Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/February 1877/Compressed-Air Locomotive in St Gothard Tunnel

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First published in French as "Locomotive à air comprimé employée aux travaux du percement du tunnel de Saint-Gothard' in La Nature, No.145, 11 March 1876.



THE boring of a tunnel of any importance presents difficulties of various kinds, among which may be mentioned the clearing away of the rubbish arising from the excavation of the gallery, whenever that reaches any considerable length, and the work is carried on with activity. Such were the conditions under which the boring of the Mont Cenis Tunnel was carried on, and M. Fabre, the able contractor, has met with similar difficulties in the boring of the St. Gothard Tunnel, now being carried out.

The work was begun from two points, Airolo and Gœschenen, the two extremities of the future tunnel. The advance of the gallery, which is pushed on with activity, produces about 400 cubic metres of rubbish a day at each of the two faces of attack. To carry away this mass of rubbish, which is thrown regularly into trucks running on rails, it is impossible to employ locomotives, as the cul-de-sac nature of the galleries prevents effectual ventilation. The high price of horses and the large number required prevent their use. The idea suggested itself of making use for St. Gothard of machines moved by compressed air, which would have many advantages. First, it is well known that compressed air is used to work the perforating machines used in boring the tunnel; then, by the employment of compressed-air locomotives, ventilation of the galleries would be produced, as these machines would allow only pure air to escape; and then these motors would be more powerful than horses, and effect more rapidly the clearing away of the débris.

Fig. 1.

A first attempt was made in which two ordinary locomotives were employed, one at each side of the tunnel; the boilers, in which, of course, there was no water, were filled with condensed air under a pressure of four atmospheres. This air played the part usually done by steam, passed into slide-valves, entered the cylinders alternately on each face of the pistons, which it set in motion, and then escaped into the atmosphere.

It is easily seen that, if compressed air were to be employed, it would be indispensable to have a very considerable quantity of it; the boiler of a locomotive, sufficient when it is worked by means of steam constantly produced under the action of heat, was too small to contain a quantity of air sufficient for use without being filled. This led to adding to each locomotive a special reservoir for compressed air; each locomotive was accompanied, as a kind of tender, by a long sheet-iron cylinder, eight metres long and one and a half metre diameter, supported toward its extremities by two trucks, which, on starting, were filled with condensed air, and which communicated by a tube with the distributing apparatus of the cylinders. The locomotive then worked as before, except that compressed air came from the reservoirs instead of from the boiler. The two locomotives, the Reuss and the Tessin, worked economically for about two years, in spite of the awkwardness of the long cylinders that accompanied them. We can give some interesting figures resulting from the mean of a certain number of observations. At departure the pressure in the reservoir was about seven kilogrammes per square centimetre; the locomotive having drawn a train of twelve loaded wagons along a course of about 600 metres, the pressure was found to fall to four and a half kilogrammes; the train then returned empty to the point of departure, and the final pressure was found to be two and a half kilogrammes.

Fig. 2.—Compressed-Air Locomotive Used at the St. Gothard Tunnel Works.

In spite of the relatively advantageous results which were obtained, the employment of compressed air in a steam-locomotive presented a certain number of drawbacks. It is expedient that the air should issue from the cylinder under the least possible pressure, in order that refrigeration may he reduced to a minimum; for it is known that the expansion of gas is accompanied by a loss of heat which increases with the pressure. This condition was satisfied by causing the air to act under restraint; that is, by allowing the compressed air coming from the reservoir to enter during only a part of the course of the piston. But the admission of the air ought to vary if it is desired to obtain the same final effect, since the pressure in the reservoir diminishes continuously; and as the apparatus which regulates the admission was arranged to correspond only to determined fractions, but not to vary in a continuous manner, it followed that there was a greater expenditure of air than was necessary, and consequently a diminution in the length of the course over which the locomotive could run.

On the other hand, it is necessary that the air should arrive in the distributing apparatus with the least possible pressure, for it is in this apparatus, in the slide-valve, that the greatest losses take place, and these losses increase in proportion to the pressure. No means could, however, be thought of for diminishing the pressure in the reservoirs, which would have reduced considerably the work which the machines were capable of doing, unless by augmenting considerably the volume of the reservoirs, the dimensions of which were already unusually large.

At this stage M. Ribourt, the engineer of the tunnel, devised an arrangement which allows the compressed gas to flow at a fixed pressure, whatever may be the pressure in the reservoir. The gas in escaping from the reservoir enters a cylinder B (Fig. 1), over a certain extent of the walls of which are openings m m, that communicate with another cylinder C, which surrounds it to the same extent, and which is connected with the slide-valve by which the air is distributed, or, more generally, with the space in which this air is to be utilized. On one side moves a piston E, which shuts the cylinder and hinders the escape of the air. This piston carries externally a shaft F, which supports externally a spiral spring H, the force of which is regulated by means of a screw. Internally it is connected by another shaft L with a second piston N, which bears a cylinder M, movable in the interior of the principal pump, and forming thus a sort of internal sheath. This sheath presents openings n n, which may coincide exactly with those already referred to, and in that case the gas passes without difficulty from the reservoir at the point where it is to be employed. But if the sheath is displaced, the openings no longer correspond, there is resistance to the passage, and consequently diminution of the quantity of gas which flows out, and hence lowering of pressure in the exterior cylinder. By making the position of the sheath to vary continuously we may make the pressure of exit constant, notwithstanding the continuous variation at entry. But the apparatus is automatic. In fact the part of the cylinder B comprised between the bottom and the piston N communicates by openings p (which are never covered with the escape-tube of the gas), in such a manner that upon its posterior face the piston N receives the pressure of the gas at the moment when it flows, a pressure which it is sought to render constant. The piston E receives on its anterior face the action of the spring which can be regulated at pleasure. As to the other faces of the two pistons, they are subjected to equal actions proceeding from the pressure of the gas at its entry, actions which thus contract each other; so that the forces which determine the position of the movable system are, on the one hand, the tension of the spring, and constant and determined force, and, on the other hand, the pressure of the flowing gas; and thus equilibrium cannot occur unless the two forces are equal. If the gas should flow in too great a quantity, the pressure increases on the posterior face of the piston N, the spring is overcome, and the movable system advances a little toward the left; but then the orifices are partly covered and the flow diminishes. If the pressure then becomes too weak at the exit, the spring in its turn prevails, pushes the sheath toward the right, uncovers the orifices, and consequently a greater quantity of air may enter.

The machines which are now used at the St. Gothard Tunnel, genuine compressed-air locomotives, are furnished with M. Ribourt's apparatus. They consist of the following parts: A sheet-iron reservoir to contain the compressed air is mounted on a framework quite like that of small locomotives, and carrying glasses, cylinders, distributing apparatus, etc. The tube for receiving the air possesses, within reach of the driver, the automatic valve of M. Ribourt. The screw being easily regulated, the air can with certainty be made to issue from the apparatus at a determined pressure. This air then passes into a small reservoir (about one-third metre cube), intended to deaden the shocks, which are always produced when the machine is set agoing or stopped. Lastly, this small reservoir communicates with the cylinders, and the air which reaches them acts in the same manner as steam in ordinary locomotives.

The pressure in the principal reservoir at the point of exit depends on the power of the compressing apparatus; at St. Gothard it may attain fourteen kilogrammes per square centimetre, but is ordinarily about 7.35 kilogrammes. The pressure in the small reservoir is arbitrary, depending on the regulation of the screw; at St. Gothard it has a mean of 4.20 kilogrammes. The entire machine weighs about seven tons.-Nature.

  1. Translated from La Nature.