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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.
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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)
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Previous Articles

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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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History
Built in Beantown: America’s First Subway

Built in Beantown: America’s First Subway

The New York City subway may be the most iconic subway in America, but it might surprise you to know it wasn’t the first. That honor goes to New England rival Boston, where the country’s maiden underground journey was conducted on September 1, 1897. In his new book The Race Underground, author Doug Most goes into fantastic detail about the historic inter-city competition between Boston and NYC, as each raced to complete the first subway. Even more dramatic, the efforts were spearheaded by brothers — Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York. As the history shows, Boston ended up winning this epic race. However, while it was an obvious source of civic pride for Bostonians, the road to constructing its historic subway was full of trials, tribulations, and tragedy. The tunnels were dug from trenches approximately 50 feet down. Without the conveniences of modern power equipment, this became a huge effort that demanded thousands of man-hours. Wooden braces were initially fixed against the walls to prevent cave-ins, but as the trenches became deeper, steel support beams had to be used instead. The deeper they went, the greater the risk, since they were digging around water pipes, gas pipes, and sewer lines. The workers knew that a leak from any one of these could prove disastrous. And despite their precautions, the inevitable happened on March 4, 1897. A noxious gas leak at the surface caused many to begin evacuating the neighborhood around the intersection of Tremont and Boylston streets. But before everyone could be alerted, the sparks from a streetcar ignited the pooling gas. The explosion was deafening, sending a fiery plume over 50 feet into the air. Nearby windows were shattered, offices were wrecked, and horse-drawn carts upended. In the end, ten people died in the explosion, but many locals were surprised that the death toll hadn’t been more. Miraculously, the above-ground explosion did no damage to any of the underground subway tunnels. Work resumed, despite the gruesome discovery of buried coffins and long-forgotten bone fragments, as well as construction site injuries and deaths. Work wrapped in summer 1897, and the first American subway car made its inaugural journey, starting above ground, passing through an underground tunnel, and then returning to the surface at a distant above-ground station. Trepidatious at first, Boston’s passengers were surprised at how normal the subterranean air was, and that the strings of incandescent lights were so bright that you could read a book. Henry Whitney was victorious, besting his brother by a landslide. The Boston subway was completed on time (in just two and a half years) and under budget — $4.2 million instead of the projected $5 million. (See that, Big Dig?) Meanwhile, New York hadn’t even broken ground on their subway. Point: Boston. If any of this interests you, definitely order Most’s book. And while you wait for it to arrive, read this in-depth summary at The Boston Globe.(Image credit: Boston Transit Commission / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
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Culture
Train-inspired Dining in Tokyo

Train-inspired Dining in Tokyo

  • 5th Apr 2014
  • Source: CCTV
Trains are inextricably linked with modern Japanese culture. With over 17,000 miles of track criss-crossing the country, Japan’s railways carry more than 22 billion passengers annually. Compare that to, say, Germany, which transports only 2.2 billion passengers via its 40,000 plus miles of track. High-speed bullet trains that cover long distances in record time and subways so packed with commuters that conductors literally use brute force to cram passengers into cars during rush hour. It’s no wonder Japan can lay claim to 46 of the world’s 50 busiest stations. But transportation is just the beginning. Niagara is a curry house in Tokyo, owned by Naito Hirotoshi — a lifelong train enthusiast. Hirotoshi combined this passion for trains with his love of cooking, which is how he arrived at Niagara — Tokyo’s biggest train-themed restaurant. Hirotoshi (or “The Station Master,” as he likes to be called) says he’s been collecting train ephemera for years. “In the mid-60s, diesel engines and electric trains started to appear and old steam engines were being phased out. As they were being scrapped, many parts became available, and I was able to buy them." Now, The Station Master’s restaurant is packed with loads of railroad-related memorabilia. And it’s not just for decoration. Food is also delivered to diners’ tables via miniature train cars riding on tracks, much like the conveyor belts in some sushi restaurants. It’s hard not to be charmed by Niagara, especially for the native Japanese. As Hirotoshi explains: “I think trains are a part of the Japanese culture. We have a railway system that covers the whole country, and even though we use airplanes and cars, the vast majority of Japanese citizens use trains. Because of this, I think trains are very close to Japanese people’s hearts.” And Niagara isn’t the only train-themed spot in Tokyo. Bar Ginza Panorama is an upscale bar that attracts mainly professional people, many of whom are involved in the railway business. It’s a more sophisticated ambience, but still has a giant collection of model trains on display. Manager Tomoyuki Hattori explains: “We have over one hundred model trains ranging from old ones to new ones. We have bullet trains, old steam engines, freight trains and express trains. We have customers who work at railway companies as stationmasters, train drivers and conductors. We also have customers who actually work for companies that make real trains.” That’s a lot of train love, Japan. We approve. (Image credit: © "Curry and Coffee - Niagara" by Guwashi999 / CC BY 2.0)
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History
Inside City Hall Station — NYC’s Forgotten Treasure

Inside City Hall Station — NYC’s Forgotten Treasure

Refined, Romanesque Revival architecture. Intricate, colored glass tile illuminated by ornate skylights cut from amethyst glass. Antique brass and wrought-iron chandeliers. Doesn't sound much like a modern NYC subway station, does it? That's because this beautiful space was crafted in an era when form and function were aligned differently than they are today. Opened in October 1904, the City Hall Station (also known as the City Hall Loop) was built to be the southern terminus of the first modern New York City Subway, known as the “Manhattan Main Line” (now part of the Lexington Avenue Line). And of course, being the first station, no expense was spared. It owed its signature look to a North American architecture and design movement known as the “City Beautiful Movement.” Popular among urban planners and architects of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the philosophy was that aesthetic grandeur could inspire more “civic-mindedness” in a city's population. In New York City, this movement's most visible legacy is Grand Central Terminal and the Washington Square Arch — world-renowned landmarks visited by millions of New Yorkers and tourists every year. However, this underground ghost station, the crown jewel of this aesthetic project, has been largely closed off from public view since the end of 1945, when low ridership, modern trains, and safer, more efficient stations led to the its closing. Today, few New Yorkers realize that this beautiful space even exists. Nowadays, this stunningly beautiful relic of a bygone era is periodically opened to guided tours, courtesy of the New York Transit Museum. But be warned, the tickets are hard to come by (usually snapped up the day they become available), so be on the lookout. (Image credit: Historic American Engineering Record / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
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