Monday 26 April 2021

Locomotives of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway

Locomotives of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway by Anthony Dawson covers a fascinating time in railway, engineering, and indeed social history - the development of the steam engine from a primitive and unreliable industrial machine to a means of reliable and convenient transport. The Liverpool & Manchester Railway was of course the first public and passenger carrying steam railway - the railways that existed at that time carried only freight (usually coal or minerals), and very few (including the Stockton & Darlington) used steam locomotives. 

The story of the Rocket winning the Rainhill Trials is famous enough to have featured on a £5 note, and the father and son team behind it George and Robert Stephenson are well known for developing the steam locomotive into a practical reality. This book starts in the run up to the Rainhill trials which were actually about whether steam locomotives should be used at all, rather than to select a winning design. Strangely the book doesn't describe the trials, but continues with the development from Rocket to the engines used when the lined opened (incorporating several significant advances), and then through the early years of the railway as knowledge of steam engines increased with each new design. While the Stephensons had much influence initially, they were resisted by some and alternative designs were tried - generally it must be said with little success, although within a few years it was those running the locomotives in daily use who gained the experience to improve the designs. 

As an engineer I found the development story fascinating - the early locomotives had no effective means of controlling steam into the cylinders, no balance weights to counter the massive forces of moving motion, poor firebox designs and no smokebox, not even any brakes. The engineering ideas had run ahead of materials science, and fireboxes, boiler tubes, and cranked axles failed regularly - as did the track. The early locos had shockingly short lives - 2 to 3 years in some cases - before wearing out or becoming obsolete due to advances in technology. The familiar outline and key features of steam locomotives appeared in those first few years, rather like the development of horseless carriages into motor cars about 60 years later, in fact the advances in technology at that time can be compared to the development of the mobile phone, rise of the internet, or transition from G-Wizz to Tesla in more recent times - arguably with a greater impact on mankind. 

The book goes on to discuss the early enginemen and foremen responsible for operating the locos, their maintenance and repair, and the passenger and goods stock - this is interesting as like the locomotives there was no existing template, and early designs had their flaws. However, there were some strange omissions from the book as in many ways it fails to set the context. There is no background to the Liverpool & Manchester railway - why it came about, the key events in its history, even its geography (which has relevance to the locomotives) - nor the parallel developments in the railway world at that time. As noted above even the Rainhill trails are glossed over. I notice that the same author has written an operating history of the Liverpool and Manchester by the same publisher (which also looks interesting) and perhaps that fills some of these gaps, but properly setting the scene in brief here would help understand the subject of this book better, and could have been done in a short prologue, or even an appendix. 

Also, some of the technological developments were not well explained, such as the advantage of a blast pipe, or how a good firebox and boiler work so as to understand the primitive versions then being developed. One diagram shows Buddicom's valve gear with the comment "from which the Stephenson-Howe link valve gear was an obvious evolution" - except that without an explanation of Stephenson-Howe link valve gear it is not obvious at all. As an engineer and railway enthusiast I generally had little difficulty in understanding the technologies described, but if it wasn't always clear to me it then won't be to all readers. Given the object of the book is to "chart the development" of these locomotives a few extra words or diagrams to explain some of these ideas would help many readers. 

That said, there are some excellent illustrations from contemporary drawings (both technical and illustrative) and engravings - of course there were no photographs at that time, although a few of modern replicas are included. The text is well written and easy to read, and is clearly well researched. I found it a fascinating read, and anyone with an interest in steam engines, engineering, or history of the industrial revolution will enjoy it too. 

Tuesday 20 April 2021

Turning sand into gravel

Obviously the sand surface needs to be painted if it is to look like anything other than sand. These are large areas, and the sand has a large surface area as well as being abrasive. I use cheap acrylic paints and a cheap, stiff paintbrush - the stuff sold for kids is fine for this job. Colours are mixed from white, black, red, green, and yellow - I can't say I find mixing colours easy and I usually end up with something too dark. Also a single colour sometimes looks too flat and plain, the aim is for a finish that is not too even which I attempt with multiple washes. 

The platform got a coat of pale grey, this seems to have come out well and looks fine as well tended gravel so I left it at that. The road and car park behind got a darker coat which looked too even, so it was followed by a much thinner coat of mid brown to weather it and add shadows. However, this looked too dark, so another thinned coat of pale grey was added. The result is a mid grey that isn't too even as the thinner coats have had differing effects at different depths. 

The yard at the front had a browner shade of grey to represent a gravel, followed by a very thin mid brown wash to add depth. Again, this ended up looking too dark, so I experimented. I dabbed talcum powder over the surface with a sponge, and then vacuumed it off while working it with a stiff paintbrush. The result has worked surprisingly well, giving a pale dusty gravel look which is patchy and varied in colour. 

While the paints were out the mid brown was further diluted with added Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA) - giving a very runny wash. This was applied over all the track ballast, though perhaps more in some areas than others, which adds a slightly brown weathered look to the granite and because it collects in the gaps, adds some depth to the colour. 

So there are three areas with three different finishes from the same basic materials - sand and paint. The front yard is dusty gravel, the platforms a neat even gravel, and the rear roadway and yard a rough tarmac. I've tried to blend them to the surrounding areas such as the public road and the ballast. 

Right at the top of the station access road near the phone box the last coat of paint covered some talc overspill, which has accidentally given a very pleasing mottled look, I might use that technique on purpose in the future. 

I'd also used a little sand to make pathways across and alongside the ballast, which were given similar paint treatment to represent a grey gravel. The walkways aren't really necessary, but gravel is easier to walk on than ballast and probably cheaper too, while I'm also using it to disguise the uncoupling magnet!

Monday 19 April 2021

Bases and surfacing

The yard at Hexworthy will be used as a "permanent way" (track) maintenance yard, and will have a grounded shipping container. These are often placed on timbers, so I made up some from plasticard, along with a rudimentary ramp up to the doors, and stuck them down before surfacing the yard.

I also added bases for a phone box - which I thought would add interest and look plausible placed by the road entrance - and the heating oil tank. These were simply made from a little DAS clay. 

At the back of the station building I added a pavement from a layer of thick card, cut to the shape of the building by drawing around it. I was going to just run the tarmac up to the back of the building but this seems neater as it means the building doesn't have to be fixed down (yet), it is a tight fit in, and allows easier access to the narrow space behind. It is made simply to represent concrete, mainly as it won't really be seen so no point in putting in a lot of effort!

All the roadways, platform and yard areas are textured with fine sand. I use play sand as sold for children's play pits, having kept a couple of jars when my kids grew out of theirs, though a large bag is very cheap. It is fine enough to be a good representation of gravel or tarmac. First I put down an even layer of PVA glue, which is slightly diluted (about 3:1 with water), and no need for washing up liquid here. 

I use an old tea strainer which helps scatter the sand evenly and stops any oversize particles. Sand is added a little at a time by tapping a teaspoon onto the strainer. This gives an even finish, but I have found it best to let it dry fully and vacuum off excess before checking, and not be tempted to add more glue/sand as this gives an uneven finish. If necessary a second application can be made later, although this is rarely needed. 

I've used the sand for the yard at the front, the platform surfaces away from the paved area, and the road/yard at the rear. Although they look the same now, they will be given different finishes in painting. 

Sunday 11 April 2021

Ballasting Hexworthy

Before ballasting I needed to glue down the platform - thus far it has not been in fixed, and was in two pieces, which was convenient for working on. However, the fixing of the slabs had caused a slight curvature to the 3mm foam-core platform pieces, so I needed to be sure it would lie flat. Gentle working between the fingers got the pieces flat before they were stuck in place with PVA. Clearances were double-checked with some larger locos to ensure the position was correct, and the larder raided for some weights to ensure it stayed fully flat while the glue set.

Ballasting isn't most people's favourite job, in fact it is rather tedious, but worth taking a little time as it covers a significant part of most layouts. I use fine granite ballast, I got a big bag many years ago and I'm still working my way through it. 

The area to be most careful is around the moving parts of the points, my approach here is to carefully apply neat PVA around the tie bar area positioning it with a screwdriver tip or something, making sure it is well clear of the tie bar, then add stones. This is left to dry before ballasting around it, the idea is the carefully positioned stones form a protective "dam" around the tie bar area.

Since the baseboard is foam-core board it was easy to cut a drainage ditch between the platform and loop roads. Because of the steep sides I applied neat PVA and stones first here too. 

The process is well established. I apply the ballast from a tea spoon, tapping it to carefully dispense it where needed, I spread it with a finger and a cheap, stiff, flat brush. Tapping the spoon on the rails helps the stones settle and shakes some off the sleepers, but there is still a need to brush off any stones that remain on the sleepers or up against the rail sides. Next is a vital step - the ballast is wetted with a fine mist of water/IPA mixture, water with washing up liquid works too but the IPA seems to work better. This allows the water to soak into the ballast without disturbing it. 

Finally the glue is added, PVA glue diluted about 50:50 with the drop of washing up liquid to reduce the surface tension. I use a plastic dropper and gently drip the glue into the ballast, which shouldn't disturb it and thanks to the prior soaking with water/IPA it is drawn right into the ballast. The tricky bit is seeing which bits have been done, as all the ballast looks wet!

So a slow process I tend to do in small areas at a time, an hour or so in one go is enough. Fortunately this is a small layout, but even so it took four or five sessions. As this will represent a preserved line the ballast needed to be fairly neat, which I've achieved.