Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Railway risks

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume V  (1861) 
Railway risks. Horse feet and road—engine feet and rails
by William Bridges Adams


Some years back, a man of a studious habit of mind looked in at the door of a veterinary establishment where a horse was undergoing a curious process called “firing,” that is, the application of heat along the course of the tendons leading to the feet. Desirous of learning what it was for, he applied to a bullet-headed man in a sleeved waistcoat, who had just made a speech indicative of considerable humanity to horses, by way of reproof to a subordinate, “Is that the way to treat an oss, ye hass you?”

Thus delivered of his indignation, he turned to his questioner. “Ye see, sir, as how an oss in his natteral state can gallop over the turf for ever and ever, and never hurt hisself, and doesn’t want no shoes neither. But ven the poor hannimal is put on to these here Lon’on roads, and, wus still, these here pavements, it stands to reason that if he hadn’t no shoes he’d soon wear off his hoofs; and then with a load of iron, at a sharp trot, don’t his poor feet come down like sledge-hammers, neither? If it wasn’t for his natteral springs in his legs and feet, Lor’ bless ye he’d be clean done up in a month. But, anyhow, his springs gets vored out and dummied like, ven he’s been two or three years on the stones, and he hasn’t no more feelin’ in his feet than that fellow I’ve been a blowin’ up, has in his head. So ven an oss gets so, he’s groggy like, and doesn’t know how to put one foot properly before the other, and he’d pretty soon be goin’ down to prayers. So then they sets to, to fire his legs, and that brings back his feelin’ like, and he’s more safe again.”

“In short, they re-harden and temper his leg-springs?”

“Eggzackerly, sir! But not to say as how they are ever so good as new, ven he’d only turf to gallop over, and not granite.”

Time passed, and our student one day rested at a level crossing by the side of a railway, while train after train passed at high speed.

“Whence arises this thunderous sound, and whence this semi-earthquake?” were the reflections of our student.

Alternate contact and non-contact between the wheels and the rails, multiplied in effect by the speed, and resulting in heavy blows. There was no other solution. The wheels did not roll—they jumped. Rolling would be a continuous pressure only: jumping caused percussion; percussion caused noise.

“What caused the jumping?” was his next thought. Impediments by irregularity of the rails, and sledging movement instead of rolling movement of the wheels.

What, then, was the remedy? First to make the rails smooth and even, and bed them continuously in non-deflecting timber, and then to make the wheels like a horse’s foot: to apply elastic resilience as near as possible to the rail.

And so the student became an inventor. Friends advised him not to pursue so unremunerative a path, but it was a “labour of love,” and so he persevered. “Eureka!” he exclaimed one day, after calculations and experiments without end, which resulted in a system of rail thoroughly new, and which was universally scoffed at. “Eureka!” he exclaimed a second time, when he produced a wheel to match the rail, and which he called a “horse-foot wheel.”

The mechanism was achieved and material difficulty surmounted, but the engineering of men’s minds was a far less easy matter. The inventor could not get listened to. He could not, like the Ancient Mariner, find

The man that must hear me.

So he tried an assemblage of many men, and wrote a paper which was read or sung before the British Association, which then held their sederunt in Glasgow; and then it was laid on the table, or under the table, and men knew it no more.

Still the inventor had faith in himself, and worked on. He became a peripatetic besieger of men about railways, who, like the Roman Centurion, had power to say “Go, and he goeth;” but none of them said to the inventor, “Come!”

But one day he fell in with a man in railway authority with whom he had formerly had a long dispute. He showed him drawings of both wheel and rail. After examination of both, the authority said, “I like the wheel; but the rail will not do at all: it will break down in a week.”

“I am certain to the contrary,” said the inventor.

“Well, then, I will try both! and more, I will try anything you say will do, simply because you say it, if not involving much expense.”

Some time elapsed before the work could be put in hand. The rail excited mirth amongst the officials. A fortnight was the utmost that prediction would allow for its durability; but days, weeks, and months passed, and it became a marvel to all concerned. For three years the small sample was under trial, and then the engineer of a neighbouring line was induced to try it also. A third engineer laid down two miles; and a fourth promised.

For six years it has now been under trial; it is demonstrably stronger than an equal quantity of materials otherwise disposed. The rail is safer, and free from damage: it is not exposed to the same amount of mischievous vibration, and it is not compounded of loose jolting parts. Moreover, it is actually 25 per cent. lower in cost and in maintenance. Public authorities approve it; but the humour of the thing is, that they who should use it profess to be afraid to use anything “which is not in general use.” Experience has tested it, and experiment is easy—but inertia is easier.

The wheel—the horse-foot wheel—was shown one day in model to another railway authority, who, if he reads this, may remember the circumstance. He thought it very remarkable, and proposed to have it constructed at ——. The inventor declined, alleging that they could not make it at that establishment.

“Why not?” said the honest and gentlemanly magnate.

“I will not explain why,” said the inventor, “but they cannot do it. Give me authority to get it done, and it shall be done!” But he went on his way without the order.

A fortnight after he again saw the magnate.

“Well, I have shown your wheel to ——, and he is going to make some.”

“I am obliged to you for your interest,” replied the inventor, “but again I tell you that he cannot—or, if you prefer the phrase, will not—make them.”

A month after that the magnate again saw the inventor, and informed him that the experiment had been unsuccessful.

But meanwhile a successful experiment was making on another line, where there was a will to succeed.

The public generally is not aware that the railway tyres next preferred to steel are of the iron called Low Moor, the highest priced of all iron. Staffordshire tyres are regarded with contempt, being only two-thirds the price of Low Moor. The horse-foot wheels of the inventor were purposely applied with Staffordshire tyres, and were put in competition with Low Moor tyres running in the same train, and applied in the ordinary manner. The result has been, that the Staffordshire lasted twice the time of the Low Moor. Costing two-thirds of the money, the durability was doubled.

And this was attained with greater absolute safety. The Low Moor tyres were pierced with holes to attach them to the wheels. The Staffordshire had no holes. The Low Moor were strained on hot. The Staffordshire were applied cold. The Low Moor were in tension. The Staffordshire were in a state of rest. The Low Moor sledged on the rails or curves, and produced torsion of the axles. The Staffordshire rolled with less sledging, and having no tension it was impossible they should break even in frost. They were elastic, like a horse’s foot.

A neighbour line took heart of grace and applied these spring-tyred wheels to a locomotive engine, with what are called four coupled wheels. These also were Staffordshire tyres, and on driving-wheels the test was harder. For nine months these wheels worked on sharp curves and heavy gradients, till the boiler (being an old engine) became too old for safety.

An accident happened on a line, and it came out in evidence that the leading-wheel tyres of the engine were regularly worn down in two months, so that the flanges became too thin for safety, and the wheel-tyres had to be reduced in diameter about an inch to get up new flanges.

The inventor applied to the engineer to try his horse-foot tyres on the leading wheels of a similar engine working over the same sharp curves and steep gradients. The result proved that the horse-foot had four times the durability of the ordinary wheels.

“How is this to be accounted for?” asked the engineer.

Very simply. The flanges wear by a shearing action against the rails. A pair of shears will not cut metal unless the axis be perfectly firm. The ordinary wheel has the tyre firm, and it is shorn. The horse-foot wheel having an elastic tyre, it yields, and slips aside and will not shear.

An opportunity occurred on a distant line, also of sharp curves and steep gradients, where the tyres were rapidly worn out. Horse-foot tyres were applied to an engine with six wheels by an engineer who believed in the theory. In due time a report came to the following effect to the inventor:—

“Your tyres are going on quite satisfactorily. I had them made of common Staffordshire iron, and put under a six-wheeled coupled engine. They have now done a year’s work, and through last winter’s frost with heavy trains, and though this line is all heavy gradients, with the sand constantly in use to prevent slips, yet the wear has been very slight. I am so satisfied with them that I shall apply them to every new locomotive.”

So the theory of our inventor was demonstrated in practice on three lines with the same results—inferior priced iron doing the work of the most costly—an iron of tough fibre not involving the risk of breakage belonging to the harder irons.

Thus, a rail and wheel exist in the principles of which safety nearly absolute and cost greatly reduced are found at the same time. So our inventor reasonably thought their use should extend.

On application to another engineer, pointing out the theory and fact, the inventor got the following reply: “It is all very true, but I am placed in a position of responsibility, and must protect myself. If an accident happens on my line by a wheel breaking, the jury, prompted by the plaintiff’s solicitor, will ask whether I have paid the highest price and used a wheel in common use. If I answer in the affirmative, I am held harmless; but if I have obtained any wheels at a cheaper rate, or used a new system, I shall be condemned for using new-fangled plans, having more regard to the pockets of the shareholders than the public safety.”

This is the dead-lock against railway improvement and railway safety.

Conversing with an intelligent gentleman in an official government position, the inventor remarked: “The companies are penny wise and pound foolish. They have a horror of small experiments, and yet notoriously rush into experiments on a large scale on sudden emergencies without any previous trial, under the pressure of public opinion. Were the companies to place at our disposal 10,000l. a-year for the purpose of verifying essential improvements by experiment, they would probably save an annual million and avoid a large amount of mechanical accidents.”

This would be better than for whole bodies of directors and officers than to pass their lives under a system of indefinite responsibility. At this very time the system of permanent-way in common use in England with a reversible rail in cast-iron chairs with wood keys is disapproved by government officers, and were it now proposed as a new system would not be admitted. In case of an accident from a broken rail, the first question is, “Has it been reversed?”

Logical Sequence.—The primary source of all wear and tear on railways lies in the contact of the wheel and rail. If the wheel-tyre, of an inferior material, can be made to attain three-fold durability, ergo, the same effect must take place with the rails. This system, therefore, should have the effect of prolonging the life of the rail to its originally intended duration, twenty years, by reducing the destructive power of a thirty-five ton engine down to twenty tons or less; at the same time rendering derailment much more difficult, while materially lessening the total cost.

W. Bridges Adams.