August 6, 2018 By Joseph P. Farrell

What do typewriters and steam locomotives have in common? Well, besides the fact that I have one of the former, and am fascinated by the latter, a great deal it would seem. And yes, I am walking right off the end of the twig to start this week's blogs, because I've been thinking a lot lately of what, really, would we do if North America were hit by a massive EMP attack, or if the power grid went down for some time? And I've come to some interesting high octane speculations and conclusions.

First, a little personal background. Most people who know me know I'm fascinated by (1) big artillery, (2) roller coasters, (3) steam locomotives, and (3) pipe organs. The big artillery fascination comes from a visit to the memorial in my home town of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to the battleship South Dakota, which served with distinction during the naval battles at Guadalcanal during World War Two. My father took me to see the memorial when I was a boy, and the big 16" naval rifle with their 6' tall projectiles fired my imagination with the feats of analog engineering they represented. So did the old analog fire control computer in the memorial center. So much for my big artillery fascination. Pipe organs are self explanatory, for I grew up playing them from the time I was nine, and played my first one for my sister's wedding. That leaves roller coasters and steam locomotives. My father, and one of his brothers, worked for the railroads, and hence I grew up fascinated with big locomotives, particularly steam locomotives, and I suppose that explains anything with tracks, and hence, roller coasters.

Which brings us a little closer to the business of the day. Many people may not be aware, but the Union Pacific Railroad in this country has been busy, for some years now, buying up old steam locomotives, including the big articulated steam locomotives - the 4-6-6-4 Challengers, and the 4-8-8-4 Big Boy - and restoring them, converting them to oil use. They call this their "heritage fleet," and the old engines are seen occasionally at "railroad heritage" celebrations around the country hauling passengers. Which raised a significant question to my mind: why would a major railroad be going to all the expense to buy and restore these old clanking mechanical monsters, seemingly almost alive with their snorting, huffing, and puffing? In the case of the Big Boy restoration, Union Pacific has had almost to build an entire locomotive works to machine replacement parts that have worn out, and almost completely rebuild the firebox and boilers on the beast, and machine the vanadium drivers that turn the big driving wheels. This, needless to say, is quite an expense. Hardly one contributing to the bottom line of the railroad. So what's going on?

Then I found this video a couple of years ago of an old restored articulated 4-6-6-4 Challenger locomotive pulling a 143 car freight train over the passes in somewhere in the American west, doing the work of several diesels... and doing it in 1991 no less! And just to drive the "Contemporaneous" nature of the video home, it shows a freight being hauled by several diesels in the opposite direction(apparently they didn't have enough diesels that day going east... or was something else involved? We'll get back to that something else in a moment):

Curious, I posted this video some weeks ago on this website's forum, but then I went looking further (oh, and by the way, for the environmentalists out there, these engines were converted by Union Pacific to run oil, though obviously at this time the Challenger was still burning coal). I found the old Challenger hauling more freight in the Laramie-Omaha corridor, chugging along through Nebraska!

That video was from 2010, and there she was again, the old Challenger chugging along and hauling freight in Nebraska. Then, just recently, I posted this video of engine 844, a 4-8-4 locomotive, again hauling freight from Denver to Cheyenne, this time from just a couple of weeks ago  in 2018!

Now, granted, Union Pacific probably isn't going to let anything go to waste, and if one of these old locomotives does a stint somewhere for "railroad heritage days," who can blame them for wanting to put them to good use hauling some freight on the way back? Except... why go to the expense of restoring these old beasts, and then training the crews on which valves to open and which levers to pull or push? Much less restore the more complicated articulated locomotives like the Challenger, and then have it haul a 143 car freight train!?

I had a suspicion, but then Catherine Austin Fitts sent me this article from the BBC about a small town in Alaska that hauled out its typewriters after a recent cyber attack brought its systems down, or at least, attempted  to do so:

Town dusts off typewriters after cyber-attack

This story dovetails with a story from a few years ago that I even talked about on the late George Ann Hughes' The Byte Show, Russia had bought thousands of typewriters and was using them in its day-to-day memos and such. The reason? They were more secure from outside attack, immune to hacking, and so on.  I myself have a typewriter that was gifted to me, against the possibility that communications might go down on computers, and I might have to communicate that way (since no one can read my "writing"). In the case of the Russia story, I had visions of busy typing pools typing up memoranda for this or that government agency, and shuttling them around Moscow through old fashioned pneumatic tube systems, an "internet of pneumatic tubes." Sounds crazy? Well, such networks lie in disrepair in this country, but they're still there in big cities like Chicago and New York City. You still encounter them in the drive through banking lanes.

In any case, I suspect that a similar agenda might be behind the restoration of these old steam locomotives to running condition, and that we're looking at "feasibility tests" to see if these old girls still have the muscle to haul freight (they do).  After all, in a case of an EMP attack, the conventional diesel-electric locomotive will go down. The diesel might still function, but the electrical motors it runs that actually do the turning of the drive wheels, won't, not to mention all the digital gadgetry in a modern diesel locomotive. A steam locomotive, however, is all analog, and if you've ever stood in the cab of one of those old engines (I have), they're a dizzying array of valves, analog meters and dials, levers, and so on. Even the whistle is all analog.  These old beasts, in other words, will still work and haul freight, when all else has failed. I don't for a moment believe that Union Pacific's interest here is solely to provide "fun and fascination" at "railroad heritage days". There's too much precision engineering involved in their restoration and the training of crews to operate them. There's too much expense involved to justify mere fun and games. The very fact that this railroad maintains a "steam shop" in Cheyenne, Wyoming, indicates something else may be afoot. To rebuild fireboxes, boilers, tubes, and so on, means in effect, that if they wished, they could build a steam locomotive entirely from scratch if need be. And, to round out my speculation, I suspect that this may be an ultimate goal: design and build a modern articulated steam engine, bottom-up. Time, of course, will tell. But in short, this means the railroad is spending a lot of money not just to restore old steam engines, but the knowledge base behind them.

But there's a catch to all this typewriter-steam locomotive madness. One individual pointed out that the signaling and switching on rail lines is now all automated, electric, and digital. True enough: the master control rooms of a modern railroad are full of computers, monitors, big screens, and look like the railroad equivalent of an air traffic control center. So one can restore all the steam locomotives one wishes, but the engineer still has to follow the signals on the track... and if that signalling goes down, no trains roll...

... so for my wild and woolly explanation to be true, then one would have to see the installation of the old "high and low ball" signalling along rail lines, and crews to operate them, and more typewriters in the operations centers. So far, that does not seem to be the case... But in a world moving to robots and even fully automated stores, what happens when digital goes down, or the robot needs to be repaired, and the repair robot isn't functioning? More importantly, what if those robotic trains that are currently running with no human crews, are also hit? Then you'll need good old fashioned analog technology - humans - to run the mill presses, lathes, and cash registers with hand cranks. If they start issuing old fashioned railroad lanterns to the stations along the way, or manually operated signalling posts, then we'll know something is afoot...

Now, honestly, this has been my most wild and woolly high octane speculation to date. But there's method to my madness. How do we avoid typewriterism and steam locomotivism? Well, there's always DARPA, and tomorrow's high octane speculation.

See you on the flip side...