Friday, 30 January 2015

'Duchess of Sutherland' at Crewe

"There are not enough superlatives in the English language to describe a 'Princess Coronation' locomotive in full cry. We shall never see their like again". 
[O.S. Nock, 1983]

Please click on any picture for a larger image.

To me, the majestic Stanier Coronation Pacific Locomotive is the ultimate in steam. They were deigned by Willaim Stanier, Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) in the late 1930s (or more correctly, his chief draughtsman, Tommy Coleman) to haul heavy and fast express trains between London and Glasgow on the West Coast Main Line. Stanier had learned his craft at the Great Western Railway at Swindon works under G.J. Churchward and C.B. Collett before being headhunted to the LMS in 1931.

Stanier brought advanced steam locomotive design ideas with him from Swindon, such as the flat-topped Belpaire firebox and the tapered boiler. These features were among those that had made the Great Western 'Castle' and 'King' classes so successful, and his first express locomotive for the LMS, the 'Princess' class, could be considered a 'Super King'. But Stanier went on to develop the 'Princess' into the more powerful 'Princess Coronation' or 'Duchess' class, probably the finest steam locomotives ever to run in this country.

'Duchess of Sutherland' at Crewe this afternoon

Only three of these superb locomotives avoided the scrap man's torch at the end of steam on British Railways; 'Duchess of Sutherland', 'Duchess of Hamilton', and 'City of Birmingham'. Of these, only 'Sutherland' is currently in steam on the main line. 'Hamilton' has been re-streamlined (some of the class originally carried streamlined casing) and is cosmetically restored at the National Railway Museum in York. These two locomotives only survive because Billy Butlin bought them from BR to be installed as playground objects at two of his holiday camps. 'City of Birmingham' has been incarcerated in a museum in the city of its name since it retired from BR. It is to be hoped that one day she will escape and be restored to working condition.

Another view of 46233 at Crewe today

After the second world war two more of these superb locomotives were built by Stanier's successor, H.A. Ivatt. They were improved with the fitting of roller axle bearings and a separate pony truck at the rear, and they were named 'City of Salford' and 'Sir William A Stanier, FRS'. If ever there was a candidate preservation it had to be the latter; one of the last of the class, improved, and carrying that famous name. But it wasn't to be. That locomotive was cut up at Cashmore's yard in Birmingham in 1964. £2,500 would have saved it (about £40,000 in today's money) but the heritage railway movement was only just getting started in 1964 so 'Sir William' was lost. It's especially tragic when one considers how many Gresley pacifics escaped the torch, and so few Stanier pacifics.

So 'Duchess of Sutherland' is the only locomotive of the class in working order, and is much in demand to haul charter trains on the main line. One such event is the 'Cumbrian Mountain Express' which will be steam hauled tomorrow from Carnforth to Carlisle (having been electric hauled from Euston), then south over the scenic Settle & Carlisle line to Hellifield, thence via Clitheroe and Blackburn to re-join the West Coast Main Line for an electric-hauled return to Euston.

 'Sutherland' today positioned from her base at the Midland Railway Centre at Butterley in Derbyshire to Carnforth ready for tomorrow's trip. On the way she stopped in Crewe station to take water, and a friend and I went down there to see her.

46233 takes water from a platform hydrant at Crewe station today

The Duchess's footplate. Firehole doors open to draw in cold air. Despite this, and the fireman using the injector to top up the boiler water level to the maximum, she did blow off violently and quite deafeningly. When that happens, about ten gallons of water a minute goes out through the safety valves as steam; probably more water than was going into the tender tank from the hydrant! 

Not part of Stanier's original design; in-cab electronics required to enable locomotives to work on today's railway 

The Duchess was hauling only her support coach today, to house the technicians and equipment required to keep the locomotive in top form while away from her home shed. Something else fitted since the loco's BR days is air braking to enable it to work modern stock. Here the two pipes of the air brake system can be seen between the loco's tender and the support coach, together with a rather leaky steam heat pipe. The vacuum brake pipe remains unused.  

A last look at this fabulous steam locomotive before we caught a train home

Here she is with support coach passing Rugely Trent Valley on her way to Crewe
(by Steve Kesterton)

And here's what it's all about. A Princess Coronation in full cry! Fabulous!
(Pictured on Saturday by Ian Pilkington)

Leaving Hellifield a week later, 7th February. Picture by Geoffrey Griffiths. I'm amazed how Hornby Dublo so accurately captured the character of a Duchess in die-cast metal way back in the 50s. That could be my Hornby 3-rail 'Duchess of Montrose' !


Sunday, 25 January 2015

An 'ultimate Cub' joins the fleet

Dealer's photo of the Honda Innova 125i that would soon be joining my fleet

I love my little Honda C90 and it has taken me on many fantastic trips on 'Little Bike' outings. However, with only 7bhp and three gears it sometimes struggles to keep up with Malc and Ivan on steep hills. Things I like about the C90 are its lightness, small size, nippyness, and character so any more powerful alternative would need to retain those characteristics. There's really only one bike that does that while offering a bit more power and 4 gears - the Honda Innova 125i.

My Honda Innova 125i near home this morning

These little Hondas - from the Honda 50 through to the Innova 125i are known as 'Cubs', and more than 60,000,000 of them have been made; probably the 'most produced' machine of any type anywhere. The 125i is the ultimate development of the Cub; basically the same as a C90 but with a steel tube frame instead of tube and pressed steel, the same engine but with more capacity and electronic fuel injection, and the same mechanical gearbox and semi-automatic clutch but with 4 gears instead of 3, hydraulic disc front brake instead of mechanical drum, and more sophisticated suspension. It's also about the same size and weight as a C90. The Innova is no longer available in UK and has been replaced by the SH 125 with a completely new design of engine with continuously-variable belt drive in place of the Cub's gearbox. So for some time I have been on the lookout for a nice example of this 'ultimate Cub'.

My Honda C90

A couple of weeks ago I found one advertised that was from the last year of manufacture (2012), one previous owner, and being sold by the dealer who originally supplied it and has serviced it from new, and it was less than half the price of a new SH 125. It was in Indian Queens, Cornwall, (what a great name!) so too far to go and see so I took a chance and bought it unseen. It arrived in the large van of a specialist bike moving company last week, looking every bit as good in the flesh as it had in the pictures on the dealer's website. All it lacked was a top-box but that was soon rectified after I sourced one on the web and fitted it to the bike's rear rack.

The Innova, complete with top-box 

The Innova and the C90 on a sunny winter morning

I've ridden the bike a few miles now and can confirm it is just like a C90 except with more power, better brakes and handling, and that very useful extra gear. But unlike the C90 it will probably never be a 'classic' bike. So the question is, whither the C90? Should I keep it or sell it? My head says I should sell it as the Innova will do all that the C90 can do and more, and four bikes (Moto Guzzi Griso, Freewind, Innova, C90) makes the garage a bit crowded. But my heart says keep it, as it's an appreciating classic better than money in the bank and being in excellent condition it's a nice thing to own. But bikes don't like being neglected; they need to be used, and would the C90 see enough use now the Innova is on the fleet?

Watch this space!

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Farewell Bob Symes

Robert Alexander Baron Schutzmann von Schutzmansdorff, inventor and television presenter, died on 19th January at age 90. He didn't fit in with the modern meja's dumbed-down short-attention-span ways, so is probably only known to the older generation. He was of the old school - knowledgeable, professional, courteous, literate. It's sad he has gone, though 90 isn't a bad innings. Here's an example of Bob's presentation style.

Click here to see Bob's presentation style.

For decades Tomorrow's World had some excellent presenters, Bob Symes, William Woollard, Raymond Baxter, James Burke and Judith Haan are the ones I remember. Intelligent people who had a real background in science, engineering, technology, and the ability to communicate clearly and well. 

Then BBC ditched these presenters and started employing celebrities, children's show presenters and even well-known sporting people to present the show, hoping to make it more appealing. However, they lost their core audience with the banal and inept presentation, and never did attract a new generation, which anyway was hell-bent on becoming bean counters, managers or celebrities.

Bye bye old chap! 


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Nimrod knowledge transfer

Nimrod XV231 at Manchester yesterday, my car next to it

It was April 2010 when RAF Nimrod submarine hunter XV231 touched down at Manchester after its last flight. Shortly afterwards it was decommissioned and moved to the Runway Visitor Park, and we commenced giving tours on it to the public. All the Nimrod MR2s were withdrawn from service that month, though the Nimrod R1s (electronic intelligence gatherers) lasted a short while longer but soon they too were grounded.

We gleaned quite a lot of information about Nimrod operations from the RAF at the aeroplane's erstwhile base, Kinloss in Scotland, and read everything published about it (books by Bill Gunson and Tony Blackman - a Nimrod test pilot - and some magazine articles). The tours last 45 minutes and are very well received.

We recruited some additional Concorde guides last summer, and one of them knows an ex-Nimrod captain (Bill) who was willing to come to the Viewing Park and give us the benefit of his years of experience on the aeroplane.

Obviously we already had considerable Nimrod knowledge; the history, the operations it was used for and how it carried those out. Bill was able to add a great deal of information about how the crew worked as a team, sonar buoy specifics, types characteristics and tactics of Russian submarines, air-to-air refueling details, air / sea rescue methods, Nimrod as a fighter in the Falklands War (fitted with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles), various 'war stories' and anecdotes, and much more.

It was a fascinating morning (actually, so fascinating it went on into the afternoon!) and very informative. We won't have time on our 45 minute tour to cram any more information in than we already do, but perhaps it's time to consider a longer, more detailed, Nimrod tour at Manchester. Watch this space!


Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Killer asteroids!

Last night I attended the January meeting of Knutsford SciBar. A SciBar meeting is open to anyone and held in a bar or cafe (Knutsford's meetings are at the Sports Centre) and attended by a leading scientist who talks on his topic, followed by questions from the floor. Last night's meeting was entitled 'Killer Asteroids', and presented by Professor Andy Newsome of Liverpool John Moores University.

Andy told us that most asteroids live in the asteroid belt, orbiting the Sun inside the orbit of Jupiter. Some live in clumps beyond the asteroid belt also orbiting the Sun, but either side of Jupiter's orbit having been drawn out of the asteroid belt by Jupiter's gravity. The asteroids in the asteroid belt are left over from the time the solar system was formed, and if allowed to coalesce would form a planet slightly smaller than Earth. But every time they start to coalesce along comes Jupiter and its gravity rips them apart again. These asteroids just go around the Sun in circles and are no threat to us.

There are, however, 'rogue' asteroids that orbit the Sun in eliptical orbits, cutting across the orbits of the planets, including that of the Earth. These are the ones to worry about - they have the potential to hit us, with catastrophic results.

Asteroids vary in size from dust specks to many kilometers across and thousands hit the Earth each day. Thankfully these are almost all very small and burn up in the upper atmosphere. Every day about 50 tons of material is deposited on Earth from this source. A look at the moon through a telescope will reveal a heavily pock-marked surface, evidence of asteroid collisions. The Moon is immediately adjacent to Earth and Earth is bigger with more gravitational pull, so it's safe to say Earth has had even more asteroid hits than the Moon. But the Moon has no atmosphere to burn up the smaller objects, no weathering to erase evidence of old craters, and no oceans and vegetation to hide such evidence, as Earth has.

There is plenty of evidence on Earth of asteroid impact. Here's an asteroid impact crater in Arizona:

Asteroid crater, Arizona, about 2km diameter

Meteor Crater was formed about 50,000 years ago by a 40m wide asteroid weighing several hundred thousand tons and impacting at about 26,000 miles per hour. The asteroid vaporised on impact but is believed to have comprised mostly iron, as the crater and surrounding area are rich in iron of a type not found on Earth.

Flattened trees at Tunguska, Siberia, are evidence of a 1908 air-burst asteroid

Another well known asteroid site is Tunguska in Northern Siberia. This is believed to have been caused by a piece of a comet, which comprise ice and dust, that exploded in the atmosphere due to frictional and compressive heating, and flattened trees over an area of 2,150 square kilometres.

Thankfully, the chance of impact by large asteroids is small, but of course could happen at any time at any point on Earth. Life-extinction asteroids are thankfully extremely rare. The last one to hit Earth was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs and allowed homo sapiens to evolve. It's not the direct effect of impact that is harmful with these events (unless you are somewhere close to it!) its the dust cloud generated. This blocks out the Sun and plunges the Earth into deep winter, freezing the oceans, and which lasts for decades. Another one of those would kill off most life on earth; bad news for us, probably good news if you're a cockroach, as they seem to be able to survive anything.

Is there anything we can do about it?

Yes and no. If we keep looking we can identify rogue asteroids. Having identified them we can track them to determine their orbits for the next 150 years or so. We can then be sure whether or not they pose us a danger. But this isn't seen by governments as a priority, so it's not funded. Scientists do use telescopes to hunt for asteroids in any spare telescope time between funded observations, and those we discover are tracked to determine if they are a danger, but this is only happening in the Northern hemisphere, and the hunt for asteroids even in the northern hemisphere is spasmodic so some will be missed.

If a rogue is identified far ahead enough ahead for us to do something about it, what could be done? Well, it would certainly concentrate the minds of world governments because if nothing is done everyone will die. Blowing it up, Hollywood style, isn't an option - the result would be like being shot by a shotgun rather than a rifle bullet as all the bits hit earth. Nearly blowing it up might work -  exploding a nuclear device adjacent to the asteroid. There are no shock waves in the vacuum of space so the asteroid should remain intact, but the side of it near to the explosion would be radically heated up. The heat radiation should alter the orbit sufficient for it to miss Earth. 

Another possibility is a 'gravitational tractor'. This is a space vehicle parked close to the asteroid and powered so the asteroid's gravity doesn't cause it to be drawn to the object. It maintains its station relative to the asteroid, which is gravitationally drawn towards the 'tractor'.

'Gravitational Tractor' attracts the asteroid towards it by the pull of gravity

Or we could paint it white! If one side was splattered in white paint (asteroids are very dark) the reflected photons from the sun would exert a tiny force on it and slowly move its orbit. The orbit doesn't have to be altered much for it to miss Earth by millions of miles, provided we have some years of notice before calculated impact.

But - we are not looking all the time. We definitely are not looking everywhere (we concentrate on the ecliptic, for instance, as that's where the biggest threat is), and we miss about 1/3 of the sky by not looking in the southern hemisphere. And anything coming from the direction of the sun will always be in daylight so we wouldn't see that.

And then there are comets! These strange beasts originate on the very edge of the solar system in the Oort Cloud about 0.8 light years out from the Sun, thousands of times further out than Pluto's orbit. The temperature there is pretty much absolute zero, and the gravitational pull of the Sun is so weak that comets can be disturbed from orbit by objects outside the solar system and commence an extremely elongated narrow orbit in towards the Sun. Comets comprise ice and dust and most break up as they near the Sun; having been used to living in absolute zero they don't like being subjected to several thousand degrees as they near the Sun. Also, the massive gravity of Jupiter acts like a solar system vacuum cleaner and causes many comets to break up be absorbed by the gas giant.

If a Comet is headed for us it's coming in very, very fast, and it may well be coming from the direction of, and very close to, the Sun so we may not see it until it's very close. These Oort cloud comets should not be confused with the 'tame' ones like Halley's which have been captured in close-in circular or nearly circular solar orbits with periods of tens of years (which is why we keep on seeing them). Oort cloud comets, if they survive their first pass through the solar system, won't return for millions of years.

There was much more that Andy told us last night than I have recounted here, and it was all fascinating, not least his explanation as to why the media gave the impression recently that astronomers are rubbish at predicting whether an asteroid will actually hit Earth. The newspapers reported "10% chance of Earth impact, say astronomers". Then "15%". Then, wow, one in five chance! (20%). Then.... zero. It's going to miss us, implying the astronomers' earlier estimates were completely wrong because it was never going to hit us at all.

What was actually happening was that the astronomers were refining their predictions with time and getting ever more accurate results. The initial measurements gave an area of possible positions for the asteroid in space on reaching the proximity of the Earth which included not only the earth but also 90% of empty space adjacent to Earth (so a 10% chance of it hitting Earth). This 'target area' was subsequently refined down by ever more accurate readings of the object's trajectory to a smaller and smaller target area but an area that included the earth. Finally the accuracy became good enough to show the Earth was actually outside the now much smaller target area, so the risk instantly fell to zero.

Accurate reporting of this refinement of defining where the asteroid would track, eventually enabling astronomers to confirm it would pass rather than hit the Earth, doesn't always sell the most number of papers, but the price in this case may be a public perception that astronomers don't understand asteroid prediction so what's the point in funding it?

Thank you very much Professor Andy Newsome, and Knutsford SciBar. I'm looking forward to next month's meeting.