Sometimes Old Technology Wins Out

The BBC reports that despite the heavy snow and service disruptions on Britain’s rail network, a brand new steam engine managed to operate and provide rides for about 100 passengers stranded by the weather.  The locomotive makes regular runs, and this happened to be the last one for the season on this tourist train.

For detailed information about this locomotive and its construction, visit the A1 Steam website.

In light of the TTC’s plans to convert the SRT to LRT, I won’t drag out plans for steam-hauled RT trains.

24 thoughts on “Sometimes Old Technology Wins Out

  1. Hi Steve:-

    Maybe there’s real hope for my elevated railway idea on Queen after all. Try it with steam first then when successful we could try electrifying it. It worked admirably in Manhattan and Chicago.

    Swans look out!!!

    Oh and before I forget. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours. Your efforts are truly appreciated and my thanx along with my best wishes.

    Dennis Rankin


  2. How about horse-powered LRT? Or horses pulling swanbarges up canals? Steam? Surely you’re not thinking far enough!


  3. Oh, man! I was really hoping you’d come out swinging in the fight for steam powered LRT in Scarborough! Some transit advocate you are! (LOL)


  4. I’m not really sure why people have problems with old technologies “winning out.” After all, light rail is really just a gussied up streetcar, which is 100+ year old technology.

    I’m a strong proponent of Cable Propelled Transit over at my blog, and Cable’s even older than streetcar technology. If you go through the research and look at it, that technology worked effectively 120 years ago in weather as far north as Chicago and Seattle. Our streetcars and even our GO trains get stranded with only a bit of snow and ice.

    With cable (whether aerial or ground), that problem wouldn’t occur. Ground systems work fine in snow and aerial systems can operate safely in 100 km/hr winds.

    Sometimes old technology is better.

    Steve: I wouldn’t say that only “a bit of snow and ice” will stall the streetcars and GO trains. Meanwhile, cable vaults have their own problems (something San Francisco doesn’t have to deal with) when ice forms in them. There’s also a small issue of capacity.


  5. Bring back the Witts. And the Birney’s, and the BB’s, and the PCC’s, and the Gloucesters, etc.
    I’ll settle for swans, though.


  6. Steve (as well): Regarding capacity, there’s no streetcar line in Toronto that currently carries more than 2,500 persons per hour per direction (pphpd).

    In fact, there’s no line in North America that carries more than around 3,500 (not including Boston’s green line which trunks three separate lines).

    Cable systems have been demonstrated carrying up to 6,000 pphpd and there’s evidence to suggest up to 10,000 pphpd is possible. Capacity really isn’t a problem if you compare it to what is actually needed rather than what light rail is theoretically capable of carrying.

    Steve: I will consider the relative absence of cable systems worldwide as an indication of what the marketplace actually thinks about the technology.


  7. I remember reading that in the late 60’s Union Pacific had about 1/2 mile of their main line under about 2 feet of water for a week. It was too deep for diesels as their traction motors would ingest water. They sent out one of their big steam engines normally used for fan trips and hauled all the freights through the flooded area with it. In some circumstances old and simple is good.


  8. After 50 years of catering to the automobile, people are now finding out that life with the automobile is expensive and harmful to the environment.

    In the early 1950’s, parents would send their kids to walk to the neighbourhood hardware store to get a light bulb. Today, it is the parent who has to drive kilometers away to a big box store for a light bulb. And if the parent sends the kid to get it by bike, they could be charged with neglect if the kid is hit by a car.


  9. Interestingly, most of the vehicle types (except for Birneys) David listed were able to get through generous quantities of snow and ice in the worst conditions. Simple technology without circuit boards, on-board sensors, computer operating systems, or high-tech gadgetry managed to power its way through snow and ice for many years. We need modern technology with robust winter performance. Somehow LRVs operate in Russia, Ukraine and Sweden through tough winters.


  10. Re 50 years of catering to the automobile – in the early 1950s, many people had just endured two-plus decades of hardship, shortages and tough times with the Depression and the war. Transit systems were run down and worn out and couldn’t compete against the allure of now being able to travel anywhere anytime in personal comfort and style as times got better and people could afford new cars. The car went from being a luxury-type item to being a “right” in the last two decades. Hopefully people’s awareness of its cost and improved public transportation as a useful alternative will change it back as younger generations grow up.


  11. What’s interesting about Toronto, for those with a keen eye and sense of urban form, is how much of the downtown area has managed to hang on to a lot of its transit-oriented forms, even in areas where transit has been downgraded significantly. This can become very useful for Toronto’s transit future, ironically being secured by preservation of its history.


  12. Has anyone seen the news article about the woman in New York City who is teaching her 10 year old to get to different places by taking the subway and/or the buses? She calls it raising “Free Range Children,” that is ones who can actually fend for themselves and not need to be driven everywhere they go. I believe that as a society we are making our children too dependent on being driven everywhere by their parents. Our society is not teaching its young the value of walking, biking or using public transit. Maybe when gas prices here reach the same levels as in Europe we will have more “Free Range Children.”

    The number of cars that come to the local public school by my house is atrocious. They park illegally waiting to pick up their precious offspring lest they be forced to walk in the rain or snow, or even the sunshine. If there is any snow on the ground the road is reduced to one through lane because of the illegally parked cars. The principal or vice principal is out there trying to force north bound cars to go through the school driveway to relieve the congestion. I refuse, partly because I am obstinate and partly because I want to turn before the exit and force my way, in my lane against the cars coming the other way because I am tired of being put out by them. Let them wait for me or park legally.

    I know, I am not in the Christmas spirit. Bah Humbug.


  13. Steve (again): Taking the “relative absence” of cable propelled transit from the marketplace as a indication of what the marketplace thinks about cable is flawed for two reasons:

    a) If you look at the last 10 years, you’ll notice that cable has posted growth as fully-integrated urban transit year-upon-year. Look at Medellin, Colombia; Caracas, Venezuela; Perugia, Italy; Oakland, California; Constantine, Algeria; Portland, Oregon; Vancouver, Canada (yes, that’s in the works). That doesn’t sound to me like a market disliking a technology, it sounds like a market that is waking up to the possibilities the technology presents.

    b) A relative absence of a technology in a market, does not mean the market views the technology poorly. Think Beta vs. VHS; or how about Mac vs. PC around ten years ago? Or how about streetcar/light rail 60-70 years ago when cities around the world were tearing up their streetcar tracks and networks. There is a whole host of reasons why a technology may not be adopted by the market and those do not always come down to a rational analysis of the cost/benefits of each.

    Steve: None of the systems you cite is performing a high capacity role but addresses a niche market. The niche is not necessarily one of ski lifts, but of specific challenges of topography or a desire to move pedestrians around while giving them a good view of surroundings.

    With respect to Beta, the problem was that Sony wanted to hold the technology while VHS developed as an open standard. A really bad marketing choice. Mac vs PC was a question of different versions developing at different times. PCs still are dominant by virtue of history, and again of being an open standard any company can build to. As for LRT, while cities may have been tearing up their systems, hundreds were not and modern LRT as we know it evolved from that base.

    Note that this is the last exchange on this topic I will entertain.


  14. Steam is often thought of as dirty, because traditionally coal or wood fire was used, but really it can be powered by anything that generates heat, I have seen a couple that were fired by propane. You could fire one with hydrogen, alcohol or even diesel fuel including bio-diesel. This flexibility means that it can be as clean or dirty as you like, a trait it shares with electric power.

    My personal feeling is that within the next 20 years, we will see oil being much more expensive then today, and with the efficiency of the automobile being so poor, that technology will fade into history. The diesel motor bus will not be far behind it, and cities by 2110 will look more like they did in 1910 then they did in 2010. People will again limit movement to a small part of a city, within walking or cycling distance, and long distance travel will be very expensive and the likelihood of someone from Toronto visiting Ottawa or Montreal will be almost unheard of.


  15. Just one last point about cable if you’ll permit (in the Holiday Spirit 😉

    A cable-driven system means a fault anywhere on the line results in shut-down of the entire line, even with one faulty cable-fray detector. At least power distribution on an electrified system is broken down into isolated sections much more easily. (Yes, I know San Francisco has multiple cable loops.)

    Just be glad we didn’t end up with conduit collection for our streetcars, like in Washington DC and one part of New York. It wasn’t snow and ice that caused problems – ironically it was tire chains from autos getting caught in the slot (as well as a number of other foreign objects). For those not familiar with the system as implemented in Washington DC here’s some fun holiday reading –

    Simplicity is always best especially where it concerns the most direct and efficient means of transmitting propulsion energy.

    Steve: Just to clarify something on behalf of the cable advocate here: the technology he is talking about is (primarily) overhead, gondola type applications such as fairground circulators. These have their own problems, but motorists don’t have to worry about getting caught in the slotrail.


  16. I really hope I didn’t rub you the wrong way in my previous post. I meant what I said to be in the spirit of fun and levity and nothing but.

    Now having said that, what I’d like to say about cable propulsion is that I feel that it does have it’s place but just because I feel that way doesn’t mean I see it as a be-all-and-end-all by any stretch of the imagination. All modes of transportation, as well as all forms of propulsion, have a place in the overall transportation picture.

    The problem with any kind of advocacy of any transportation mode or propulsion form is that there is too much of a tendency of those who advocate whatever they believe in to believe that their chosen mode is the answer to everything and the truth is that NOTHING is.

    Steve: I think we agree completely on that point. My annoyance with advocacy for the technology was specific to the idea that somehow it is competitive with and could replace LRT. This is not just a question of “n” vehicles per hour past a point for capacity, but the whole infrastructure of stations, guideways, passenger flow, operation in a wide variety of climates and weather conditions, vehicle and right-of-way maintenance, etc.


  17. I just remembered an experiment that was tried out in Washington way back when. It involved the use of contact plates that were supposed to be “dead” when a streetcar wasn’t over top of them but they weren’t always dead when they were supposed to be. Needless to say, the experiment ended when owners of dead horses complained. Imagine somrthing like that happening today with our present legal climate!

    Steve: As before, the thesis in this sequence of comments relates to overhead cable operations (gondolas) not cables running in the roadbed.


  18. Personally, I can’t wait to see the skies filled with these rocking overhead buckets with giant Becker’s logos on them.


  19. If I may jump into this dialogue (once more):

    Cable technology is competitive with LRT. It is competitive with it in terms of capacity and speed. It is also far safer than LRT (with the possible exception of the San Fran cable car). It is also far, far cheaper than most Light Rail systems. It is cleaner, quieter and can produce wait times of less-than-one-minute. It also has a higher rider attraction than Light Rail.

    When I started my work on this topic 2.5 years ago, even I was skeptical, but the research I’ve gathered and found demonstrate the technology’s effectiveness. It can be applied in all manner of instances, with all sorts of station configurations and was even used historically to transport other streetcars (a wonderful example of one technology helping the other instead of competing).

    As for the issue of a problem with one part of the line shutting down all others, that’s actually not accurate, Kristian. Contemporary cable systems are typically broken down into several small segments to accommodate intermediary stations and corner-turning operations. If one section goes down, the rest continue functioning normally. A shuttle bus would simply be required between the two stations in question. This is no different than how we address the same problem in buses, streetcars and subways.

    When you think about Toronto with its extensive ravine systems, the idea seems deeply logical: We cannot build houses in the ravines (by law), but we can build infrastructure. They are a natural public transit artery which urban gondolas and cable cars could exploit with ease.

    All I’m asking is for people to think about it, contemplate and reflect on it. You can check out an expanding body of research on the topic at my website

    I’m not saying we should have cable cars everywhere (urban gondolas on the Eglinton Crosstown? I think not). But if the low-cost, high-value of cable could offset the high-cost of lines such as the Eglinton Crosstown, is it not worth considering?

    I know it sounds insane, but it’s not and it’s happening all over the world, right now. I think it’s great that this topic has continued, because the only way people are going to learn about the technology is if they argue, debate and ask pointed, skeptical questions.

    Thanks for allowing this thread to continue, Steve!

    Steve: And can it please end here.


  20. This steam train can (and does) run at 100 mph (160km/hr), faster than any GO Train…
    (Yes, I know there have different stopping patterns and all, but it still surprised me when I realised this)

    Steve: GO could operate at 160km/hr, but there is no point in doing so with closely spaced stations. Similarly, the subway could operate at a much higher speed if the track and cars were engineered to handle it. However, there’s a limit on how much energy you want to use, and how much track maintenance you want to do to allow safe running. Speed is not a constraint of the propulsion technology, at least in the range under discussion here.


  21. Think it was in July 1938 that mainline steam loco a4 mallard designed by Sir Nigel Gresley stormed along stoke bank on the UK east Coast mainline at 126 mph (200kph) !!!!


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