 1790s, but within 10 years of its opening some of its main users were looking to replace it with a railway. Not wanting to lose revenue, the canal company agreed to split the railway* midway: the lower half was built by the canal company and the upper by the owners of the Tredegar ironworks, with the dividing line at the nine-mile mark eventually becoming the village of Nine Mile Point. At opening in around 1805, the combined system was the longest railway network in the world, and quite a few stretches of the route are still in use now.

Later on, the split at Nine Mile Point was preserved. The upper section, the Sirhowy Railway, was bought by the London & North Western Railway. The canal company, though, was bought by the Great Western Railway, and some of their signage survives along the canal bank too.

GWR sign

This is a standard design of weight restriction sign—there are other GWR examples along other GWR-owned canals, and the North Yorkshire Moors Railway has a North Eastern Railway one.

No doubt I will have a lot more to say about local history in the future. As yet I’m not even sure what questions I want to ask, let alone have started to investigate the answers. At least when I do, though, I’ll be able to enjoy the scenery as I go. Even when I can only explore places I can reach on foot, there is still an awful lot to sit down and look at.

Bench

Mynydd Machen

* A quick terminology note: I’ve used the word “railway” in something of a blanket way here. The railways I’m talking about were built as what are now called “plateways”, with flanged track and unflanged wheels. At the time, in South Wales, they were generally (but not always) called “tramways” or “tramroads”.

See you later, alligator (part two)

In which something, for once, is completed

The bad thing about Lego is that if you’re just going to build the kit out of the box, it costs quite a lot of money compared to the time it takes to build the thing. The good thing about Lego, though, is that you can actually complete a project in a reasonable amount of time. Regular readers of this blog will be aware just how many half-finished craft projects I post about on here, and just how few completely finished ones there are (um, none). The Lego I posted about last week, by comparison, is already done! After three sessions, the kit is complete. I’m still not entirely sure why it merited an “18+” age guidance on the box, but it certainly did include lots of fiddly bits.

Pantograph parts

The ends of the pantograph collectors, incidentally are the same Lego element used for the claws of various dinosaur and other animal kits, but in silver.

Whenever I do Lego, I like to take lots of step-by-step photos, so it’s always very tempting to start posing the minifigs in positions to suit. I’m not sure they knew how to fit a connecting rod, although Lego rods do make wheel quartering extremely straightforward.

Putting the rods on

By now the Lego aficionados will have realised that this is the “Swiss Crocodile Locomotive” set slowly coming together. I don’t have any Lego track easily accessible right now, so I didn’t see any point getting the motor to go along with it; but I would imagine it is always going to be more of a display piece than a usable locomotive. Two flangeless pairs of wheels always seem to ride slightly off the rails, making its wheel arrangement a 1-1-B-1-1 or thereabouts. Still, I think it’s going to be quite a nice display piece for the office, when I have all the furniture in the office sorted out.

At some point I'll do a proper photo without random junk in the background

Even if I don’t have anywhere to put it properly yet, and even if it is only for display, the minifigs wanted to climb aboard as soon as it was complete.

Climbing aboard

In the cab

The hardest thing about building this model? Probably the design of the instruction book. A kit with a lot of brown or dark brown parts, with instructions printed on a black background, is not the easiest read. Still, I didn’t really go too far astray at any point in the build.

Will this lead to more craft projects suddenly being finished? Will there suddenly be a flood of completed work? Well, stranger things have happened. I certainly shouldn’t start any more until there are fewer in progress, certainly.

See you later, alligator

Or, a treat for myself

It’s strange, having a birthday that falls not long after Christmas. For a while now I’ve been past the age of receiving very many birthday presents, so a while ago I deliberately went out and bought myself a present, and put it away, waiting for my birthday. This year, too, my birthday was relatively close to moving house, the strange period in which everything frivolous, everything not house-move-related, has to go into stasis until the move is over. My present to myself was a Lego kit, and last night I was finally able to start to build it.

Last time I built some Lego I turned it into a GIF. This time, I was tempted to go the whole hog, set up camera and tripod and lighting, program the camera into time lapse mode, and create a video of the whole thing. It seemed like an awful lot of effort, though, for something that was supposed to be a treat for myself. Maybe after I’ve finished the model once, I’ll take it all apart, set up a time lapse, and build it again. Still, I did take a few photos. This is the end of Step 1.

Not much to show yet

It’s a bit hard to tell what it’s going to be after just one step, I suppose. I didn’t get the whole thing finished in one night, but I suspect this is going to be completed much faster than most of my craft-type projects.

Look, cogs

A bit clearer what it is

I do rather like the level of interior detail in this thing, even though a lot of it is likely to be hardly visible in the finished model. At present, it will just turn into something to sit on a shelf as an ornament in my office, but you never know, I might buy a motor to go with it at some point.

It's got controls and everything

The second part of this Lego build is here

Cofiwch Abermiwl

Like a train, this post is slightly late

A couple of days ago, it was the hundredth anniversary of a significant event in British railway history. If you’re a train nerd, you’ll know what it was from the title of this post. If you’re not, let’s start with this photo of the Severn Valley in rural mid-Wales.

The Severn Valley just west of Abermiwl

I took that photo a few years ago from the ruined battlements of the 13th century Dolforwyn Castle, and looking at it you could be forgiven for not even noticing the train in the middle of the picture. It’s on its way from Birmingham to the Welsh coast, on the former main line of the Cambrian Railways. Before 1922 the Cambrian was the largest “Welsh railway company”* in terms of route mileage, but not in terms of profit or revenue. Its main line was (and is) more like a long, rambling branchline; single-track, through small towns and tiny villages, from the Marches through to Aberystwyth and the curving coast of Cardigan Bay. That includes the line along the Severn Valley through Welshpool and Newtown, passing under the battlements of Dolforwyn Castle near the village of Abermiwl (or Abermule in its English spelling).

if you look closely you can see the train, its single track threading through fields and past farmhouses. See the white house on the left with the three chimneys? See the railway line passing behind it? A hundred years ago this week, two trains, going in opposite directions, collided head-on at that precise spot. Seventeen people were killed, including Lord Vane-Tempest, director of the Cambrian Railways and High Sheriff of Montgomeryshire.

The significant thing about the Abermiwl crash is that, in theory, it should not have happened. In theory, the single lines of the Cambrian Railways were protected by a “token system”. Without going into too much detail: the rules of a token system state that all trains travelling from “token station” to token station must be carrying a token, an arbitrary “thing” with the names of the token stations engraved upon it. The physical form of the token varies: a baton, for example, or a large key. The Cambrian Railways used “tablets”, metal discs a few inches across. Each section of line has a set of tokens, but they normally sit locked in machines called “token instruments” at each token station. The instruments are electrically wired together in a similar way to a pair of light switches at either end of a staircase, so that if you unlock one token from one instrument, you then can’t take any more tokens out of either, until a token has been locked back into one of the instruments. Ergo, assuming the drivers follow the rule on not setting off without a token—and it is one of the gravest rules in the Rule Book—nothing can go wrong.

On 26th January 1921 a westbound slow train arrived at Abermiwl and handed over its token, for the Montgomery—Abermule section of line. It was booked to wait to pass the Aberystwyth—Manchester express heading in the other direction, but the station staff were collectively unsure whether that would be happening on this particular day, or where the express currently was. In reality, the express was steaming hard in the middle of the Abermule—Newtown section of line, but none of the station staff actually knew that, and only one knew that a token had been issued for it at Newtown. Through something best described as a gruesome stage farce, or a nightmarish pantomime, the Montgomery—Abermule token was passed hand-to-hand among the station staff and back to the loco crew, who assumed it was the Abermule—Newtown token they were expecting, and didn’t look at it to check. Without anyone who knew the location of the express noticing, the slow train set off carrying the wrong token. A mile outside the station, the two trains collided. The station staff, by that point, had already realised what they had done and that the trains were doomed, but were unable to stop them.

The accident investigation report made it very clear just how the event had happened, and “Remember Abermiwl” became a watchword across railways worldwide. In India, it was written in Urdu inside the cabs of locomotives. It became standard practice for train crew to shout out the names of the stations on each token to each other, and pass the token around the cab for everyone to read aloud, so the identity of each was double- and triple-checked at each token station. If you go and visit a steam railway, you can still see and hear that happen, if you’re in the right place at the right time. The peaceful green fields in the photo above had an impact on railway working around the world; and the lesson is worth remembering in other fields too. Avoid passing jobs hand to hand; always make sure everything is clear and agreed. Cofiwch Abermiwl.

If you want to know the full details of exactly how the accident happened, who said what to who, and precisely how the Montgomery token ended up in the wrong place, it is all spelled out in the accident report written by the Board of Trade’s Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways, John Pringle. There is a postscript to this, though. Despite the importance of Abermule in railway history, a similar event almost happened in August 2019 on the miniature Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway in Kent. There, the trains saw each other with enough warning to stop before colliding. However, the causes of that event were similar enough that the official government report on the incident includes Abermiwl under the heading “Previous Similar Occurrences”. Remember Abermiwl, indeed. The safest of systems can be defeated if the proper processes are ignored and slowly slip away over time. Cofiwch Abermiwl.

* Technically speaking, the head office and engineering base of the company was not in Wales, but slightly over the border in Oswestry. However, if you were to consider all of the railway companies which had the majority of their track mileage in Wales (including Monmouthshire, let’s not get silly now) as Welsh railway companies, the Cambrian was the longest.

Just like clockwork (part one)

Time for a building project

Back in the mists of time on Boxing Day, I posted a clue as to what one of my Christmas presents was. A model tram from UGears, which I have been slowly assembling since.

It’s been a fun project, but I’m not completely sure it lives up to the promise on their website that “no glue, special expertise, tools or equipment are required”. With a fair wind and if everything goes well, then maybe. When I opened the box, the kit consisted of:

  • Various laser-cut plywood sheets.
  • Two rubber bands.
  • A small square of fine sandpaper.
  • A number of cocktail sticks, individually wrapped.
  • A glossy and comprehensive instruction book.

The instruction book is very good and very clear, with each step being shown as a 3D-rendered diagram. However, it starts off listing the extra pieces of equipment you need which aren’t supplied:

  • Candle wax, to lubricate the moving parts.
  • A knife, to cut some of the cocktail sticks to length.

With those to hand, you start off by assembling various gear shafts. Each of these assemblies consists of the gears themselves, four wooden wedges that are inserted through the gear centres, and a cocktail stick that has to be squeezed through a small hole left right in the middle where the four wedges meet.

The first gear shafts

These are the first ones in the instructions; gears, but also the main “wheels” that the tram sits on. The instructions say the cocktail stick should be inserted symmetrically, with the same length protruding from each end, so it’s very helpful to have a small steel rule to assist with doing it by eye. If the “axle” isn’t symmetrical, a measuring tool is included in the kit to indicate how much the stick should project from one end.

Inserting the cocktail sticks was the first big hurdle. Making the kit in the advised way—assemble the wedges into the gears then slide the cocktail stick down the middle—is very hard to do without accidentally blunting the sharp points at the ends. Unless you’re dealing with one of the gear shafts which needs one or both ends trimming short, this is a problem, because it’s very easy to blunt the sticks to the extent they won’t work any more. I found for most it was easier to assemble the shafts in a slightly different order: take one gear, insert the wedge pieces and the cocktail stick into that gear alone, then squeeze the wedges together at the other end and slide the other gear over the wedges’ clip-shaped ends.

The tolerances of the cocktail sticks don’t help, either. Some parts require sticks to be inserted into holes in the plywood parts, and these are all supposedly a push fit. What quickly became clear is that the cocktail sticks are made to rather looser tolerances than the laser-cut parts: some sticks will be a reasonable push-fit in the holes, and some will have no chance of going in. With these parts, I ended up picking which stick I was going to use, then opening out the hole with a broach to fit. If I went a bit too far and made it a sliding fit, I used a little dab of Resin W to glue the stick in place.

The parts for a pawl

You can see this under way with these parts for the pawl which holds the “rubber band shaft” tight after it’s been wound. You can also see that here I’m reusing a cocktail stick whose end I have already wrecked, in a position where it will be trimmed off short. As the lowest of the three holes in each pawl piece is rather close to the edge, I found one of the narrower sticks in the kit for that position, so it wouldn’t need opening out at all. You can clearly see the different widths of the supplied cocktail sticks, and on the right-hand pawl piece you can see how much I’ve had to open out the uppermost hole, compared to the unmodified bottom hole, in order for the fat stick at the top to be a push fit into it. Using a broach for this, it’s easy to roughly remember how much of the broach’s cutting length is needed to get the hole to around the right width before you start testing for fit.

Assembled pawl awaiting trimming

Once the parts were pushed onto the sticks, the ends of two could be trimmed off, leaving a single shaft for it to pivot on.

Completed pawl

Building all the various gears and related parts took quite a few hours, so it was rather pleasing how easily the main framework of the tram fitted together, and how straightforward it was to slip the ends of each shaft into their appropriate hole in the frames. It was rather pleasing, too, to find how well the initial gear chain rotated. It links the wheels together, and also includes a shaft which seems to be in there purely to make a clicking noise.

You might notice that the pawl from the previous photos hasn’t been fitted to the main assembly yet. That comes later, and was a little bit more fiddly. We’ll come on to that another time.

To be continued.

The mighty chopper

Or, an eye for detail

Regular readers will know I’m the sort of person who always has an eye for odd little details, odd little quirks of history or mechanical gubbins. You’ll probably be unsurprised to know that this has never really changed much.

Last week I posted photos of my first ever trip to the Ffestiniog Railway, from back when I was still in primary school. I can still remember being intrigued by the “chopper” couplings the Ffestiniog has used as standard since the 1950s (and to some degree since the 1870s—naturally the full details are online). I can’t say it was the first time I had seen them, but it was the first time I had been close enough to notice they were a novelty to me, enough for me to want to take photographs of how they work. So, naturally, I did.

Coupling on Car 100

This is my grainy 110-film photo of the coupling on FfR Car 100. On the far left is its electrical connector, with a hood to shelter it. In the middle is the coupling: a central buffer with a hinged hook fitting into a slot, and a weight (the “bob”) hanging below. Bear in mind that when I took this picture I didn’t know any of this; I was just intrigued by this peculiar metal prong. I’ve learned the technical details since.

Car and loco coupled together

After the loco (Mountaineer) coupled up to the train, this is what it looked like. The hook on each coupling is swung down into the opposite slot, but initially it doesn’t drop all the way; it’s blocked by a camshaft attached to the bob. The bob is swung to one side until the hook drops into its running position, and then swung back; the bob’s camshaft locks the hook into place and prevents it lifting. After that, you can attach the brake hoses.

Nowadays, of course, there are probably a thousand videos of how this works online, that you can go and watch whenever you like. I’m quietly pleased with myself, though, that back in the day when you couldn’t do that, this is the sort of thing I felt worth recording on film.