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The Equestrian Iron Horse · 12:06am Aug 13th, 2014

The Equestrian Iron Horse

The technological capabilities of Ponies is a constant debate on this site (or at least on the sections that I frequent). Usually someone attempts to date Equestria to a certain period of human history, although the schizo nature of their machinery forces one to admit that a different species with a different history, a different mentality and different priorities is probably not going to fit into a neat decade of the human past.

That being said, we can use what we on the show as a way to extrapolate what Equestria-beyond-Ponyville may be like. Or at least what their rail system is like. The locomotives we see on the show may be heavily stylized, but they can still reveal something of whatever the Ponies who built them were thinking. Notably, the steam locomotives we see in the show are a mashup of North American and European features, which does suggest some rather interesting things.

Firstly, a brief primer on the differences between British (from which European designers took their cues) and American steam locomotives.

- The Nature of the Track: British railways were heavily funded by the Crown and by merchants and the wealthy and were built in a small country of dense habitation. Lines were short, and often took the best right of way possible. Grades and curves were enormously gentle, with tunnels and bridges keeping the tracks more or less level no matter what was in the way. The tracks themselves were well built, heavily ballasted and fenced off from the fields they surrounded. American roads, in the early days, had no money, faced long distances between possible stops and were building in a wilderness. Tracks were put in on the cheap, without grading or ballasting. Bridges and tunnels were expensive, so locomotives endured steep grades and hard curves as they went over and around obstacles, instead of through.

This difference between heavy capital and none, between wilderness and settled land, between many stops and few stations, wrought enormous change in locomotive design. The Pony Engines show aspects of both these design schools, as I will explain.

For the American school:

The Pony locomotives have a lot of the outward features of American locomotives. They have enclosed cabs to shield the operators from bad weather, something which was necessary from the beginning in America, but which took till the Twentieth Century to catch on in Great Britian. They also have diamond-type smokestacks and prominent cowcatchers, both features being unique to the North American tradition. Diamond stacks are a relic from the wood-burning days of American steam engines (Brits started with coke and switched to coal, but never used wood). The large stacks are designed to capture the enormous number of sparks which wood burners throw in the air, a huge danger in a sparsely inhabited and heavily forested land. The cowcatcher is designed to knock obstructions (including farm animals- remember those unfenced tracks?) clear of the train’s wheels.

The steam whistles that they sport also resemble American style hooters. British whistles are small, valve operated ‘peepers’, used for short-range communication between nearby locomotives. American cord operated whistles are deep throated bellowers, designed to sound warnings to people miles away. The cord also allows the engineers a much greater degree of freedom in his whistle blasting, gifting the listener with the artistry that is the North American whistle.

The locomotives have American-style large headlamps, useful in a country where you can expect little illumination from nearby villages. As well, they tend to exhaust their steam in discrete little clouds, which suggests the use of a very powerful blast pipes, a typical American construction which trades off fuel efficiency for increased steam-raising ability.

It seems, then, that Equestria resembles the America of history- poorly laid track stretching for great distances between scattered settlements requires tough little locos prepared to go it alone.
Not quite. Not only does this not sound like Equestria, it also ignores some of the tellingly British features of Pony steam locomotives.

First, and most importantly, is size. These engines are tiny. Miniscule. Discounting room for the smoke box and firebox, the engineer’s cab is wider than the boiler is. Add this to the fact that the loco appears to have no tender (and must presumably be a tank engine) and you have a classic example of the short range steam engine.

Although configured in the American 4-4-0 pattern, the engine’s wheels do not suggest to me American style tracks. The leading wheels do not appear to be placed on a bogie, but are firmly placed under the boiler, while the driving wheels are placed well back. This is a very British design, and indicates a certain rigidity in the locomotive- perfect for British style level track. Although we see both connecting rods on the drivers and what appears to be the cylinders, the cylinders are placed well above the drivers and are not visibly connected to them. In-line cylinders and rods, which are not visible from the outside were the pets of British locomotive manufacturers (Americans had abandoned the design by the 1840s) and are quite serviceable if your track is of high quality and you’ve got the funds for plenty of preventative maintenance.

What does all this mean? Well, it does suggest that perhaps American railroads are not the best model to base the Equestria rail system on. We know from Granny Smith (Family Appreciation Day) that railroads were around in her youth. Indeed, the locomotives have not greatly changed since then. The highly decorative elements on their locomotives suggest that these engines are not the tough, mechanically unrefined brutes that most early American locomotives were- in fact, it seems that the steam locomotive is a mature technology in Equestria, familiar to generations of Ponies and rather unchanging from year to year.

I am rather taken with Estee’s description of Equestria in the Triptych Continuum, wherein only about 6% of Equestria is settled, and the rest consists of ‘the fringe’ and ‘wild zones’. This, I think, goes some way in explaining the nature of the Equestria steam locomotive. Equestria has been inhabited by Ponies for many hundreds of years, in a stable, harmonious society. I like to think of Equestria as something like late Medieval Great Britian- many small villages fairly close together, well connected by roads and waterways. These villages and their connecting roads probably form belts of ‘settled zones’ and fringe areas. In these places, stops will be frequent, and there will be ample opportunities for taking on water and fuel. Note that we have only ever seen passenger service trains. Like the early railroads of England, passenger service pays very well when there are lots of passengers close by (Freight was the driving revenue for American railways ever since day one). Those dinky little engines can pull their lightweight passenger trains at a fairly good clip (they remind me of those little steam engines that used to run on New York’s Elevated Tracks) and they sport those oh-so-American features because the wild zones are never too far away. It’s obvious that the crown (or the nobles, or somepony) has spent a lot of bits on the rail lines- notes the extensive (and expensive) tunnel system on the Canterlot line. It is worthwhile to them to pay for well-built, graded and enclosed lines and you can’t tell me that Miss-I-live-in-a-gold-roofed-ivory-tower-on-top-of-a-mountain cannot afford decent tracks for her beloved ponies.

Perhaps watercraft and aircraft have cornered the market on freight. Water is still the cheapest method of transportation by far, and I can see Equestria having an extensive system of canals. As well, airships require no infrastructure and aren’t stymied by fallen trees or washed out trestles. Besides, with Pegasus guaranteed good weather, light-than-air craft would actually be pretty reliable. Still, both canal boats and blimps are slow (canal boats are really slow) and even small locomotives can get up to quite respectable velocities. Perhaps that is the function of railways in Equestria- to act as safe, fast conduits for Ponies, while other mediums of transport take care of the heavy cargo. Safe travel through wild areas is assured- not only is the track of the highest quality and free of those speed-destroying turns and hills, but the engine is prepared to knock whatever’s out there out of the way.

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Comments ( 3 )

Sorry for commenting on an old post if that seems annoying, but I just had to say that this was insightful and gave me ideas.

And in keeping with the subject, what would you say about the train line that goes all the way to Crystal Empire, and needs, therefore, to have existed while Crystal Empire had been inaccessible -- when was it built, and for what particular purpose? Other than the crown funding a line to a place where the Crystal Empire might eventually return to, I don't have any ideas, but it's possible someone else has a better one.


Apologies for the slowness of my reply

I'd say the rail line to the Crystal Empire (remember that the railhead is in the general area of the Empire, not in the Empire) was probably established as a supply depot for the guards sent to watch over the border. And also that Celestia wanted to be able to ship troops up there for Sombra's possible return. That's the in-show explanation.

The outside-show explanation? The Writers didn't think it through. I dunno, maybe Earth Pony gandy dancers can lay trackreally fast


Out-of-universe explanations are almost invariably the same, boring, and involve remembering that people are not very smart on average, so I avoid them on principle. :)

Once you mentioned the border watch, I decided to inspect the current version of the official map again, and noticed something which previously escaped me. While on the previous version of the map, which everyone remembers and which dates to somewhere within season 2, the track ends at Crystal Empire, on the current version, released midway through season 5, it continues on towards Rainbow Falls (which is first mentioned in season 4) and Griffonstone (season 5). There is no question both existed before the Crystal Empire reappeared, so their placement explains the existence of the track that passes through the area of Crystal Empire perfectly in-universe, without making things any crazier.

The geography that makes such a position of the track optimal has to be rather peculiar, but Equestria is a land of cruel and unusual geography already.

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