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How does an electric locomotive work?

In this fascinating locomotive it is convenient to differentiate the electric part from the mechanical one. The electric part is formed by the motors, the circuitry and the devices which take the electricity. In those locomotives fed by overhead cables, these devices have a part in direct contact with the cables and a device which continuously keeps this contact. There are also power switches, devices for accessory services, controls and indicators (such as voltimeters). Before arriving to the motors, the electricity taken from the cables goes to the diverse parts of the locomotive through a complex series of devices, remotely controlled by the driver, whose main role is to open or close the diverse circuits as convenient.

The mechanical part is represented by the chassis along with the suspension systems and the bodywork, the gearings which transmit the movement from the motors to the wheels, the bearings, the compressed-air brakes, the hand brake, the traction and repulsion systems and other additions of lesser importance. Let us see the elements which transmit the movement to the wheels. This can be done directly by the pertinent speed reducers, or just by means of connecting rods, or connecting rods and shafts or auxiliary axles. Sometimes, between the motors and the wheels some gear wheels are intercalated, and in such case the motors are installed in a non-rigid way. In the bodywork or "box" three different parts can be considered: the first and third sections, which contain control devices and provide a certain space for the personnel in charge of driving, and the center section, where the high-voltage devices and the machine itself lie.

Electric locomotive cutaway
1: Ventilators for cooling the motors - 2: Motion control - 3: Electric conductors for feeding the motors - 4: Hand brake - 5: Cylinders for maneuvering the pantographs - 6: Control of motor connections - 7: Main compressed-air deposit - 8: Electric line - 9: Pantographs - 10: Attachment of the motors to the structure, with suspension springs - 11: Electric motor - 12: Gears connecting driving axles and wheels - 13: Auxiliary deposit for brakes - 14: Chassis - 15: Bushing - 16: Brake rod.

The personnel who operates the trains

Trains, tracks, engineers, innovations, all of this has been mentioned so far, but not the important personages who populate the magic world of the railway: the personnel who travels and the personnel disseminated along the lines. In the same way that nowadays we can look cosmonauts with admiration, similar feelings could have elicited the first machinists. All dirty with soot, fighting all the time with steam valves and sudden frights, their figure could move the imagination because of the courage that they showed while running their machines at crazy speeds, trying to keep the distances with infuriated peasants or even worse, American natives. Well different is the mood of the modern machinist who, contrarily to his predecessors, manages to drive those fast machines only after a long process of learning and practice, which allows him to master the most recondite aspects of the powerful machines entrusted to him.

Railway personnel
The stationmaster of Naples in 1839 (left) and a railway operator from the late 19th century (right).
Railway personnel
Manual railroad switch (left) and a level crossing in 1888 (right).
Railway wagon braking system
An early braking system in use in the American freight wagons.

Countless pages could be written about the accidents happened or avoided in extremis; still today, unfortunately, the television and press bring the echoes of railway accidents and disgraces. The first accidents can be attributed to the limited capability of the manufacturers or the ignorance of the machinists; for example, that machinist who sit in a steam safety valve to silence the noise emitted by it, causing a general explosion of the boiler. Memorable was as well the incident happened in the eve of the year 1888, when an old locomotive operating in the line Baltimore-Ohio exploded with such a noise that was heard up to eight kilometers around, while the machinists, by pure miracle, were unscathed.

Railway accident

Even more clamorous maybe was the accident happened in the station of Montparnasse: a locomotive towing nine wagons, entering the station at rather high speed, could not stop nor reduce the speed because of a failure in the brakes, and jumping to the platform and destroying the wall ahead, the locomotive fell and overturned in the exterior esplanade, smashing a newspaper kiosk, being the woman in charge of this kiosk the only victim of this awesome accident. Further ahead we will see how it has been attempted to reduce accidents and disgraces to a minimum in spite of the intense traffic.

A locomotive fitted with a snow sweeper

It had just begun the year 1836 when it arrived to Russia the locomotive built by Stephenson in the workshops at Newcastle. It was not an usual locomotive, but one provided with four sweepers to take away the snow from the track. Despite the inclement weather, there was a large number of onlookers along the line between Pavlovsk and Konzimin, awaiting the passing of the magnificent convoy which despite the furious blizzard covered in just 17 minutes the distance of seven verstas (7.5 kilometers), while towing a load of 256 persons distributed on eight large wagons, to later perform the return travel in a similar time span, this time not towing the wagons but pushing them, while marching in reverse. A great success!

The gazettes and newspapers of that time highlighted this event during long time, and in the court of the Tzar soon circulated rumors about the next opening of other and more important lines. In the subsequent years these were built indeed, but they were of relatively short length compared to the audacious projects that a certain general would devise. In 1890 he was Emperor of Russia the Tzar Nicholas II, and it was shortly after having fired his Prime Minister when he was informed that a general called Mihail Annenkof requested to be received by him. Annenkof wanted to submit a project of him to the Tzar to get the authorization to carry it out.

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