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Steam Train Be An Engineer
Glen C. Lambert·Thursday, May 4, 20174 Reads
My love of the past and my anachronistic personality are well known. If it is something they did more than 100 years ago especially if it has anything to do with the wild west I just have to do it. Explore a mine, pan for gold, reenact a gunfight, bathe in a claw foot tub, stoke a pot belly stove, ride a horse Wear period correct Victorian clothes, but operating a 107 year old steam train has to be the ultimate in time travel into the past so Sherman set the way back machine for 1910 to the mining boom town of Ely Nevada. We are going to engineer a steam train up to the Keystone mines and back to Ely on the Nevada Northern Railway.
Most people taking the Be The Engineer Experience at Ely Nevada’s Nevada Northern Railroad take out only the locomotive but I wanted to rent a whole train and pull cars. I wanted to be able to use both brakes, feel the load behind me and feel the action of the cars. Most people study only the company rule book then take the test but I knew this would be a once in a lifetime experience and wanted to get as much out of it as possible. For three months I studied the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulations, antique equipment manuals, track classification, switch targets and switch movement. I wanted to be as prepared, confident and as comfortable as I am as a pilot climbing into my own plane. Of course there is a test to take on company rules, safety practices, track authority, whistle signals, hand signals, lantern signals and basic brake operation.
Before the locomotive arrived I inspected the string of cars I would be pulling. This will be done again by the brakeman as part of his regular duties but 46 years in aviation brings safety habits most notably double checking everything. I made sure that all the couplings were closed and all the pins down. All the hose glad hands tied (Connected) and all angle cocks (valves at each end of a car or locomotive) open except for the end angle cock on the caboose verified closed.
The cut or string of cars to be hauled
The engineer instructor and crew moved engine #40 into place; a beautifully restored and meticulously maintained 1910 Baldwin standard gauge 4-6-0. The designation 4-6-0 is a system called Whyte Notation which classifies engines by wheel arrangement. The 4 designates four lead guide wheels on a bogie truck, the 6 designates 6 driving wheels and the 0 means there is no trailing bogie behind the driving wheels.
The driving wheels were 69” meaning for each turn of the driving wheels engine 40 would go 24’ 2 1/4” further than an engine with 60” wheels; this would make engine 40 faster on flat land with light load. Since the cylinders have less leverage engine 40 would easily bog down pulling a heavy load or climbing a grade. An interesting side note is that Illinois Central engine 382 that Casey Jones rode to fame was a virtually identical 4-6-0 with 68” driving wheels.
The crew cut in the string of cars to be hauled, tied off the brake line and knocked off (released) all the hand brakes on the cars. The consist (all the pieces of rolling equipment that make up a train), composed of six pieces of rolling equipment was now complete; an engine, a tender, three ballast hoppers and a caboose. Although these freight cars were called ore cars the ballast hopper is designed to maintain the tracks. The ballast hopper carries “ballast” gravel and discharges it along both sides of the track through chutes to reinforce the rail bed.
The locomotive crew included Angie an engineer instructor, me as student engineer renting the train, Mike a fireman and Melodie as my photographer riding footplate. The remainder of the train crew, Bill the conductor and Tim the brakeman would be riding in the caboose. Bill the conductor is in charge of the train, the train movement, schedule, track authority and safety. If anyone could be said to be the captain of the train it would be Bill. Tim the brakeman couples the cars to build up the consist, connects brake lines and positions valves to insure brake pipe integrity. The brakeman performs the final brake leak test, gives hand, lantern or radio signals for all switching and backing movements. The brakeman also throws the switches so if anyone could be said to be steering the train it would be Tim.
Reviewing the track warrent and train orders with the crew.
A little little note on the rules for clothing in the locomotive; synthetic fabrics can melt when exposed to high temperatures and cause severe skin burns. Only natural materials such as cotton, linen or leather are allowed on the footplate of the steam engine. I chose a cotton shirt, denim pants, a pair of leather welding gloves that look a lot like old railroad gloves, leather work boots and a 110 year old pocket watch. Most of the Nevada Northern Railway people enjoy wearing period clothing such as overalls, railroad hats, bowler hats, vests and an occasional pocket watch.
Gloves with iron on logo I made myself
The caboose where the conductor and brakeman ride in comfort.
When a steam locomotive is standing with a head of steam in the boiler the independent brake is set, the Johnson bar is set in the full cutoff position in the center and the cylinder drains are left open. The engine must have a crew member on board when standing live. All this is done to prevent movement and keep everything as safe as possible. There was a plume of steam from the turbine generator just in front of the cab that provides power for the headlights and instrument lights.
The air compressor was chugging away but as it turns out the compressor was chugging to much; the brakes were not charging. The brakeman found a car vent valve improperly placed in the open position which had been done to release the brakes on the cars. The dispatch messenger arrived from the yardmasters office with our track warrant and our train orders which I reviewed with the engineer conductor and brakeman while the fireman remained aboard for safety purposes. It was now time to climb the ladder and mount the engine. Angie the engineer instructor moved the consist out of the East Ely yard, on to the main line and it was now my turn at the throttle.
Sitting on the window sill for a spectacular view
Angie my instructor is a fully qualified engineer and knows every aspect of railroading especially stem locomotive operation. She is uniquely qualified in skill and personality to teach the dying art of steam locomotive operation. Angie is a woman of few words which is a double edge sword with good and bad aspects. The good is that she is simple and direct; the bad is if you don’t ask questions you will only learn the basics. Ask the right questions and you will get answers that although short will contain a wealth of information. Too many people these days waste words. They think that repeating the same information with several different wordings conveys more information; that is not Angie. With Angie you do not have to pick through a ton of words to find the cherry.
The first thing you do to get a steam engine moving is to open the cylinder drain cocks to prevent boiling hot water from blowing up the smoke stack and showering down on people; too much water in the cylinder can even blow the heads off the cylinders. Next the Johnson Bar is moved to the full forward position for maximum torque. Two short toots on the whistle, put the automatic brake handle to the run position, bail off the independent brake then the throttle can be opened to about 1/3 and the train will start to move. Angie coached me a little on the use of the throttle and had me perform a brake application to a full stop to demonstrate competence; then we were off. Normally a student requires several stops but I had studied and was prepared.
Because the cylinder drain cocks are open large plumes of steam shoot to the side from each end of both cylinders with each stroke of the pistons; the running steam must be free of all liquid water and condensation. As the train picks up speed the cylinder drain cocks can be closed by moving the small control lever lever in front of the Johnson Bar forward with your foot. This short lever remotely controls the four cylinder drain cocks and is quite easy to move. Of course if the wheels slip there is a sanding lever to your left on the right side of the boiler that will trickle sand in front of the driving wheels to increase traction.
Cylinder cocks open
With the Johnson Bar full forward steam is fed to each side of the cylinders for thirty percent of the stroke. It is steam volume and pressure pushing on the pistons that is doing the work. Once the train is moving the Johnson Bar needs to be moved about half way toward neutral feeding steam for fifteen percent of the stroke. Now it is the expansion of the steam injected early in the stroke doing the work which saves steam. Saving steam means saving fuel and a lot of hard shoveling by the fireman. Because the Johnson Bar is connected to a moving valve train once the release handle is squeezed the lever will buck and fight in your hand until locked in it’s new position.
A word on Mike the fireman who is more than just a man behind a coal shovel. The fire area is large the heat must be steady and even. The fire area is divided into six imaginary zones; knowing how much coal, where to throw it and hitting the mark is an art. This art is called firing and if mastered the boiler pressure will never drop and the safety valves (two required by FRA) will never lift (open). The fireman uses dampers to control the draft reading the amount of smoke and it’s color to control the fire. The fireman controls the water level in the boiler using the sight glass on the backhead of the boiler and the two valves that control the Mack Injectors (two required by FRA). The fireman must anticipate how much steam the engineer will need before he needs it. The fireman is the bell ringer and watches the track along with the engineer especially when the engineer is on the outside of a curve.
Engine #40 uses around 60 pounds of coal to the mile but at 10 miles per hour the shoveling is not frantic. Shovel enough to get the bed even and wait a while. An uneven fire bed can cause hot spots that can warp the boiler tube plate. The engine will use six pounds of water for every pound of coal and our trip used about 1,200 pounds of coal.
Any time you are running in a steam locomotive fueled by either coal or wood you are said to be chewing cinders. I found the stack is tall enough and the exhaust shot high enough that no smoke or cinders enter the cab. When going through a tunnel however the engine will quickly fill the tunnel with smoke and fly ash which will enter the cab. There are two tunnels on the Keystone route and you go through each of them twice. Also when the train is going downhill the force of the exhaust steam through the blast pipe is weak so the smoke is not ejected high enough to clear the cab. Fortunately we had a quartering tail wind blowing the smoke in front of and to the right of us.
A close clearance tunnel quickly fills with smoke and fly ash
In all the pictures and movies the engineers hand is always on the throttle and there is a reason. As the locomotive rounds a curve there is no change in speed but when the cars it is towing start into the curve the engine will load up. imagine pulling a wagon full of bricks with a rope when the rope is straight the load is even. Pull it around a curved object like a water tank now the rope is not straight and the pull increases because the load is not taking the shortest straight line path. Another example would be pulling a dolly up a set of stairs instead of a ramp the corner of each stair is in between the load and the shortest path increasing the pull required to move the load. It is the track keeps the line of cars from straightening out and taking the shortest path thus increasing the load. Any increase in load and the throttle must be moved to the rear even the slightest change in grade will affect the load and the throttle must be moved or the train will loose speed.
There is slack action to consider; each car has an inch or two slack in the coupling itself and another three or so inches in the spring loaded draw bar between each car and its coupling. When the lead unit (car or locomotive in front) moves forward the slack is taken up and the trailing unit (car behind) is jolted forward; this is called stretching. This jolting carries down the consist (train) and can be felt in every car until all slack is taken up. When the lead unit (locomotive or car in front) slows or brakes the slack is taken up in the other direction resulting is similar jolting as the cars slam into one another; this is called bunching. When shoving (pushing the cars from behind) either in forward or reverse the consist is always bunched. When pulling cars it is best to keep the consist stretched to prevent damage to the equipment and keep passengers comfortable.
There are two brake handles the one with the smaller valve body regardless of whether it on top (most common) or on the bottom is the independent brake and controls only the brakes on the locomotive and tender. The handle with the larger valve body is the automatic brake and controls both the cars and the locomotive. When pulling cars the automatic brake is used to apply all the brakes then the independent brake is used to bail off (release) the brakes on the locomotive and tender to prevent bunching. The cars will do the braking and keep the consist stretched; this is called stretch braking or sometimes called power braking because the engine is still pulling under power and keeps slack action to a minimum. Thus proper braking coordinates using both brake handles and both hands.
My hands on both brake handles on the brake stand
All brake applications are expressed in reduction between a 10 PSI minimum application and and a full service application 26 PSI service application. Since the pipe pressure is 90 PSI a 20 PSI application will read 70 PSI on the brake gauge. There are three fixed detent notches to the brake handle the one furthest forward (clockwise viewed from above) is the release notch and is never used because it can overcharge the pipe (brake system) to 120 PSI. The next notch back is the run position this is where you keep the handle for released brakes and keeps the pipe at 90 PSI. The next notch back is the lap position with all ports closed to hold whatever amount of brake you have applied. When the handle is all the way back against the stop it is the emergency position which reduces the pipe pressure 75 PSI and locks the brakes. The range between run and emergency reduces pipe pressure at an increasing rate as the handle is moved further back and is called the service range.
The automatic brake valve
When going downhill the throttle is set nearly closed just enough steam to prevent engine braking (restraining acceleration using cylinder back pressure). The train brakes are use to control speed while going downhill. There are two gauges each with two needles (duplex gauges) the larger is for the train the smaller for the locomotive and tender. The high needle will always be red; on the big gauge it is the main reservoir and on the smaller gauge the equalizing reservoir. The two low needles are black and are pipe (control) pressures in each system. As you pull the automatic handle back through the service range the two low needles will drop. As the pressure in the train and locomotive pipes (brake systems) drop below individual reservoirs in the cars the brakes are proportionally applied. The independent brake handle is then moved forward to bail off (release) the independent brakes so the cars don’t bunch (slam forward) and the independent brake moved to the lap position to hold the application.
The independent brake duplex gauge
Each time the brakes are released, the brake pipe and reservoirs in each car are recharged and the high needles on the brake gauges drop. What this means is you are using air from the main reservoir to release the brakes. If you make too many applications and releases (cycling) you will use up the air in all the reservoirs and loose the brakes. The normal pipe pressure for release is 90 PSI and I found a long application of a 15 PSI reduction, 75 PSI on the gauge sufficient to control downhill speed. The reservoir pressure is normally 120 PSI when running flat or uphill but my braking activity kept it about 100 PSI going downhill. When the reservoir gets below 90 PSI you can no longer fully charge the pipe and are in danger of loosing your brakes.
When running a steam locomotive is a living breathing thing. Unlike a car both sides of each of two pistons do work which means there are four releases of steam “chugs” for each turn of the wheels. The exhausted steam is blown through a nozzle called a blast pipe into an extension of the smoke stack called the petticoat pipe which protrudes down into the smoke box. As high velocity steam is shot up the smoke stack it draws hot gas through the boiler and drafts the firebox making it burn hotter. This makes it much easier for the fireman to keep the boiler pressure at a constant 160 PSI because the more power you use the hotter the fire gets which makes more steam to produce more power.
There is a hissing sound when the fireman pushes a foot pedal to open the air operated fire door, the sound of his shovel scraping on the footplate and the clank shut of the fire door with each shovel full of coal. The Johnson Bar makes a clicking sound as it rocks back and forth in its notch causing the release handle to jingle. There is the sound of the wheels and couplings squeaks, rattles, clatter and groans . The bell is rung often by the fireman then you reach for the whistle chord as you approach a crossing and the engine calls out to all who can hear.
Since the engine seems so alive it is a lot like riding a horse; as any equestrian knows there is a heightened feeling of being alive when mounted on a horse. Once your instincts and those of the horse are in tune there is a sense that you are one with the horse; the feeling with a train is the same. It has been said “there is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man” and the same is true of the footplate of a steam engine.
When you are approaching a switch where you could go in either of two directions it is called facing point movement because you are facing the two movable sections of track that have a sharp point at their ends. If you are approaching a switch where your track converges with another track this is called trailing point movement. The switch stand has a lever that sets the switch to one track or the other and the switch stand must be locked when not in use. On top of the switch stand is usually a round sign (target) which if aligned with the track means the switch will keep movement straight ahead and if the target is showing toward you the switch is aligned to turn off the track you are on. Modern targets have arrows pointing to the track the switch is aligned for.
Facing point movenemt, Target and points show siding alignment
I was taught in reading switches to read the points and not to rely on switch stand targets. I found this easy at 10 MPH on a class 1 main line track with a 15 MPH speed limit for passenger trains and 10 MPH for freight but wonder how easy that would be at 45 MPH or 50 MPH especially in a diesel designed for long hood lead. I had been told that trailing through a misaligned switch will bend the bar that operates the switch points and that the switch would have to have spikes hammered in to temporarily hold the points in position till a permanent repair can be made.
I did make one trailing point movement through a misaligned switch but it had a white highway milepost type sign with an S over an S. This is one possible indications for a spring switch; the markings for a spring switch can be on a sign or on the target and will be an S or an SS on them. If a spring switch is marked on the switch stand target it will have an S or SS only on the side facing equipment making trailing point movement. The side of the target facing equipment making facing point movement will be either solid red, solid yellow or solid black. A spring switch has a spring and often a damper in the operating rod allowing trains from either of two tracks to trail through regardless of the position the switches set in without damaging the switch.
Since this was a round trip on a single main line I must explain how the return was accomplished. First off even though our train orders and track warrant gave us exclusive use of the track you do not shove a six unit consist 10 miles down a class 1 track. There are too many crossings, the rules for shoving over a crossing require the train to stop and a brakeman signal the train across There are too many problems with visibility and the chances of derailment are far greater when shoving. A maneuver similar to a T turn in an automobile is used on an arrangement of track called the Keystone Wye track.
Wye track. Stub track at bottom main line going left and right.
The wye track is triangular arrangement of track leading to a stub track 90 degrees off the main line. A series of three spring switches make the turn around maneuver easier. the first switch you pass is a facing point movement aligned to the main line. You continue on the main line pass the stub then then make a trailing point movement through a second switch aligned for the stub. When you stop clear of the second switch and back up you are backing in facing point movement through the second switch and moving in trailing point movement through a third switch onto the stub. You stop clear of the third switch switch which is aligned for the main line you then pull forward making a facing point movement through the third switch then in trailing point movement through the first switch back onto the main line. You are now on the main line and going opposite direction from which you came. Except for three sidings all facing point movements are performed by the instructor engineer as are all backing movements.
After passing two sidings near the end of the inbound trip I heard my conductor calling dispatch on the radio to cancel our track warrant. This meant that the last switch I passed was the beginning or the yard so I brought the train to a stop, left a 20 PSI reduction on the automatic brake and centered the Johnson Bar lever. My instructor would make the movements to negotiate the East Ely yard and put the train back in the spot we had taken it out from. The experience was over. I thanked Angie and mike giving them each a twenty dollar tip.
I dismounted the engine and walked back to thank and tip the brakeman. He told me “you didn’t shake us around back there and that is always a good thing”. What that means is that my bailing off the independent brake to keep the consist stretched and control the slack action in braking was good. This gave me a great sense of pride since braking is the hardest skill to master in locomotive handling. Bill the conductor had either already left for the dispatch office or had sacked out in the caboose.
I was given a nice certificate and a copy of the track warrant to remember it by. Although I will treasure these mementos I do not need them to remember; I am completely changed by the experience. I will till the day I die think like a railroader, when watching trains go by, riding in them or just hearing the sounds in the distance, my mind will transport me to into the cab. I will always remember the sounds, the snow covered mountains to the south, the feel of the machine and the track but most of all the people who keep this piece of history alive for others to share.
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