Monday, March 26th, 2012

Railways on the Diskworld

In the March/April 2012 issue of the AMRA Journal Rod Tonkin describes his model railway that he has basec on Terry Pratchett’s diskworld novels. That the diskworld might ever have a railway of any sort is something that had never occurred to me but with having an interest in both railways and in the novels Rod’s article has prompted me to consider what sort of railways that I think the diskworld might have. Now Rod actually built a layout based on his concept and so his ideas will have been shaped at least in part by the model railway equipment that he intended to use. Since I do not plan on actually building such a railway, I can look at it from a completely different viewpoint and perhaps end up with something very different from any of the sorts of railway that exist on Earth.

In the more recent Diskworld books there have been a number of technological breakthroughs in various areas equivalent to happenings on Earth around the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries (there were some in the earlier books but the number seems to have increased in the more recent ones with the technology continuing to exist rather than disappearing again at the end of the book as happened with the earlier technological breakthroughs such as “Moving Pictures”). That there might be a technological breakthrough in transport resulting in a Diskworld equivalent to trains seems a reasonable possibility.

In working out what sort of railway might be built on the Diskworld there are a number of things we need to take into account. Firstly the Diskworld has plains and mountains just as Earth does and since railways on Earth that go up steep slopes generally operate in a totally different manner to those on the flat on Earth, the same would most likely be true on the Diskworld. Since mountain railways use all sorts of less familiar things such as cables an d racks, it would be far more interesting to consider the development of Diskworld railways on the flat where Earth railways have basically standardised on relatively small number of alternative methods of traction – steam, diesel, and electric.

So what power sources are available on the Diskworld? Well the coaches that appear to be the main form of transport on the Diskworld mostly use the same motive power as similar coaches here on Earth did prior to the invention of the car – horses. So railways on the Diskworld could start out with laying a track at a suitable gauge to put coaches on and then hauling them along with horses. As there is less resistance on a track to what there is on a gravel road, instead of two horses pulling the one coach along a road there would be one horse pulling two or three coaches along the track.

Less commonly used for propelling coaches on the Diskworld but used at least once is Magic. The Wizards are not all that inclined to want to get involved in the affairs of ordinary people though and so it is unlikely that any attempt to power a Diskworld railway by magic would ever actually take place.

One other alternative power source does exist in abundant supply in Ankh-Morpork and that is Golems. There are even a number of golem horses. So a Diskworld railway might easily have one golem horse hauling say fifty or so coaches at high speed along a railway track.

As far as the more conventional power sources go, there is no evidence presented in the Diskworld novels to date that any such thing as oil from which to make diesel fuel exists on the Diskworld. There is also limited evidence for the existence of electricity – certainly not in a form suitable to run a railway. Leonard de Quirm could probably work out a way to generate electricity on a small scale but it would be unlikely to be used to run a railway.

Now coal (or something equivalent) must exist on the Diskworld as there are blacksmiths producing swords and horsehoes etc and they would need some sort of fuel source such as that to operate their forge. So some form of steam propulsion would be possible. Of course this would mean that a much larger quantity would need to be mined than would have been previously required. The dwarfs who work the mines are extremely conservative though and so getting them involved in such a project seems unlikely unless a large sum of gold was also involved – which would probably make this far more expensive than any of the other alternatives.

To me it seems most likely that if a railway were to be developed on the Diskworld that it would have local trains that are hauled by ordinary horses with perhaps a through express hauled by a golem horse.

The biggest difficulty in getting such a railway established in the first place would be in actually getting the track laid. There would need to be some significant benefit to be gained by providing a high speed connection between the end points on the railway. This would probably involve some form of freight traffic that is not easily transported by other means. There’d need to be a big demand for some product in Ankh-Morpork that comes from some distance away with the railway initially being installed to meet that demand. So in addition to the passenger traffic you’d have a freight service running to transport this product to the city. Since running these empty in the other direction would be wasteful the city would probably fill the returning trains with souvenirs that can be sold at high profit to those who have never actually visited the city.

The actual construction of the railway could itself have problems with local inhabitants not wanting such a strange device installed in their backyard although since the clacks has spread across the Diskworld those living benefitting from that service are unlikely to be so resistant to the addition of further new technology. So provided that the ground is flat enough the first railway would probably follow one of the clacks routes. This would have the additional benefit that it could be used to assist in maintaining the clacks service. Provided that the appropriate details could be worked out the railway could be quite quickly built by golems – probably in less time once they get started than the time it would take to actually make the arrangements for them to do it.

In my view, a railway of this type would fit reasonably well into the Diskworld where any of the modern day forms of propulsion would not. Perhaps the only reason that there hasn’t been a Diskworld book about a railway as yet is that Terry hasn’t really thought about how railways in our world were operated by horse prior to the invention of the steam locomotive and that the same could happen on the Diskworld with the Golem horses doing away with the need to consider any other form of propulsion.

Terry, if you happen to read this article and decide to write a novel about a railway on the Diskworld then I know that I would certainly look forward to reading it regardless of whether it matches with the ideas that I have suggested above or is completely different. Obviously if you write about a Diskworld railway that is completely different from what I have described above then my concept of what a Diskworld railway might be like that is obviously wrong.

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