Symbolic Forest

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Blog : Post Category : Trains : Page 1

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.

Photo post of the week

Neu, hanes Cymreig

Occasionally, when I visit The Mother, I look through old photos. Either family ones, or ones from my own albums. My first camera was a Christmas present I’d asked for when I was age 7 or 8: a Halina-branded Haking Grip-C compact camera that took 110 cartridge film. With a fixed focus, a fixed shutter-speed and a choice of two apertures, it was an almost-entirely mechanical beast. The shutter was cocked by a lever which engaged with the film’s sprocket holes (a single hole per frame on 110 film) and the only electrical component was a piezoelectric switch attached to the shutter, for firing a Flipflash bulb if you’d inserted any. I might still have an unused Flipflash somewhere.

A photography geek might look at the above spec and be amazed that I managed to photograph anything recognisable on that type of camera. Frankly, even aged 7 so was I: to go with the camera I’d been given a book called something like A Children’s Guide To Photography which made no bones about this type of camera being a very basic one that it was hard to get good results from. It lasted me a few years though, despite at least one drop that popped the back off; I was still using it in my teens, I think.

Sometimes on this blog I’ve mentioned visiting the Ffestiniog Railway; last December for example. The last time I visited The Mother, though, I dug out the photos I’d taken on my very first visit, on which we did a single round trip from Blaenau to Porthmadog and back again behind the Alco. All the photos were taken right at the start of the day, it seems.

The Alco at Blaenau

The Alco at Blaenau

The Alco at Blaenau

The weather in Blaenau is famously murky and damp; I’m not sure quite how much of the murk and grain in those photos is down to the camera and how much is down to the weather. Still, what the photos lack in sharpness, they certainly have in atmosphere.

Putting things into practice

Or, time to get the model trains out

A couple of times recently I’ve mentioned my vague model railway plans and projects, including the occasional veiled hint that I’ve already been building stock for the most fully-fleshed out of these ideas. At the weekend I had some time to myself, so I unpacked my “mobile workbench” (an IKEA tray with a cutting mat taped firmly to it) and had a look at which projects I could move on with.

The other week I’d been passing my local model shop and popped in to support them by buying whatever bits and pieces I could remember I needed. I’ve been wondering the best way to weight some of my stock, so bought a packet of self-adhesive model aircraft weights. I wasn’t convinced they would be ideal because they’re a bit on the large side for 009 scale, but the 5g size do just fit nicely inside a van.

Wagon and weights

Yes, I know I didn’t clean off the feed mark on the inside of the wagon; nobody’s going to see it, are they. The weights are very keen to tell everyone they are steel, not lead. I wasn’t really sure what amount to go with especially given that (like most Dundas wagon kits) it has plastic bearings; it now has 10g of steel inside it and feels rather heavy in the hand.

Another project that’s been progressing slowly is a Dundas kit for a Ffestiniog & Blaenau Railway coach, which will be a reasonable representation of the first generation of Porthdwyryd & Dolwreiddiog Railway coaches. The sides were painted early on with this kit so that I could glaze it before it was assembled; it still needs another coat on the panels but the area around the window glazing shouldn’t need to see the paintbrush again I hope. In my last train-building session I fitted its interior seating; in this one, it gained solebars and wheels and can now stand on the rails. Its ride is very low, so low that, given typical 009 flanges, it needs clearance slots in the floor for the wheels.

Coach underside

This made it a little awkward to slot the wheels into place, but when I did it all fitted together rather nicely, with little lateral slop in the wheels and a quick test showing everything was nice and square.

Standing on a perspex block to check for squareness

To show just how low-riding it is—like many early narrow gauge carriages—I used a piece of card and a rule to measure how much clearance there is above rail level.

Height measurement

This shows rather harshly that I’ve let this model get a bit dusty on the workbench.

It needs couplings, of course, so I made a start on folding up a pair of Greenwich couplings for it. I’m still trying to find the perfect pliers for making Greenwich couplings. They don’t need any soldering, at least, but they do need folding up from the fret and then fitting the two parts—buffer and loop—together with a pin. These small flat-nosed pliers are very good for getting a crisp fold.

Greenwich coupling fret

Part-folded Greenwich buffer

I should give those pictures a caption about the importance of white balance in photography, given how differently the green cutting mat has come out between them. By the time I got to this stage it was starting to get a bit too dark to fit two tiny black pieces of brass together with a black pin and get them moving freely, never mind wrapping ferromagnetic wire around the loop tail. Still, all in all, I think everything seemed to be coming along quite nicely.

The only perfect railway is the one you invent yourself

Or, some completely fictional history

The other week, I wrote about how there are just too many interesting railways to pick one to build a model of, which is one reason that none of my modelling projects ever approach completion; indeed, most of them never approach being started. Some, though, have developed further than others. In particular, I mentioned a plan for a fictitious narrow-gauge railway in the Rhinogydd, and said I’ve started slowly aquiring suitable stock for it. What I didn’t mention is that I’ve also put together the start of a history of this entirely invented railway. I first wrote it down a few years ago, and although it is a very high-level sketch, has a fairly high level of implausibility to it, and probably needs a lot of tweaks to its details, I think it’s a fair enough basis for a railway that is fictional but interesting.

Narrow-gauge modelling general does seem to have something of a history of the planning and creation of entire fictional systems; rather, I think it’s something that has disappeared from British standard gauge railway modelling, partly due to the history of the British railway network. This, then, is my attempt at an entry into this genre. If you don’t know the Rhinogydd: they are the mountain range that forms the core of Ardudwy, the mountains behind Harlech that form a compact block between the Afon Mawddach and the Vale of Ffestiniog. The main change I have made to real-world geography is to replace Harlech itself with a similar town more usable as a port; all the other villages, hamlets and wild mountain passes are essentially in the same place as in the real world, and if you sit down with this fictional history and the Outdoor Leisure map that covers the district, you should be able to trace the route of these various railways without too much trouble.

The primary idea behind the railway is that profitable industry was discovered in the heart of the Rhinogydd. Not slate as in Ffestiniog; the geology is all wrong for that. The industry here would be mining for metal ores, and it isn’t really too far from the truth. There genuinely were a whole host of mines, largely digging up manganese ore, in the middle of what was and is a very inhospitable area; all of them were very small and ultimately unsuccessful. The fiction is that an intelligent landowner realised that a railway would enable the mines to develop; so, using part of an earlier horse-drawn tramway, a rather circuituous route was built from the middle of the mountains down to a port at the mouth of the Afon Dwyryd. The earlier tramway, also fictional, would have run in a very different direction, from the Afon Artro up to the small farms in the hills overlooking Maentwrog. Why you would want to build a horse tramway over such a route I’m still not entirely sure, but it means that my Porthdwyryd & Dolwreiddiog Railway can be a network, a busy well-trafficked main line in one direction, and a half-abandoned branch line in the other. This is of course not too dissimilar to the Welsh Highland Railway, with its Croesor and Bryngwyn branches, originally both main lines but both later superseded.

I did, a few years ago, draft a whole outline history for the railway, trying to explain quite why such a thing would and could exist, and how it might have at least partially survived through to the present day. It was an interesting exercise, although I’m not sure it would be a very interesting piece of writing to post here. I do like the thought, though, of writing it up as a full history, complete with some unanswered questions; and then, when I do build models of the line, I can claim that it is at least an approximately accurate model of something that actually did run on the railway. I quite like the idea of steadfastly maintaining that it is actually a real place—what do you mean, you’ve never heard of it before?—and that I am trying to model, however imperfectly, trains that really did exist. I can always be very apologetic when my model “isn’t as accurate as I’d like”, or when I “haven’t been able to find out” exactly what colour a given train was painted in a given year. I wonder how persuasive I will manage to be.

The railway in the woods

Or, some autumnal exploration

Today: we went to wander around Leigh Woods, just outside Bristol on the far bank of the Avon Gorge. It’s not an ancient woodland: it is a mixture of landscapes occupied and used for various purposes for the past few thousand years. A hillfort, quarries, formal parkland, all today merged and swallowed up by woodland of various forms and patterns, although you can see its history if you look closely. I love walking around damp, wet countryside in autumn; although today was dry, everything had a good soaking yesterday and earlier in the week. The dampness brings out such rich colours in photos, even though I didn’t have anything better than the camera on my phone with me.

Twisted roots

Twisted trunks

Part of the woods, “Paradise Bottom”, belonged to the Leigh Court estate and was laid out by Humphry Repton, the garden and landscape designer who should not be confused with Boulder Dash. It includes a chain of ponds which are now very much overgrown, their water brown and their bottoms thick with silt; and some of the first giant redwood trees planted in Britain, around 160 years ago now.

Redwood, of not inconsiderable size

The ponds drain into a sluggish, silty stream which trickles through the woods down into the Avon, the final salt-tinged part of the stream running under a handsome three-arched viaduct built by the Bristol & Portishead Railway, back when when the redwoods were newly-planted.

Railway viaduct

Railway viaduct

If you’ve heard of the Bristol & Portishead, it may be because of the ongoing saga of when (if ever) it will reopen to passengers again. It closed to passenger traffic back in the 1960s, freight in the early 1980s, but unusually was mothballed rather than pulled up and scrapped. At the start of the 21st century it was refurbished and reopened for freight trains, but not to full passenger standards. Although there have been plans on the table for ten or fifteen years now to reopen it to passenger traffic, years have passed, the leaves in the wood have fallen and grown again, and nothing keeps on resolutely happening. The main issues are the signalling along the line (token worked, I understand, with traincrew-operated instruments) and its single track, which limits maximum capacity to one train each way per hour at the very most. Aside from putting in a station or two, these are the main factors which at present prevent it from being reopened to passengers.

When I moved to Bristol, over ten years ago now, the Bristol & Portishead line was busy every day with imported coal traffic. Now that that is fading away, the line itself is much quieter, and indeed can go for days at a time with no trains at all. Its railheads are dull, not shiny, as it curves through the lush green woodland. I walked up to the top of one of its tunnel mouths, and looked down upon it silently.

The railway in the woods

Too much to choose from

Or, why are there so many different trains in the world

Yesterday I said that having more blog posts about trains than about politics would be a good target to aim for by this time next year; and regardless of how frequently I post here overall, that’s probably still a good rule of thumb to aim for. So today, I thought I’d talk about model trains, and how I end up never building any.

I’ve always wanted a model train of some kind, ever since I was small and had a Hornby “Super Sound” trainset with an allegedly realistic chuff, generated by a sound machine wired in to the power circuity. However, there have always been a few problems with this, aside from the perennial problems of having enough time and space for such a space-gobbling hobby. There are two fundamental ones, at root: firstly, I am perennially pedantic, and secondly, I just like such a broad range of different railways and trains that it would be extremely hard to choose just one to stick with as a project. Given the first point, I would always want anything I build to be as accurate as I could make it; given the second, I can never stick with one idea for long enough to build enough stuff to practice the skills sufficiently and be a good enough model-builder to achieve this. Whilst drafting this post in my head, I tried to think just how many railways I’ve been interested in enough to start working out the feasibility of some sort of model railway project. It’s a long list.

  • Some sort of rural German branch line (I did actually start buying stock for this)
  • A fictitious narrow-gauge line in the Rhinogydd, in Ardudwy (again, this has reached the stock-acquiring level)
  • Grimsby East Marsh or somewhere else in Grimsby Docks
  • Something inspired by the Cambrian Railways’ coast section (although the actual stations are mostly fairly unattractive, apart from possibly Penrhyndeudraeth)
  • Woodhall Junction, on the Great Northern
  • Bala Junction (ever since I saw a plan of it in a Railway Modeller years and years ago)
  • Wadebridge (come on, who doesn’t like the North Cornwall Railway)
  • North Leith on the North British Railway (at 1:76 scale, you could do it to exact scale and it would still fit inside a 6 foot square)
  • Something fictitious based on the idea that the Lancashire, Derbyshire and East Coast Railway had actually finished their planned line east of Lincoln, which was always a wildly implausible plan in the real world.
  • The Rosedale Railway (although in practice this would probably be very dull as a model)
  • Moorswater, where the Liskeard and Looe Railway and Liskeard and Caradon Railways met (ideally when it was still in use as a passenger station, although that means before it was connected to the rest of the railway network)

Even for a modelling genius, or the sort of modeller who can produce an amazing, detailed landscape, then immediately packs it away in a box and starts working on the next one, that’s a lot of different ideas to vacillate between. And some of these would require just about everything on the model to be completely hand-made: Moorswater, for example, would have to have fully hand-made track, stock, locomotives and buildings in order to even vaguely resemble the original. With something like Woodhall Junction or Grimsby Docks most of the place-specific atmosphere is in the buildings rather than the trains, but even so, getting a good range of location-specific locos and stock would be difficult.

Just lately, there’s been another one to add to the list: I read a small book I picked up about the Brecon and Merthyr Railway, and was intrigued. I quickly found it had an intriguing range of operations, reached 1923 without ever owning any bogie coaches, and standardised on using somersault signals. The large-scale OS maps that are easily available (ie, those in the National Library of Scotland collection) show some very intriguing track layouts, its main locomotive works at Machen was an attractive and jumbled mix of 1820s stone and 1900s corrugated iron, and it even had some halts on the Machen-Caerffili branch which were only ever used by trains in one direction. However, on the other hand, the small book I picked up seems to be practically the only book ever written about the line, with very little information available easily about it. I suspect I’d end up writing a book about it myself before I got around to building anything.

I am going to try to build more models, and hopefully the more I build, the better they will get and the happier with my skills I’ll become. I’m going to have to try to stick to one and only one of the above, though, and try not to get distracted. That might be the hardest part.

Trains and levers

Or, a brief pause for relaxation

To the Severn Valley yesterday to play with trains, possibly for the last time in a while. I’m not on the roster for next month, and as the pandemic appears to be getting worse again, who knows what will happen after that point. The pandemic timetable makes it a quiet day, just four trains in each direction, and only one crossing move. Here it is, with one train waiting in the station and all the signals pulled off for the other to have a clear run through.

Signals off

In-between trains I sat and read a book of Victorian history, Mid-Victorian Britain 1851-75 by Geoffrey Body, and almost melted in the heat. It was windy outside, but hardly any of it came through the signalbox door. I watched a buzzard (I think) circling overhead, soaring slowly and sending the crows into a panic; heard pheasants and partridges squawking in the undergrowth, and listened to the frequent sound of semi-distant shotgun fire. It has been much in the news this week that shooting parties are allowed to be larger than other groups of people,* and all of the Very Online naturally have been joking about getting the guns in for their family parties; but yesterday in Shropshire and Worcestershire it felt as if people were genuinely doing just that, so frequent were the hunters’ gun-blasts.

And in small victories, at the end of the day I was proud. For I had filled in the Train Register for the day and not needed to cross any bits out. It may have been a quiet day with few trains and no unusual incidents to record; but, as I said, small victories.

Train register

When I was going through and reviewing all of the previous posts on here as part of the big rewrite, I realised the utter pointlessness of writing about some rubbish that’s on TV purely to say that I’m not going to watch it because it’s probably going to be rubbish. So, I’m not going to do that even though “some rubbish will be on TV in a few months” is all over the internet today. If you like watching rubbish then go and watch it, I’m not going to stop you. Me telling you I’m not is really just exclusionary boasting. So that’s that.

* Obviously, if you’re reading this now, just after I wrote it, you know this already. If it’s now five years in the future, you’ll have completely forgotten.

Photo post of the (insert arbitrary time period here)

Or, back to the railway

Back to the railway and the quiet post-viral timetable it is running at the moment. One nice thing about this timetable is that it gives me the opportunity to take my camera along and photograph the trains when they’re stood still, and the station when there’s no trains about. Normally you’re too busy to have chance for that sort of thing.

Bewdley station

Pannier tank

Bewdley North signalbox

2857 at Bewdley

Photo post of the week

Dw i wedi mynd i weld Sion Corn

Up to North Wales for the weekend, to help out with the trenau Sion Corn. My Welsh isn’t good enough yet to actually speak it, but good enough to understand when I hear one of the drivers trying to persuade a small boy that the loco is actually powered by a dragon inside the firebox, a la Ivor The Engine. The boy wasn’t having any of it.

The weather was grey, steely and windy. At times you could see across the Traeth; at times visibility was down to a hundred yards or so. Naturally, the time it decided to rain sideways was about five minutes after we’d decided we’d have time to walk over to Harbour Station before the rain started.

Cleaning out the ashpit

In the middle of The Cob

Overnight the storm grew worse, and in my bunk I could hear the wind outside and the rain hammering on the window. The next morning I was up early, so we could do a short-notice early-morning shunt to get a loco out of the Old Shed; as we shunted, it was pitch-black and cold but at least the wind had died down a little. As the locos started to warm up and come to life the dawn broke to show that there seemed to be just as much water, or more, on the landward side of the embankment as on the open-sea side. The salt marshes between the Cob and the Cambrian line’s embankment were a choppy, whitecapped sea, and inland the flooding went up the Traeth almost as far as if the Cob had never been built.

Flooded fields at Pont Croesor