Welcome to Lionel Tracks

Celebrating all things locomotive, from train history and modeling updates to rail culture, old and new.

Santa Fe

Recent Articles

Culture
Soradofarm: The Rise of the Commuter Garden

Soradofarm: The Rise of the Commuter Garden

Urbanites are used to compromise. You sacrifice a lot in order to live in the thick of it. Less living space. Higher prices to enjoy that space. And many times, less free time to enjoy that tiny bit of space that you’re paying a lot of money for. Perhaps no city dwellers in the world feel this sort of pain more acutely than Tokyoites. The largest city in Japan (one of our favorite train-loving nations), Tokyo is also the world’s most populous metropolitan area — home to over 35 million people, who occupy only 5,200 square-miles. All of this means that in Tokyo, on average, each square mile is occupied by nearly 7,000 people. Talk about tiny living spaces. Sadly, for average Tokyoites with a green thumb, the lack of private real estate means little space for even a potted plant — never mind having a garden to tend. But help is on the way, thanks to Tokyo’s East Japan Railway: garden space on station rooftops. For a price, Tokyo commuters can purchase a tiny plot of land to tend — or “soradofarm” — atop one of five participating stations, including the roof of Ebisu Station, where the project was first launched. The rental prices for plots aren’t cheap (around $960 USD a year — ouch), but they come with gardening tools, water, and seeds — everything a stressed-out commuter would need to find their inner Zen as they pass the time waiting for a train. These “soradofarms” may sound strange now, but as global populations rise, they’re an innovative solution that could end up being useful to other urbanites facing similar difficulties in their parts of the world. After all, New York and Los Angeles already have their fair share of communal gardens — but even those limited plots of land are becoming few and far between. A private garden atop Grand Central Terminal or Union Station? Doesn’t sound half-bad. (Image credit: "IMG_1940_f" by Andrew K. Smith / CC BY 2.0)
New
Culture
Walking Dead’s “Terminus”: a (Literal) Dead End?

Walking Dead’s “Terminus”: a (Literal) Dead End?

Fan of “The Walking Dead” and hungering for more? You aren’t alone. AMC’s acclaimed zombie series is a massive hit that’s already shattered several viewership records. A staggering 16.1 million people tuned in for Season 4’s premiere last fall, making it the most-watched drama series telecast in basic cable history. If you’re not caught up, then consider this your SPOILER ALERT. Season 4 follows different clusters of characters, splinter groups wandering the zombie-besieged country after their home is destroyed. Eventually, every group finds its way to various stretches of railroad track, where hand-made signs and maps promise “sanctuary for all” at a location called “Terminus.” What is Terminus? You guessed it — a railway hub. And judging from the maps, it seems that almost every rail line criss-crossing the fictional Georgia leads there. Obviously, this got our attention. So we checked out the fan site Walking Dead Locations, which systematically breaks down each episode and finds the real-world shooting locations. It even includes GPS map markers, so other fans can try to seek out these places on their own (though there are also organized tour companies who will take you to all the official locations, for a price). Walking Dead Locations has done a great job in particular of shining a light on the actual shooting location for Terminus. The property is currently the Atlanta Motor Shop in Mechanicsville, Georgia, but previously it was called the Southern Railroad Pegram Shops. Named in honor of retired Vice President, Robert B. Pegram, the facility was closed in 1999, as Norfolk Southern consolidated maintenance operations throughout the system. This industrial place has a timeless feeling and is perfect for the show. Two of the buildings are historic steam and diesel locomotive facilities dating back to the early 1880s, when the shops were operated by the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad. Other interesting features of Terminus are a railway turntable and a roundhouse. The roundhouse itself serves as a particularly chilling location: we only catch a brief glimpse in the story, but it seems to have been converted into a shrine of sorts, with hundreds of candles burning everywhere, and the names and dates of the deceased chalked onto the floor. The train cars have also been re-purposed by the denizens of Terminus (aka “Termites”) and transformed into holding cells, which are where the season-ending cliffhanger leaves us. More thrills and horror clearly await at Terminus. But until then, check out this short video for more behind-the-scenes insights and information about this interesting location. (Image credit: "Old Railroad Tracks" by likeaduck / CC BY-SA 2.0)
1

Previous Articles

Locomotives
Ukraine’s Train Tunnel of Love

Ukraine’s Train Tunnel of Love

When you think about Ukraine nowadays, you’re probably thinking about popular demonstrations and Russian military intervention. But lost in the turmoil of headlines are the many corners of Ukraine whose quiet, peaceful beauty make it a truly powerful place to explore. One place in particular should be a destination in everyone’s Top Ten. The small settlement of Klevan was founded on the Stubla River in western Ukraine. With a rich history dating back to the 12th century, this quaint and charming place has a population of less than 10,000. Klevan and the surrounding areas are picturesque from every angle. Castle ruins, dense forests, and of course, the gentle Stubla, which meanders through the countryside. But perhaps unexpectedly, the real draw here is a short railway less than two miles long, which connects Klevan to the nearby Orzhevsk Woodworking Plant. A train cuts through the dense forest carrying supplies to and from the plant, but not very often. As a result, a miraculous phenomenon has developed. The branches of the surrounding trees have grown around the path of the track and have connected overhead to create an arched canopy. These interwoven branches and vegetation have become the walls and ceiling of what has transformed into a naturally formed train tunnel. The effect is stunningly beautiful, like something out of a fairy tale. The effect is even more stunning when the seasonal leaves change color, from bright, vibrant greens during springtime to autumnal oranges and browns. And in the winter, heavy snowfall transforms the tunnel into a white wonderland. This work of nature is also a magical place for couples, apparently. Local legend has it that couples who walk through this tunnel are to receive great blessings, or possibly even have their wishes come true. The verdict is still out on the tunnel’s magical and romantic powers, but it’s certainly a place worth visiting for its simple, natural beauty. (Image credit: "Тунель кохання, вхід" by serhei / CC BY 3.0)
New
History
Before the Canal: The Amazing Panama Railway

Before the Canal: The Amazing Panama Railway

These days, we take transcontinental travel for granted. If you want to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific, you just buy a ticket, or save up some gas money, and spend the rest of your time picking out bathing suits. But until the mid-1800s? Different story. There was no Transcontinental Railroad until 1869, and making the voyage by ship meant crossing the Drake Passage at the southernmost tip of continental South America. The passage was (and still remains) an extremely dangerous route buffeted by high winds, heavy seas, and icebergs. Cape Horn, the most geographically identifiable landmark of this passage, is still synonymous with a watery death. For prominent business interests of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the Cape was also synonymous with lost profits. Something had to be done to find a quicker and safer way to the West. Ultimately, international attention settled on the Isthmus of Panama — a 50-mile-wide strip of land between the two oceans. Enter George Henry Aspinwall, founder of the newly christened Pacific Mail and Steamship Company. Aspinwall, a successful shipping magnate, believed that the success of his new company lay in finding a shortcut through Panama. His idea was to ferry passengers and cargo from the East Coast to the mouth of the Chagres River (on the Atlantic side of the Panama territory). There, a railway would continue the journey of 47 miles to the Pacific, where an oceanic steamship would await. The plan was sound, but the Isthmus proved uncooperative (to put it lightly). A 47-mile railway budgeted at one million dollars only made it eight miles before the money had nearly run out. The biggest issue was mortality: rail workers couldn't stay healthy (read: alive) long enough to complete the work. What the Isthmus of Panama lacked in terms of physical real estate was more than made up for by the dangers that lurked in its few miles of hot, dense, jungle terrain: deep mangrove swamps (sometimes more than 200 feet deep); man-eating alligators; sand flies and mosquitos (carrying a healthy dose of malaria). By 1851, with his funding nearly gone and failure looming on the horizon, Aspinwall seemed done for... ...but for an incredible stroke of luck. Aspinwall's railway construction coincided, amazingly, with the discovery of gold in California. Steamships began ferrying thousands of passengers around Cape Horn, heading for San Francisco and the gold fields beyond. And in November of 1851, a fierce Atlantic hurricane forced two of these large steamers to seek shelter at the nearest safe harbor...which happened to be in the Limon Bay, Aspinwall's base of operations on the Atlantic side of Panama. Good luck indeed. Approximately 1,000 passengers were forced to disembark the ships. Nearly all of them were goldseekers eager to get to California and strike it rich. But for the time being, they were grateful to set foot on dry land, and none too eager to stay another night on the storm-ravaged sea. The new arrivals didn’t wait for long. Many decided to ride the eight miles of newly constructed railway and go the rest of the 40-odd miles on canoe and mule to the Pacific coast. At $.50/mile per person (plus $3 per 100 pounds of luggage), Aspinwall and his company made a killing. Especially when word spread to other gold seekers who chose Aspinwall's struggling railway over the dangerous sea route. Ultimately, these passengers and their money showed the board of directors that the railway could be greatly profitable, allowing the sale of increasingly valuable stock in the railway, which in turn allowed its eventual completion in 1855. All told, the Panama Canal Railway is estimated to have cost over $8 million and 10,000 lives during its initial 5 years of construction. A steep price to pay, by any account. The railway's overwhelming financial success led many to proclaim it the greatest engineering feat of the age. However, none could imagine at the time that this short railway would pave the way for another great engineering feat — perhaps one of the greatest in the history of the world — The Panama Canal.
1
Tech
Future News: The Futuristic Hyper-Speed Vertical Train Hub of the Future

Future News: The Futuristic Hyper-Speed Vertical Trai...

  • 14th Apr 2014
  • Source: eVolo
It’s no secret that a ballooning global population means less land to go around in years to come, especially in large cities. This shortage has already led to stratospheric rises in land values and a significant shrinkage of public space. However, some designers are already looking for solutions. The Hyper-Speed Vertical Train Hub is the brainchild of British designers Christopher Christophi and Lucas Mazarrasa and addresses the problem of land shortage with a solution straight out of science fiction: reduce the oversized footprint of a flagship train station by building it on its side. At this point, Dear Reader, you may be thinking, “No thanks. I like my trains horizontal. It seems...safer, for some reason.” It may indeed sound crazy, but the evocative conceptual drawings lead us to wonder whether this isn’t something we might develop a taste for. It looks, in a word, like a helluva lot of fun — a BLADE RUNNER-themed thrill ride of the future, if you will (that also happens to be a very viable, eco-friendly, and speedy form of transportation). But by all means, read on and judge for yourself. Christophi and Mazarrasa’s concept is a type of cylindrical skyscraper (one version nearly as tall as the Empire State Building) that will allow specialized, high-speed trains to ride 'rails' upward, along its sides, where they will then be docked and magnetically held in place against the tall structure, creating a vertical station. The carriages, which would each accommodate ten riders, would swivel as if on a ferris wheel. Riders would access these cars via high-speed elevators placed within the structure itself. Once seated in their cars, passengers would enjoy an amazing view of their megacity before departure… at which point they would soar down into underground tunnels, rocketing to their preferred destination at a smooth, maglev-enabled 300-plus mph. Owing to its smallish footprint, the inventive station could ideally host much sought-after urban park space on its surrounding grounds. The highlight, so to speak, would be a rooftop greenspace, 100 stories above the densely packed megacity far below. There, passengers could enjoy a drink before departure… building up enough liquid courage to look over that insanely high ledge. (Image credit: © Christopher Christophi, Lucas Mazarrasa / eVolo)
New
History
The Orphan Train

The Orphan Train

1850's New York City. An already chaotic and overcrowded metropolis was in the midst of being overwhelmed by a fresh influx of immigrants of mostly Irish descent, fleeing the Great Famine of their homeland. If you've ever seen the Martin Scorsese film, Gangs of New York, you get the picture. Unrelenting poverty, high unemployment and lack of child labor laws (still 50 years in the future) meant that the streets were overrun with thousands of unsupervised children of all ages. Some were homeless, others came from broken homes, but nearly all were forced to hit the streets in order to earn their keep. Some were outright thieves, but other children (many as young as 5) earned pennies selling everything from matches to newspapers. As if living conditions weren’t bad enough, the children had to contend with other marauding kids and predatory adults. Many formed gangs for protection. It was this dire situation that a young minister named Charles Loring Brace walked into in 1853. Witnessing the deprivation firsthand, Brace soon formed the Children’s Aid Society — an organization that sought to improve the lives of street kids by finding them stable homes in rural America. He believed that only a clean break from their past could give these children a chance. Under the Society’s stewardship, between 1854 and 1929, special “Orphan Trains” carried children in need from their broken lives in America’s dense urban strongholds into the American heartland, where it was hoped that they would find a new start, living and working on the newly emerging farms and ranches. Ideally, Brace and his Society hoped that kids would find kind and nurturing families, but the standards of adoption of the time were thin (to put it lightly). According to eyewitness accounts (of the orphans themselves), the process was sometimes little better than a slave auction. Typically, a train would pull into a rural community where the child passengers would find a group of farmers and their wives eagerly awaiting their arrival. The orphans would then be taken to the center of town, where they were required to “perform” on stage, displaying any talents for the local farmers. The farmers, however, were more interested in the children’s physical attributes — strong teeth and muscles especially. By the time their journeys were over, many of the children found themselves in virtual indentured servitude on these farms, having only traded one kind of exploitation for another. When it came down to it, the farmers were mostly interested in low-cost labor for their homesteads. Understandable enough, given the realities of running a profitable farm in the nation’s interior, but according to some accounts, the kids were treated little better than livestock. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Orphan Trains were controversial, then and now. To preserve this controversial chapter in history and educate others, The National Orphan Train Museum and Research Center was built in Concordia, Kansas. The Center houses stories and artifacts from the 1854-1929 Orphan Train initiative, and the organization’s Web site collects train rider stories — we recommend blocking off a good half-day and reading them all. And fittingly, the museum is located at the restored Union Pacific Railroad Depot, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Image courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society)
1
Locomotives
The World’s Highest Railway

The World’s Highest Railway

Afraid of heights? Well, the Qinghai-Tibet railway might keep you close to the ground, but as the world’s highest railway, there are still things you should worry about. Like the fact that you’ll need bottled oxygen to survive this one-of-a-kind train trip. Not joking. The train compartments are equipped with oxygen tubes for the comfort and safety of its passengers. These aren’t like the “in case of emergency” masks that drop down in airplanes, but are standard issue and available for all passengers as a matter of course. It’s because the air is so thin at this high elevation — about three miles above sea level — that if your body hasn’t adjusted (or you’re not a sherpa), then you could become dizzy or even sick from lack of oxygen. Construction of the Qinghai-Tibet wrapped in 2005, with the final track laid at Tanggula Pass, the railway's highest point (a staggering 16,640 feet above sea level). It’s no wonder this train is also known as “the rocket to the roof of the world” and “The Sky Express.” But despite the extreme conditions, this adventurous journey is worth it. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking — through the majestic Himalayan mountain range, over a massive plateau, and past Qinghai Lake, which is about the size of Utah’s Great Salt Lake and even supports a variety of migratory birds, like cormorants, cranes, and swans. To make a journey like this possible, special diesel engines capable of operating efficiently at 3-mile-high altitudes had to be designed. Other unique engineering considerations were made as well, like the inclusion of an internal garbage disposal system that would reduce pollution along the remote route. It’s definitely a trip to add to the bucket list. And if the title of “world’s highest” isn’t enticing enough, here’s a list of other amazing world records that this remarkable railway holds: The longest railway crossing on frozen-earth plateau, with 342 miles built on a foundation of perennial, continually frozen ground. The highest-altitude railway station in the world: Tanggula Railway Station, 16,627 feet above sea level. The highest and longest frozen-earth plateau tunnel in the world: Kunlun Mountain Tunnel, 5,531 feet long, at an average altitude of 15,091 feet, and with temperatures as low as minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit. The oxygen content of the air here is half of that in plain areas. The highest railway construction base: the Amdo work site sits at an altitude of 15,433 feet. The highest speed of any train on a frozen-earth plateau anywhere in the world. The Qinghai-Tibet train can reach speeds of 62 mph on frozen-earth sections and up to 75 mph on other parts of the line. (Image credit: "Qinghai-Tibet railway" by Henry Chen / CC BY-SA 2.0)
New
Hobbyist
Carl Greatrix’s Fantastic Lego Trains

Carl Greatrix’s Fantastic Lego Trains

Follow any model train- or Lego-related forum, and very soon you’ll read the name Carl Greatrix. A lifetime train and Lego enthusiast, Greatrix has truly turned the motto “Do What You Love” into a reality. Years ago, he responded to a job advertisement for adult fans of Lego, and now he’s a designer for Traveller’s Tales Games. Professional Lego builder: how cool is that? TT Games is the wildly successful video game company behind the popular Lego video game series, like Lego Star Wars, Lego Batman, and Lego Indiana Jones. Greatrix works with both computer models and practical Lego pieces to make sure that the worlds of these video games translate to real life in a functional way. Or, as he describes it: It’s basically our job, that for any models that are required within game, we always try and use Lego’s official sets. However, there can be certain times when some of their official sets don’t actually have some of the functions that we’re going to require. It’s then our job to either redesign an official set for Lego to then approve, or for us to just completely design it from scratch — and that’s the good part for us, that’s the bit that we like to do. Greatrix is such a fan of Lego that he doesn’t just stop when he’s off the clock. At home, he also uses Lego as an unorthodox medium to fuel his other passion: model trains. His creations are incredible and at first glance appear utterly authentic. “With personal builds I strive to be as realistic as possible, which can have adverse effects, because sometimes people walk straight past them saying 'No, that’s not Lego.'” By design, playing with Lego (yes, the plural of “Lego” is “Lego”) means that you’re limited to using their specific parts. But that’s half the challenge for Greatrix. In his work, he’s fairly strict with these parameters, but at home, he saws, grinds, cuts, and shapes pieces to fit his specifications. Or, as he sometimes tags the photos of his creations: “Warning: Some Lego pieces have been harmed during the making of this model!” Purists in either camp may groan at the “transgressions” of his methodologies, but these are minor quibbles once you see his mind-boggling photostream on Flickr. Also, to hear Greatrix himself talk more about his work and hobby, as well as see some of his model trains in motion, check out the video above.(Image credit: "One of Carl Greatrixs' amazing trains" by Warren Elsmore / CC BY-ND 2.0)
2
Locomotives
Everybody Loves Dwight D. Eisenhower!

Everybody Loves Dwight D. Eisenhower!

No, we don’t mean the 34th President of the United States and Supreme Allied Commander. He’s fine and all, but today we’re talking about the locomotive named after him. Unlike its namesake, the Eisenhower’s story starts in England, not PA. Originally known as the “Golden Shuttle” (or, more specifically, Locomotive 4496), the LNER A4-class, “Pacific-type” steam locomotive entered service in 1937 for use in North East England, as part of the London and North Eastern Railway. Acclaimed for its sleek aerodynamics and abundant power, No. 4496 went into operations hauling business-class passengers on the West Riding Limited throughout the English countryside. But history had other plans for it: the Second World War broke out in 1939, and that year, 4496 began transporting troops for the war effort. At war’s end, England sought a way to honor one of the Allies’ great leaders, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The American general had traveled the rails on his “command train” throughout Europe and Great Britain during the war, so naming one of the nation’s most powerful and streamlined locomotives after the war hero was especially fitting. And so, in 1945, Locomotive 4496 was officially rechristened “the Dwight D. Eisenhower.” By the early 60s, the writing was on the wall for steam. In 1962, after hauling one final, “special” train from London to York (her old route), Dwight was retired and sent across the Atlantic to her new home, the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin. She was displayed there until 2012 — when she was shipped back overseas to the UK’s National Railway Museum for a special exhibit. In England, DDE was restored to her original working condition, and has since become a real attraction for British rail aficionados, who delight in seeing her reunited with the five remaining engines of her class. In fact, keeping her in the mother country is of major importance to some people — including one overexcited anorak who sent the American museum a $1 million check to keep the legendary engine on his side of the Atlantic. The response from the Green Bay museum: “No, thank you.” The check was promptly returned, and the historic engine is due to return to Green Bay in April of this year. Puts the phrase “We Like Ike” in a whole new light, no? (We’ve been waiting this whole article to use that line.)  (Image credit: "LNER 4-6-2 A4 Class No 60008 'Dwight D Eisenhower'" by Alan Wilson / CC BY-SA 2.0)
1
Culture
The Tokyo Rail: A Monster of Efficiency

The Tokyo Rail: A Monster of Efficiency

When you think of Tokyo, what first comes to mind? Godzilla? Neon lights? Gratuitously entertaining game shows? How about a gargantuan, extremely efficient, and precisely run rail system? Yes, that was our first thought as well (but then, any nation of train lovers like Japan tends to get our attention). Tokyo’s rail infrastructure is at once unwieldy and hyper-efficient, massive and detail-oriented. The root of this seeming paradox is found in the privatized nature of the city’s (and much of the country’s) transportation system. During WWII, nearly all of Japan’s rail system was consumed by the state in the interests of promoting the war effort. However, shortly following the war, the impoverished Japanese government was in no position to rebuild its many shattered railways, and released control of these lines to private enterprise. No city in Japan benefited from this privatization quite like Tokyo. Backed by low-interest government loans, privatized rail lines sprung up like weeds in the fast-growing megalopolis. Spurred on by intense competition, these privately held lines had no choice but to constantly outdo one another in terms of superior safety, technology, and efficiency. Today, the Greater Tokyo rail system serves an unbelievable 40 million people in the metro area — daily. These commuters regularly use 130 rail lines, which run on roughly 1,200 miles of operational track, to over 1,000 stations. Amazingly, despite this rail system’s imposing size, it is world-renowned for its efficiency and safety record. It may be an oversimplification, but it may be safe to say that Japan’s experiment in rail privatization has worked out. Thanks to this remarkable video clip above, courtesy of Discovery Channel, we now have a first-hand glimpse at how the Japanese rail lines are so efficient. (Image credit: © "metro" by greentleaf / CC BY 2.0)
New