Sunday, February 05, 2006

Question Hour: The Fat Controller's Railway

by Tom Bozzo

NOTE 6/13/07: If you're looking for information about the recall of certain Thomas Wooden Railway toys, please see here (related post here).

Commenter Heather left a few questions asking about Sir Topham Hatt's operations. Tonya, if you're reading this, please avert your eyes (try here). TtFTE references are from Thomas the Tank Engine: The Complete Collection.

1. WHY are there 3 sets of tracks next to each other throughout so much of the island?

I think that's the Main Line, where the additional track(s) let fast trains pass slower trains without forcing the slower trains to move onto a track that may have oncoming traffic. Many of the branch lines are single-tracked. This is not an unusual arrangement.

Additional note (see the comments): The depictions of the Main Line differs in the TV set design and in the illustrations accompanying the stories. For example, Gordon's hill is shown three tracks in the former, and two tracks in the latter. The depiction in the illustrations is realistic; the TV set design represents artistic license. Other stretches of the Main Line are depicted with two tracks in both sources.

2. Productivity seems unusually low-each engine pulls 2 or 3 cars at a time as a general rule. This leads to questions about the price of coal on the island, and in turn mining practices.

That's also not uncommon for 'shunting,' even now -- a branch of the Wisconsin and Southern R.R. is visible from my office window, and I'll regularly see their modern diesels pulling handfuls of cars across Madison. Meanwhile, James is shown pulling a long train of trucks in "Troublesome Trucks," and the main line trains don't seem to be especially short.

In the original stories, for instance "Toby and the Stout Gentleman" (in which steam tram engine Toby's line closes before he's acquired by Sir Topham Hatt), declining passenger and freight traffic on Other Railways is shown as a reference to the relative ascent of the roads in the real England, from which Sodor becomes increasingly disconnected over the course of the Rev.'s writings.

(Addendum: See the comments for an explanation of the roles of the coupling and braking systems behind the stories in limiting the length of the trains.)

3. Environmental nightmare. The volume of soot generated by the engines must be enoromous. What does this do to the health of the children on the island?

No doubt, burning coal in steam locomotives generates lots of soot. However, fixed pollution sources like coal-burning home furnaces as well as fixed industrial coal burners are arguably worse — responsible not only for the patina that Cool Britannia has been busy removing from many of its famous structures over the last couple of decades, but also (in part) for phenomena such as killer smogs that led to the passage of a Clean Air Act in the U.K. in 1956.

Ironically, the 1952 London killer smog may have been exacerbated by the removal of electric trams in favor of diesel buses, something trumpeted elsewhere as a sign of great progress now being un-done (or re-done, depending on how you look at it) at great expense in some cities.

More recently, it's become clear that there are significant threats from invisible and nearly-invisible pollutants. Extremely fine soot particles from cleaner-burning diesels can work their way deeper into lungs, leading to emissions rules that effectively require particulate filtration on diesel cars; soot contributes to global warming by reducing the reflectivity of snow and ice packs (~800K PDF).

Another significant non-railway vehicular pollution threat to children was the addition of tetraethyl lead to gasoline; it's still used in common aviation gas mixtures, mainly because most aviation piston engines in the general aviation fleet are stuck with stone-age technology (as in, digital engine controls are radical technology in general aviation) compared to modern automobiles.

In short, the steam engines would be dirty, but smudgepots like Caroline the Car — and, really, just about all European cars sold in the real Europe before local emissions regs caught up with the U.S. — as well as all those buses and lorries taking over from the railways would also be significant pollution threats.

4. How is it that the bakeries only keep enough flour on hand to make a day's worth of English Muffins, and that the Mountain Village doesn't stockpile coal to avert tragedy when the narrow-guage engines go joy riding on The Incline?

The Island of Sodor's businesses adopted "just-in-time" logistics techniques long before they became au courant for manufacturing business. These are very efficient when they work, as inventory and storage costs can be substantial, but JIT methods make users highly susceptible to supply chain disruptions.

(Question Hour is an occasional series of posts addressing search terms that lead visitors to this blog, as well as direct questions posed by readers.)
Some additional information.

1. That third track? Almost certainly artistic license. Consider the episode in which Henry chooses to hide in the tunnel and the Fat Director bricks up the tunnel. No real railway, even an extensively subsidised play railway,could do that.

The British main lines upon which the Island of Sodor are based have two features that militate against a third track. First, reverse-running on the same line is almost never done. Trains keep to the left. Second, the safety board is reluctant to allow facing-point switches that would permit a slower train to make a left turn and get out of the way of a faster train on a hill. Where the British provide separate lines for the slower (usually freight) trains there will be two lines (one-direction running on each.) I suppose the freight yard at the big city (Knapford?) could be configured such that a freight train would use the left-most track, with departing passenger trains the centre road and all arriving trains the right-most track.

2. Short freight trains. In addition to the island being small, the cars are loose-coupled (tension on a screw and compression of the buffers keeps them apart) and without brakes. Toad and the other vehicles that look a little like cabooses provide the only braking apart from the brakes of the engine, hence the frequent orneriness of the freight cars. Runaway freight trains on hills were a risk of British railroading into the 1970s. The shorter freight trains work well with the absence of facing point switches. A train can pull up to the "starting signal" at the signal box (tower, in North America) then reverse into a siding (a trailing point switch cannot move under a train in a way that diverts the train) to get out of the way of a following express.

3. Steam locomotives. Britain didn't find that North Sea oil until the 1960s. The "modernisation" plans of the British Railways came in for some criticism for replacing relatively new standard classes of steam engine (some of which are now showing up as Thomas characters) with diesels using German engineering and imported oil.
Thanks, Stephen, that's a Really Useful Comment all around.

I was implicitly adding an "or more" after "three" in answering #1. Arrangements similar to what you describe are in use in the Northeast Corridor in the U.S., and on the main line between London (Kings Cross) and Edinburgh, among other places.

The sort of license taken in "The Sad Story of Henry" seems to have given way pretty quickly in the stories to something more like magic realism, so I basically discounted that account.

Also, in one illustration I can think of, the third track appears to be a siding (Gordon is idling on it for a reason I can't presently recall).
Yes, there are stretches of the East Coast Main Line in England that allow reverse running (I've seen them run a fast train around a stopper that way) but the portions with more than two tracks have four or six, paired as noted.

Our Northeast Corridor is configured throughout for reverse running, with three main tracks in use from Baltimore to New Carrollton and in a few other spots south of Philadelphia. The same sorts of arrangements are in use on the Union Pacific and Burlington commuter territory outside Chicago (where the dispatcher would have a stroke should Gordon or anything else rest on one of the tracks for any length of time.) I did see a track plan for the set once (it is a large garden railway) and that three-track stretch features in the runaway freight train series.

And that's probably more than your regular readers care to know about Safe Operating Practices on the Shining Time Station set.
Thanks again for your clarifying comments, Stephen.

Returning briefly to the Thomas Canon -- the illustrations to the Rev.'s stories -- the Main Line is almost always depicted with one track in each direction. There's a third track shown sometimes at one of the Big Stations ("James and the Bootlace"), apparently used by the Big Engines heading to their trains from the shed, as well as a siding in "The Flying Kipper," and at the junction with Thomas's Branch Line (where the branch is the third track, a totally separate line). In other stories, though, smaller engines are described as being unable to get out of the way of faster engines on the Main Line ("Double Header").

As for the TV programs, a commenter at Lance Mannion's place decried the lack of railway knowledge of the post-Rev. stories that are mixed in with the classics. Obviously, the set design is most likely to show artistic license.

And my wife thinks I'm pretty nuts for having looked at the Big Heavy Thomas Book outside story time to get the references.
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