Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 49

Another Circle

Having settled into our rooms, we came down to the lobby, where our two friends were waiting. Neither wanted to have lunch in the hotel dining room. MacRitchie said,

"It's expensive and pretentious. The food is of indifferent quality."

He spoke, for the first time in our hearing, in a careful definite way, with the confidence that no reasonable person would disagree with him. Still, the effect wasn't overbearing. It occurred to me that even Sidonie, with her rebellious counter-suggestibility, wouldn't have insisted on eating in the hotel dining room.

Sigiloff, speaking softly at the same time, indicated that it made him nervous when the English gave him funny looks, something they would be particularly likely to do in that dining room. We instead proceeded down Villiers Street, almost under the bulk of the railway station, to a small Indian restaurant. While it was mostly empty, the tables and chairs were pushed so closely together that it appeared that no one larger than Sigiloff could be accommodated. However, the proprietor, a man not unlike Sigiloff but not nearly so neat and clean, looked up and greeted our companions familiarly. There was a flurry of movement, and, almost magically, a space large enough for us duly appeared.

I was advised to order only the mildest of the dishes, and, having done so, I settled back while MacRitchie explained the railway situation in England.

"First. The trouble with England is that they couple freight cars with bits of chain and hooks."

As MacRitchie was speaking, Sigiloff was looking furtively over his shoulder and going on in his murmur,

"I hope nobody bloody hears, Crunchie's so loud, see, he could offend ....."

It at first seemed impossible to listen to them both, but we gradually learned that they always spoke on much the same topic, one providing commentary on the other. When Sigiloff spoke, MacRitchie used mostly grunts with single words thrown in. When the latter spoke, the former said a great deal, very swiftly and softly, adding all sorts of shades of emotion and feeling to the bare facts which MacRitchie laid down.

"A locomotive capable of forty thousand pounds of tractive effort can pull the hooks out of the cars."

"Ooh yair ooh, all kindsa problems, they weren't made for this kinda thing, see, they just ain't modern ...."

"Second. Most of the freight cars don't have automatic brakes, just hand brakes."

"Dangerous, see, you can't stop, collisions, fires, runaway cars crashing through towns ......"

"The practical upshot is both that a heavy freight train would break apart, and that any freight train that runs fast won't be able to stop quickly. That being the case, there's no point in having powerful or modern freight engines. Even the newest passenger engines can start a heavier train than the freight engines they're using. However, nothing in any way comparable is wrong with English passenger equipment or operation."

"I wish he'd praise things more when the English are around, they're like little kids, see, you gotta keep saying nice things ...."

MacRitchie smiled at Sigiloff and went on,

"The one good thing about the freight cars is that they have sprung buffers, and can be pushed together very hard, even on curves. We're going to run fast heavy trains, but we'll mostly push them instead of pulling them."

I asked, loudly enough to drown out Sigiloff,

"How will we stop them?"

"Lots of engines scattered through the trains."

The plan that had evolved showed some signs of Mac, but also the kind of technical ingenuity, particularly the taking advantage of what happened to be at hand, which was characteristic of A. C. Glencannon. MacRitchie explained,

"Apart from the freight cars, one of the worst problems centers on the interchange of freight cars from one line to another in London."

"See, all these guys built railways coming into London from every direction, but they don't hardly connect ...."

I had already known that the stations in London were all terminal stations, their tracks unconnected with each other. There was generally a large freight station near the passenger station, but there were also no direct connections between freight stations. The connections that existed amounted to chords of circles, some quite close to the termini, and some quite distant. However, I let Sigiloff continue,

"There's just scattered connecting lines here and there, and the worst of it is, they say it's ok, they say they'll just muddle along, they say..."

MacRitchie caught the word, "muddle" and laughed with disconcerting violence.

"There's little sense of urgency here. Everybody agrees that there'll be war soon, but they say they'll just muddle through the way they did last time."

Vignis asked,

"And you don't think they can?"

"They'll get bombed this time. The London local freight system is barely adequate under the most favorable circumstances. It has no reserve capacity. One bomb hit on a bridge or overpass and the whole collection and distribution system will lock up, perhaps for weeks."

Sigiloff held his hands to his head, as if he had just witnessed a disaster. He then began naming all the places where a bomb hit would disrupt the system. MacRitchie spoke over the recitation of this litany, saying,

"What's needed is a series of contingency plans for re- routing connecting traffic in case of damage without interfering with the main lines."

I could tell from MacRitchie's expression that there was much more to come concerning the railway problems of England, and it seemed that nothing, even the total disappearance of his audience, would affect the order of his exposition. However, the curried dishes arrived at that moment, blazing hot for our friends and much milder for Vignis and myself. Even so, I wondered briefly if I'd be able to eat at all.

As it happened, my food didn't have the extraordinarily repellent taste of Salka Valka's skyr. Indeed, I rather liked the taste. It was just a question of how badly I was prepared to burn my tongue, throat and everything below it. Vignis was used to London Indian restaurants and whispered to me to use the flat bread stuffed with potatoes, alu paratha by name, to mitigate my curry. MacRitchie, entirely undeterred, spoke between bites.

"Another problem is that the English depend entirely on shipping up and down the east and south coasts, and they don't seem to realize how vulnerable those ships will be to enemy attack."

Sigiloff was now in his element. There were airplane attacks against the ships. Submarines torpedoed them. Mines blew their bottoms out. There were also attacks by hit-and-run surface raiders. There were wild gestures that went with these attacks, but MacRitchie added equably,

"There are a number of forms of German attack which are potentially devastating. I doubt that the people here are equipped to repel even one of them."

Someone had to be the naive one and ask what was to be done. I have never had the sort of pride which prevents me from playing that role, and I asked the question. MacRitchie acted as if he hadn't expected it, but replied,

"Railways must take up the slack as best they can. The existing main lines can't carry much more tonnage than they already do, but we've found some under-used secondary lines which can be developed, and which will connect London with the south coast, the west, and the midlands."

Sigiloff then escalated his murmur and broke in,

"But, Crunchie, these other lines feeding in will just make it worse here in London, unless we get this mess ....."

MacRitchie replied,

"Yes, London is the first priority."

He then turned to Vignis and remarked,

"I understand that you and your husband got them to put in the connecting curves between lines when you were here last summer."

She replied,

"That was all Mac's doing. As always, he wanted to run in a circle and connect all the main lines coming into London. It couldn't be done then, but they agreed to put in the extra connections."

"Yes. It's done now. There were many cases of one line going over another without any connection, often because the companies that built the lines were in cut-throat competition with one another. In response to Mr. Garner's suggestions, they've put in several curves, as they call them, which curve down from the upper line to connect it with the lower one. We can now connect all thirteen main lines while steaming in a half-collapsed circle and get back to the starting point without ever having to back up."

Sigiloff addressed MacRitchie directly, but very softly, as if he thought we couldn't hear,

"It was her, Crunchie, don't ya see? If it hadda been just him, see, they woulda said that thing they say, yes, thenks very much, but they wouldn't a done nuthin ....."

I suspected as much myself, and am more convinced of it now. Those curves, each a few hundred yards long, involved building up considerable embankments, generally earthworks with brick or stone facing, and must have kept hundreds of men at work for months. They might possibly have done it because an American magnate pointed out the advantages of circular running, but a man who had Vignis at his side bestowing selective smiles could count on men trying so much harder to please. That would certainly have started a process which put the coolies out on the curves, and which might yet have a number of other consequences.

In both the London circle and the long-distance lines to be developed, the residual problem would be the lack of locomotives. There were plenty of freight cars, such as they were, but nothing to pull the long heavy trains we would assemble at the speeds they would have to go.

The London arrangements had already been drawn up with thirteen stops around the circle. Actually, as the most important points were Brent Yard in the northwest and Hither Green in the southeast, trains would go half way around to the other key point, and have their consists entirely changed, before continuing. MacRitchie moved plates around and unfolded on the table some papers extracted from his pockets. One was a sketch map of the London railway system, and the others described our proposed operation.

It was just about a hundred miles around the circle, and the trains were to take about four and a half hours for each circumnavigation. While that amounted to an average speed of just over twenty two miles an hour, over an hour was spent at the various spots. And, then, taking into consideration the time spent slowing down and accelerating, some very high speeds would have to be reached.

In true GER fashion, there was a schedule with trains A1-A6 and B1-B6. At half hour intervals, they began at eight in the evening, finishing at a quarter to seven in the morning. I asked whether we would have the lines all to ourselves during that period. MacRitchie answered,

"This schedule is to go into effect only in wartime, and then only in a crisis. There's normally passenger traffic over the whole route, starting early and ending late. At first, we'll have only the small hours of the night to run our operation."

At the same time, Sigiloff was saying,

"These English, see, they always talk about not alarmin the public. Almost anything alarms em, specially not runnin trains they're used to, you gotta realize, see, these people go beserk real quick ......."

I expostulated,

"Surely the English don't go beserk at the slightest thing. They're known for being calm in times of crisis."

MacRitchie replied,

"That may be because they've always been handled quite carefully. All the officials I've encountered here are very much afraid of doing anything whatever which might change the pattern of daily life for any large number of people. In war, it'll be necessary. But they won't take any steps until the very last minute, when everyone recognizes the necessity."

"ooh, it'll be too late then, maybe, but, see, that can't be helped, we gotta do things, but at night when people can't see em, and get all practised, and then, when the time comes, boom, we go full blast all out."

I could only say,

"This must be what gives the outsider the perverse feeling that, at times, they won't even think about preparing for war."

Both men seemed to agree to that, MacRitchie saying,

"The people in power are preparing, but many of the preparations are kept secret."

The average distance between stops was about eight miles, and, to hold the stops to five minutes each, some very fancy operating procedures were required. In addition, each train would have to accelerate quickly to sixty, maintaining that speed as long as possible. In some cases that would be until the next stop, but, in others, there would be sharp turns and short grades to be negotiated en route. It was a difficult bill to fill, requiring, as it did, power combined with speed. It also required the ability, lacking in most big engines, to go around a sharp curve fast without popping a driver over a rail.

The cross-country lines presented similar difficulties. For the most part, they had been the main lines of separate companies, such as the Great Central and the London, Chatham, and Dover, which never made it to the first rank, and were absorbed in other railways in mergers. Those lines had been built on the cheap, and still had grades and curves which presented considerable challenges for the locomotive and engineer of a fast heavy train.

Since it was obvious that no English freight engines could produce the speed required, even if enough of them were pushing at the end of the train to get it moving, I expected that American engines would be brought in to do the job. When I mentioned that possibility, MacRitchie shook his head.

"No existing American engines would fit through the tunnels or under the bridges. In addition to which, most would have too high an axle loading for the lines we have to go over. We could manufacture what's needed, but ..."

Sigiloff was practically shaking all over as he muttered,

"An engine's a very personal thing, you can't bring in a engine that seems foreign, see, no matter how good it is, the men'll grumble and find fault, they may mix sand in with the oil if they have to, they'll want the whole thing to fail. You gotta make it seem like one a their engines, ones they're used to ......."

MacRitchie continued,

"There are in England about a thousand obsolete express passenger engines, 4-4-0s with drivers of eighty inches or more, and with some seventeen or eighteen thousand pounds of tractive force. They're light on the track, and, having only four-coupled drivers, they can go around any curve easily."

"Oh, thy're beauties, little greyhounds, high-wheeled and nimble, they're tricked out with brass and they'll go a hundred, see, the men, they love em more'n their mothers and daughters, and we'll be saving em from being scrapped, see, they'll love us too ..."

"On the GER, Glencannon has perfected distant control of one engine by another. Here, it's much simpler. We convert the engines to oil fuel so that they don't have to be next to their tenders. Then we place two of these engines cab to cab and couple them with a rigid drawbar. It takes only a few simple mechanical devices to connect the throttles and other essential controls of the two engines, and, with oil fires, one fireman can move from one cab to the other, making all necessary adjustments. The result is an engine with some thirty five thousand pounds of tractive force, as much as an unusually powerful English freight engine."

Such "double-engines", I gathered, would be put on the head ends of fast long-distance freights, with not quite enough power to yank the couplings out of the cars. There would also be pushers, and a signalling system for the co-ordination of the two double engines had been devised.

Most of these old engines were being used in secondary services, and were being scrapped as their boilers wore out. Indeed, the boilers of many were in sufficiently bad shape that they couldn't be depended on for any sort of rigorous service.

Soon after his arrival in England in the September of 1937, Mac had rescued a pair of such engines, originally from the Midland Railway of the nineties, and had sent them back to Huntington. I had been there when they arrived, and had looked on them as souvenirs. Other people sent post-cards and bric-a-brac, but Mac sent engines.

Glencannon had said to me at the time,

"Mac wants me to conduct some experiments with these engines. He's no longer the boss, but I don't suppose there's any harm in humoring the laddie, is there?"

I had casually agreed. It sounded like a small thing, and Glencannon was always likely to discover something that would turn out to be useful. In fact, without realizing it, I had agreed to what turned out to be a major effort. Glencannon's first move was to detail MacRitchie to design a new and better boiler for the little engines. Glencannon had said to me, in a casual way,

"It might come in handy somewhere to have a light nimble little engine that can also move some tonnage."

I think he probably knew very well where it might come in handy to have such an engine, but, of course, Mac must have wanted me informed only at the right time in the right way.

Under Atwater's aegis, a goodly number of these boilers were produced in our erecting shops at Huntington and elsewhere. Then, a few re-boilered double engines and MacRitchie had been loaded aboard an ocean liner and rushed to England. Sigiloff arrived soon afterwards, and they commenced to test the engines under English conditions. It was soon shown that they could navigate the curves connecting principal lines as easily as the originals. MacRitchie was justifiably proud, pointing out,

"With a re-boilered double engine pushing, we can get an eighty wagon train to go as fast as the lead engineer's nerves will permit."

Sigiloff was ecstatic.

"It's all Crunchie, don't let him tell you no different, but, the best thing is, the English have got engines they know. They can service em and run em, and, see, nobody won't object when they give the regulator a yank and get double what they got before."

Soon after I left the GER for Iceland, the majority of the new boilers being produced were reaching England. I gathered that Mac had personally paid for the first two hundred boilers, although I was sure that Atwater and Glencannon had given him a very low price. With Mac now in America stumping, I was morally certain that he wouldn't have to pay for any more. In any case, a hundred and fifty had now arrived, with more coming every week. In London, the old Devons Road works of the North London Railway had been given over to the job of substituting new boilers and fireboxes for the old. Fifty of the double engines were now available for service.

For each London train, there would be a "main locomotive", a re-boilered double engine. However, there would also be a "sub-train", with its own locomotive, for each stop around the circle. While that sub-train was being detached from the rear, another, with cars to be delivered elsewhere, would be tacked on in front. It was like the standard GER operation at division points with the difference that each string of cars had its own engine. The multiplicity of engines in the train would provide plenty of power for acceleration, and also sufficient braking power. The main problem would be the need for extremely fine coordination among the various engineers.

As on the GER in the early days, a shipment that went "the wrong way" would have to go all the way around the circle. However, the distances weren't great, and the overall delay couldn't be much more than four hours. The added convenience more than made up for it, and would result in a much greater overall speed in the transfer of freight. MacRitchie had in mind a number of emergency measures in case of bombing damage or special needs, but he assured us,

"Short of extensive damage to our track and engines we'll be able to move all of London that needs to be moved on the planned schedule."

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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