A Short History of "Light" Rail

Here are some drawings and a photo of the "Puffin' Billy," the oldest extant train. (The very earliest "locomotives" were scrapped.)

Puffing Billy, 1813
The original Puffin' Billy, as it looked in 1813
Puffing Billy, 1815
The Puffin' Billy, as modified in 1815
When Ron's great-great-grandfather was engineer on the "Puffing Billy" Puffing Billy, Science Museum
The Puffin' Billy, as it looks today in the London Science Museum

Now, getting down to serious business, here is a drawing of a celebrated train that was in service in New York (Albany to Syracuse) in 1893. "The train was made up of four cars, weighed 361,000 lbs. (including passengers and supplies), and had a carrying capacity of 218 passengers. Including the engine and tender, the train was 337 ft. long, and weighed 565,000 lbs." [Clement E. Stretton, The Development of the Locomotive, A Popular History 1803-1896] This comes to 2,592 lbs. per passenger! Assuming a typical passenger weighed about 150 lbs, the weight of the train itself was about 2,440 per passenger. This is not surprising when one considers the quality of steel that was possible at that time.

New York Central #999, 1893

"The first use of stainless steel in mass transit equipment was the Budd-Micheline light-weight car built in 1932. Instead of weighing 130,000 to 240,000 pounds, which was typical for cars in those days, the all-stainless Budd car tipped the scales at 13,500 pounds. Because of its light-weight design, the car did not need 300 to 900 housepower motors; 90 horsepower did very nicely."
[Stainless Steel for Mass Transportation, Committee of Stainless Steel Producers, American Iron and Steel Institute, Washington, DC, 1977, pg. 3]

We don't have data concerning how many passengers these vehicles held, but obviously this improvement in materials led to a dramatic improvement on the 2,500 lbs. per passenger that was possible at the turn of the century.

1932 Budd-Micheline Car

At the World Solar Challenge of 1993, the Honda Dream, weighing about 400 lbs., went from Darwin to Adelaide in a little over 4 days, averaging 51 miles per hour with the equivalent of the power of a hair-dryer!

Honda Dream

Now we have our job cut out for us in challenging these accomplishments, with the goal of bringing the weight down for rail another major step, using light weight composite materials as successfully demonstrated in the solar racing arena.

In our preliminary investigations, we have determined that the main composite structure might weigh about 1,500 pounds, or about 75 pounds/passenger. We're on our way!

updated 1997 February 9