Sunday, March 31, 2019

A new frontier opened: an unborn baby's heart

Last weekend the BBC News website carried this article about some remarkable developments that have been made in scanning the hearts of unborn babies.  It is now possible to produce such detailed scans of the heart — which, by the way, normally begins beating as soon as three weeks and one day after conception, and will beat 54 million times before birth — that three-dimensional models can be built and then used, for example, to pick up abnormalities in the heart before birth.  This then gives more time to make plans for treatment, and increases the chance of their success.

But I have to admit that it took me a while to absorb that information because I had been so distracted by the clip at the top of the article, showing the result of an MRI scan, and exactly what is going on when babies kick inside the womb... It is even possible to see the heart beating... a remarkable image.

Time and time again, science vindicates the pro-life cause.

Monday, March 18, 2019

'Flying Scotsman' and the Poetry of the Footplate

An enjoyable recent read has been Andrew Roden's history of the famous locomotive Flying Scotsman ('Flying Scotsman: the extraordinary story of the world's most famous train', London: Aurum, 2007).  No. 4472 has had many adventures since her construction in 1923 for the London and North Eastern Railway's express fleet.  She was the first steam locomotive officially verified to have reached a speed of 100mph, and was the L.N.E.R.'s show-piece at the British Empire exhibition at Wembley in 1924 and 1925.  Her profile was also raised during performance trials against locomotives of the Great Western Railway.  And she hauled the L.N.E.R.'s elite London–Edinburgh express — also named the Flying Scotsman; the engine had been named after the train — on the first day that the journey was made non-stop, with the aid of an ingenious corridor through the tender that permitted a change of crew.  She had a narrow escape from the scrapman in the 1960s, but was rescued by Alan Pegler, a businessman from Retford, and since then she has been on tour to Australia and to the United States as well as hauling excursion trains all over Britain.  While in Australia, Flying Scotsman set the record for the longest non-stop run ever undertaken by a steam locomotive, 422 miles.  In 2004 the National Railway Museum purchased her for the nation, and from York she still goes out regularly on excursion duties.

It's always the 1960s, isn't it?  It seems inconceivable that a locomotive which had had such exploits could ever have been in danger of the cutting-torch, but in those strange times of fanatical modernism it really had been a possibility.  Flying Scotsman was actually omitted from British Railways' list of engines to be set aside for preservation when steam traction was withdrawn.  Many of the modernising changes made to the railways in the 1960s were certainly necessary, and it is true that Britain's continued reliance on steam was at odds with the scene on the Continent, where the Second World War's targeted destruction had cleared the ground for a fresh start and the renewed development of diesel and electric traction.  But, in those days, something other than a healthy competitive spirit was abroad in Britain; something else drove the wholesale destruction and gave the vandalism its official veneer.  Something else bred the atmosphere of sheer cold-bloodedness that hung over the railways, and Britain in general, in the 1960s.  Maybe it was the fate of the railways that first made me aware, when quite young, that something deep had gone awry in that decade.  Roden's description of the end of steam locomotion in Britain gives a good impression of the mood of the times:
By the early 1960s, steam was starting to leave the stage.  The planned phased replacement of steam under the Modernisation Plan [of 1955] was becoming outright slaughter.  Already, thousands of serviceable, economic locomotives had been sacrificed, and as the new diesels entered service the scrapman's hunger became a feeding frenzy.  In 1947, the year before nationalisation, there had been around 20,000 steam locomotives in service on Britain's main-line railways (a figure that doesn't include the many thousands of locomotives used by industry).  A decade later, there were still almost 17,000, although diesels were starting to make an impact in places, but that 17,000 would all be gone by August 1968.  It was extinction on a cataclysmic scale. (p.88)
New steam locomotives were actually being built as late as the year 1960 (the last ever built was christened Evening Star; names with such pathos vanished with the engines) but, within a decade, the abolition of steam traction was total.  Even Dr. Richard Beeching, the man notorious for his recommendation, eagerly adopted, that the least-profitable third of the railway network should be closed, cannot claim all the credit for this, as the modernising momentum had gathered before he ever became Chairman of British Railways.  But he threw his weight behind the project; he wanted steam gone.  Even the sight of the old engines directly contradicted the new image he had in mind for the railways (slick, dynamic, progressive, unfussy, futuristic, etc., etc.), and he was apparently furious to discover that Alan Pegler had secured the right to run Flying Scotsman on the national network.  Roden notes that 'Beeching's insistence that no other operating deals like Flying Scotsman's should be concluded meant that by 1967 she was the only privately owned locomotive allowed to run on British Railways' (p. 113).  And, a year later, the only steam locomotive.  The revolution was complete.

But Roden does not linger unduly on the depressing episodes in the story.  This paragraph in particular, on the subject of the speed records chased and broken by steam locomotives in the 1930s, struck me:
It seems odd, in the face of today's youth-obsessed society, that the drivers who broke the speed records were all in their fifties, and looked nothing like the daredevil speed demons flying aeroplanes at the time.  But, while test pilots needed cat-like reflexes and fearlessness, the express engine driver needed experience.  He had to know every kink in the track, every curve, every hill, every approach to every station, where the signals and signal boxes were, and the speed limits too.  On top of that, he also had to know how to handle his train in conditions from snow and ice to the track-buckling heat of summer.  Trying to drive a train really fast without this knowledge was to court disaster, and, sensibly, the railways kept to their tried and tested ways [in normal service].  (p.60)
It is easy to joke that since trains have no steering, they must be relatively easy to drive, but this is far from the truth.  One reason for this is that the stakes are higher than with cars.  The speeds attained are generally higher, the traction is more powerful, the weight of everything involved is also far greater.  Starting and stopping take much longer, and the ability to stop precisely takes a great deal of skill.  The most important difference between rail and road traffic is that, on the main line at least, it is not possible to drive a train by sight alone.  The stopping distance of a train is far greater than a car's — from 100mph it is a matter of miles — so, usually far beyond what can be seen round the next bends.  The skill, then, lies not so much in what can be seen from the cab, but what the driver knows.  Stations and speed restrictions have to be anticipated before they appear; to wait until theycome into view is to leave it too late to start braking.  This is why signalling involves 'distant aspects' — the single or double yellow signals which give advance warning of the absolute bar of a red signal.  The driver's mind makes the journey just ahead of the train itself.  Even as one stretch of line is negotiated, the question is always there: what comes next?  What is the line speed; which junction is next; is the gradient rising or falling and how steep is it; how far before the next station?  Route knowledge is a thread of names and numbers that must be learned by heart, and then altered according to the composition, length and weight of the train, as well as the weather.  Drivers have to be able to know, or 'sign' a route, before they can drive it.

The video below, especially the first minute, seems to show what it feels like.  This is a British Rail Type 4 'Western' class (built in the 1960s, later class 52) being taken along the famous stretch of line that Brunel designed to run along the sea wall between Teignmouth, Dawlish and Starcross in Devon.  A lot happens in the first sixty seconds in particular.  Clearly there cannot be a second's lapse in concentration.

Now imagine trying to do the same thing in a steam engine, with an immense boiler blocking most of the view and smoke and steam getting into the rest, at night, in the rain, with grit and soot and Pentecostal wind and fire in the eyes and ears...!  This video shows the driver's view as West Country class no. 34046 Braunton storms through Wimbledon in south London:

One final clip, this time from an extraordinary 100mph speed run made in the middle of the night of the 15th May 2017 by the A1 Peppercorn class locomotive 60163 Tornado — which is incidentally a rather a special engine because she is newer than she looks, having been built from scratch by enthusiasts between 1994 and 2008.  All the time the men on the footplate are reading the signals and making judgements about the road ahead.  Hear what is said at the end in praise of the driver: "He's been doing a lot of concentrating"... He has thought his way from Newcastle to York.

Is railway route knowledge almost the last thing we have left that resembles an oral culture?  If daredevil pilots and racing-car drivers were great improvisers and virtuosi, the drivers who brought  their engines to high speeds were bards, seeing the way to triumph in the mind's eye, and then translating it into reality.  And to this day we depend on drivers to remember their routes by heart.  It is all part of the hidden poetry of railways, which I believe is still inherent to them, even in this more prosaic age of diesel and electric.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Ash Wednesday

Wishing all readers a good Lent!

Hold fast, all friends of Christ, hold fast:
Keep faith; be not afraid; keep Lent.
All grunged-up souls, all people pent
In pleasure's prison, bravely cast
Your needless sin aside at last:
Believe the Gospel and repent.
Hold fast, all friends of Christ, hold fast:
Keep faith; be not afraid; keep Lent.
The thirst and hunger will not last,
For by God's Son, who underwent
the Cross, we know that we are meant
For endless life when pain is past.
Hold fast, all friends of Christ, hold fast.

(D. Newman, Shrove Tuesday, 13 February 2018)

Friday, March 01, 2019