Bob Kempe got more than he expected when he hired George Prentice as Railway Development Officer. Bob was the Governor of the first human colony, sited on the planet Rehome, and George's appointment was in part a ploy to persuade his doctor wife Fiona to take on the top medical post in the colony. George had previously been a teacher, but with a keen interest in railways. He was what was known on Earth as a "railway buff", and had gained his enthusiasm from having a father who worked on a railway for most of his life.
Railways on the planet Rehome were somewhat different from Earth. To start with, the alien race who had initially colonised the planet had built their own railway lines between the six cities they had established on the coast of one continent. The rail lines were a narrower gauge than was usual on Earth, and the trains were unusual as well. The locomotives were battery powered, using batteries that were much more efficient than those of Earth, and the seating was lower than human standard seating. The settlers made and installed booster cushions to bring the seat level up to human standard, thus making the seating functional again.
The first human settlement was several hundred kilometres from the closest alien city, so when the aliens – Braalians and Lubarians, who were also allied to a machine race, dubbed Machinations by the humans - ceded the planet to the humans, the humans had to decide what to do with this windfall. The alien races had decided to evacuate the planet for their own understandable reasons – fear of the marauding machine race known as the Invaders. With the Personalia providing a space defence force for the humans, the humans were able to colonise with impunity.
The Governor decided that a rail link towards the city, to link in to the existing network, would be worthwhile. It was obvious that the planetary rail network should therefore use the established alien gauge for the lines. The first new line was built at speed across the flat plain, with eventually four teams of constructors: one at each end, and the other two starting at the middle and working towards the ends.
With the first line established, the colony found itself with four railway construction teams at a loose end, so new lines were begun as offshoots from existing tracks, leading out to sites selected for new settlements. Another line was started from the original settlement – named Homewards – towards another chosen site for a settlement. These new settlements, or villages, would primarily be agricultural hubs, because the humans found that the closest city was potentially habitable after conversion. The coastal cities were provided with electric power from the ocean, through heat pumps providing electricity for massive battery units on land. The cities had originally been designed for control by computer brains, but these machines had been removed when the aliens left. In the interim, two further planets had been found devastated by attack by the Invaders – an insane machine race intent on killing biological life. Two cities that had been destroyed were discovered to have still-functioning city minds buried deep underground. These lonely city minds, with nothing to do, appealed for help once discovered, and both were transported by the Personalia and installed in cities on Rehome. one was placed in Metropolis, the first human city, and the other in the sixth city, where the surviving remnants of the inhabitants of one planet were now refugees - courtesy of the humans and their machine spaceship allies, the Personalia.
The human colony was prospering; so much so that the administration had moved to Metropolis. There, the city was establishing important facilities: schools, a trades college, hospital with maternity unit, sports centre, community centre, and an ongoing programme of refurbishment of flats and houses for human occupancy. This was keeping a team of plumbers and joiners busy all year round. Entrepreneurs had established a range of shops, and another had set up a network of electric buses and taxis for public transport, with connections to the rail station.
George Prentice wanted to do new things immediately, but his enthusiasm had to be restrained from causing sudden alterations that might have adverse effects on the general economy. There were many costs involved, which might not be sustainable by the colony's finances. Each proposal required careful scrutiny.
Doubling single tracks throughout their length would make the network more efficient, certainly, but occasional loop tracks already did this to some extent, so full twinning was not an economic priority. Using the loops with careful timetabling allowed for a pretty effective operation in most cases. This was especially the case with freight, as freight trains could be parked in the loop to allow a passenger train to speed through to its destination. Trains designated as Expresses got priority over non-express passenger trains, which could be diverted onto a loop for a few minutes.
The priority was for new lines, the colony decided as a policy. George examined all the possible routes, the gradients involved, the type of surface to be crossed, and the obstacles such as rivers and swampy ground to be bridged, rock ridges and minor hills that might be cut through. These engineering projects would have to be dealt with before the tracks arrived. There was also the matter of materials for building the track: gravel quarries were needed, wood or concrete for sleepers, continuous supplies of steel track when required. The track was produced on Earth by a steel firm now wholly owned by the Personalia, through their human subsidiary, Machinations Ltd.
This steel company specialised in rail track production. The original track laid down by the humans on Rehome was second-hand, but in good condition. George had now instituted a forensic test of sample rail sections to establish their suitability for particular requirements. Heavy freight trains required a tough and hardwearing surface; high-speed required an exactly flat surface, and so on. The rail cross-section also differed according to use. Where a line was to accommodate a combination of traffic, the steel composition and rail design had to be specific. George wanted to replace sections of track that did not fit his new specifications with new track produced to that standard. The Governor and his Treasury chief approved the testing plan, but postponed the replacement programme for now. The rail lines required sleepers, and that work was something that local residents could do. The railway company set up a subsidiary to produce concrete sleepers: these would be needed in the thousands. This also provided a demand for a cement works, so the small unit already in operation to provide cement for building foundations was expanded.
Faced with concentrating on new rail lines, George went over the plans for new settlements, compared these with projections of population increase in Metropolis, and then related that information to the rail traffic projections for the Homewards – Metropolis line. Many arrivals were now taking place on the shore at Metropolis, skewing the traffic figures. He analysed the data, and drew his conclusions from it.
It did not make him happy.
The biggest difficulty that he could see was that there was a need for several new rail lines, but the construction capacity was nothing like enough to build these lines in the timescale envisaged.
What he really needed was a machine, mounted on a new rail line, which would pour vast quantities of stones and gravel ahead of it, sufficient to lay track on. It would compact the track bed then lay sections of track, complete with sleepers, on top of that bed. Then, it would weld the new steel rail section to the previous one. All of this would need to be done with directional steering to take the rail line in the direction intended.
He had no idea how he could achieve this.
He needed a design team well versed in railway technology, combined with an engineering outfit that could manufacture such a one-off project at a reasonable cost. George had no idea where to go with this. He moaned about it to Fiona and Jennifer, his two wives, that evening, until they both told him to shut up. Jennifer was Director of Education for the colony.
Jennifer went on, "Don't spend all your time complaining about things, George. You need to DO something about it instead. Speak to the Governor, as he holds the purse strings. If it is do-able, then he will find a way for you. Just go and ask him; but have your entire data ready, plus the full specification of your machine. The Governor is a practical man, with his head screwed on properly, so he knows about costs, deadlines, etc. Just do it, George."
Fiona added, "Advise the Governor that to do your job properly, a machine like this is essential. I have had to use that argument for expensive hospital equipment."
In the morning, George phoned to get an appointment with the Governor. He had to speak to an underling. The admin staff member wanted to know the subject to be covered, so he said to her: "A solution to the rail building problem."
She put him on hold for a minute or so, then returned to say: "Get here for 4.15 this afternoon. You have a 15 minute slot."
At that specified time, he was in the outer office, complete with all the necessary data loaded on his phone. He was ready to roll. A moment later, he was invited in. "George Prentice, our Rail Expert." Bob ushered him in, "Welcome to the Governor's lair, George".
.... There is more of this story ...
Science Fiction /