A night at the museum

I was in the York Railway Museum over the Christmas period and I thought it interesting to see how science shaped the evolution of the train. For example they had a cut away of a steam train’s allowing you to see how it worked. One of the key breakthroughs in the development of a steam engine was the double acting piston system (which provided greater and more efficient capture of the energy from the steam) and the superheater.

The Superheater used heat recovery from the boiler exhaust to heat the steam up to much higher temperatures. This was driven by exhaustive experiments back in the 1700’s which had shown that by increasing the temperature drop across a heat engine (such as a Rankine cycle) you increase the overall thermal efficiency. Also when water boils into steam at 100’C not all of the water instantly vaporizes. You’ll still have small droplets of water suspended within the steam, which can potentially cause excessive wear (and rust) on components. So by drying out the steam, you eliminate this problem.

And of course higher temperatures, meant higher pressures, which meant bigger steam engines and indeed some of the engines the York museum has are massive, notably a Chinese KF series steam train, originally built in Britain to a American design.

And incidentally, the double acting cylinder relies on a complex mechanism of couplings the design of which is based on momentum equations and free body diagrams, something we can trace back to Newton’s laws of motion.

But my point here is that even back in the 1700’s we were using the results of laboratory experiments and the scientific method to drive onwards the development of society and our technology. This is why I tend to get a little ticked off with the anti-science antics of climate change deniers, or anti-vaccine campaigners or creationists. Indeed scary poll from the US, suggests 33% of Americans don’t “believe” in evolution (which is actually a slight improvement on previous polls 88|). Where would be now if those of the Georgian era had adopted a similar outlook…probably I won’t be typing this on a computer but hammering it into clay tablets!

Accidents don’t just happen
Another exhibit also dealt with rail accidents, for the era of the mass Georgian railway building was also the era of many horrible accidents. Some of these accidents were the consequences of greed and cut throat competition between the early rail companies, which lead to legislation to regulate the industry.

However others were the consequences of engineering failures, the Tay bridge disaster being an infamous example. Such accidents led to engineers discovering many crucial issues, such as metal fatigue or creep. While the limited materials science and atomic physics of the era made it difficult for them to identify a root cause for these problems, they could work out where such problems were likely to occur and how to reduced the risk of such failures. This, as I discuss in a prior post, led to the development of the so-called “precautionary principle” whereby engineers altered their design process to prevent future accidents by adopting a “fail safe” attitude . And again by ignoring issues such as climate change, we are essentially ignoring this industrial revolution era principle. We are going backwards in scientific terms it seems.

High Speed rail
Another train on display was the first generation of the Japanese “bullet” trains. Yes, the Japanese have been operating high speed railways for so long that some of these trains are now museum exhibits and the UK’s still humming and hawing about building one line up the West Coast!

One can only wonder how it looks to a Chinese, Japanese or German executive coming to Britain to look at investing here, gets off his plane and after paying through the nose for a ridiculously overpriced ticket, he/she is then crammed into to an overcrowded train on a system that so old and antiquated it looks like it was designed by the fat controller from Thomas the tank engine. I mean, Mallard (another exhibit, a 40’s era steam train) was capable of a higher top speed than all but a handful of the UK’s existing train network runs at today. To say the UK’s railway network is a national embarrassment is to put it mildly!

So while I support High speed rail, as I discussed in a prior post this doesn’t necessarily mean I give wholehearted support to HS2. The devils in the detail, and the one detail I’m concerned about is the sky high costs. As I pointed out in a post on my energy blog, HS2 is going to cost the UK about 12 times per km ($182m per km by my calculations) more than the French (who quote a figure of $15m/km) are paying for their latest TGV lines and substantially more expensive than anywhere else. Even the Californian CHSR system, which will pass through mountainous and Earthquake prone terrain in a nation which has very little recent railroad building experience is quoted at a cost of $89m/km).

My worry is that the Tories are up to their old tricks. They’ve either got a load of country lairds who’ve strategically bought land in the path of HS2 who will charge over the odds for it, or that are assuming that by inflating the price of it to such a ridiculous level nobody will support it, which given there pathological hatred of anything with the word “public” in it, would suit them perfectly.


6 thoughts on “A night at the museum

    • There are various alternatives to HS2. Upgrading the existing West coast line, the idea of building a line across the centre of England to cut out bottlenecks.

      Like I said, I don’t wholeheartly endorse HS2, I don’t understand why we must pay so much more than the French or Japanese for a high speed railway line. The devil’s in the detail! But I’d rather seen more money built on railways than another motorway or another runway for london.


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