Casey Jane at the Throttle

I drove a locomotive; a real, live, steam locomotive.  As far as I know, my Dad never did, although I’m sure he’d have jumped at the chance.   He modeled trains mostly in HO Scale, (scale defines a model’s size in comparison to a real train) which is 87 times smaller than the real thing; pretty tiny in comparison.  Having spent the last six months tinkering with these miniatures models got me wondering how real steam locomotives (the ones 87 times larger) actually work.  So I decided I’d either have to make myself smaller or find something bigger, the latter being the only feasible choice.

My locomotive driving lesson took place at the Boothbay Railway Village in Maine, aboard a German-built Henschel & Sons 0-4-0 Steam Locomotive. (Check it out here) Brian Fanslau, Chief Engineer of the Railway, was my instructor.  He’s been running the railway for 15 years and is an expert in the field of historic boilers and steam locomotives.  In terms of supply and demand, Brian is very popular.  Not only in charge of maintaining the railway, he runs the on-premises mechanical shop, and also repairs and builds locomotives for other historic railroads.  With a degree in physics and the skills of a machinist, his theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience was really helpful to this Rookie Railroader.  Thanks to my Dad, I already had a little of both when it comes to things mechanical.  When we were done with my two hour locomotive driving lesson, Brian confessed, “You took me off guard a bit because you knew way more than I expected.”  You cannot imagine how much I loved hearing this.

It’s very Willy-Wonka-esque inside the cab of a locomotive. The firebox door is mounted in the center, surrounded by valves and gauges, tubes and rods, along with a pile of anthracite coal and a set of oddly shaped oil cans.   Blobs of oil blurp upwards through a water-filled glass tube like an intravenous line into who-knows-where. The cab hissed, thumped and cranked as I stood there, sweating from the heat while taking in this mad science scene.  Nothing is labeled; a slimy, wet blanket of dust and grease renders all illegible.  So don’t even think about stealing a steam locomotive.  There are no on-board instructions to follow.  You can’t just hop in and drive it away.  If you could, where would you go with it? Take it for a joy ride around a loop of track and you’ll be found out.  That is, if you’re found.

The most important thing to know about operating a steam locomotive is this:  You can blow yourself up.  Spectacularly.  If maintained poorly or operated wantonly, a locomotive can quickly transform itself from a darling little puff-puff into an angry, hot, tank-load of TNT.  As recently as 1995, the firebox failed on a scenic railroad steam locomotive in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, owing to a low water level inside the boiler.

A steam locomotive is essentially a boiler on wheels.  The heated water inside a boiler remains in a liquid state only because of the pressure it’s built to withstand.  If a boiler ruptures suddenly, the water inside churns instantly and violently into steam, expanding to 1,600 times its volume.  The superheated steam creates a huge pressure wave that explodes the boiler.  I’m not only talking about the boiler on a locomotive; this can also happen to your basement oil furnace or hot water heater.  In such cases, you might hear the “KA”, but you won’t hear the “BOOM”.

Boiler Explosion at Clarks Hill 4, South Cariolina, 1948, Boiler Explosion at Clarks Hill 4, South Cariolina, 1948, C&WC Company Photo

Steam locomotives have redundant systems to prevent your sweet lil’ Thomas the Train from mutating into the Terror Train Express. Disasters can be avoided if the locomotive is properly maintained at all times, and if the engineer ensures that the water level remains high enough to maintain the boiler’s integrity.  If any part of the boiler weakens under pressure, as Brian said, “You’ll never know what happened.”

To avoid being nominated for a Darwin Award, you must keep your eye on the water glass, a vertical gauge that shows the level of water inside the boiler.  The guys operating Gettysburg Locomotive 1278 kept their eyes on it too, which unfortunately for them displayed a false reading throughout their excursion.  To learn about how ignorance and neglect led to this calamity, see the accident report here:  NTSB Report

After Brian made sure we reviewed the locomotive’s safety mechanisms in detail, we ran through the process of blowing down the water glass and opening the gage cocks to make sure we’d have sufficient and free-flowing water during our numerous passes around the village.  Here is a sampling of recommendations from his handout on safety from IDC Online :

  • Never allow sediment to accumulate in gage-glass or water-column connections. A false water level may fool you and make you sorry.
  • Always blow out each gage-glass and water-column connection at least once each day. Forming good habits may mean longer life for you.
  • Never tighten a nut, bolt, or pipe thread under steam or air pressure. Many have died doing this.
  • Never strike any object under steam or air pressure. This is a sure path to the undertaker’s.
  • Never allow major repairs to a boiler without authorization. If you don’t break a law, you may break your neck.  

Operating a steam locomotive requires quite a bit of muscle, so I was forced to deploy the Chris Evert “two-handed” tennis racquet approach to driving.  With only one hand on the brake, I’d have hurtled myself clean out the side door of the cab after releasing it.  Same with the Johnson Bar (nobody seems to know the origin of this name) which controls the timing of steam sent into the locomotive pistons.  Think of it as the locomotive’s transmission. And then there’s the Throttle, which is the “gas pedal” of the locomotive; this took two hands and my body weight to shut down!

The absolute best thing about driving a steam locomotive is the sound. Pushing the throttle forward allows steam into the cylinders, sending the piston inside hurtling forward, expelling a burst of vaporized water…PRUFFT! I love the slow, rhythmic  PRUFFT, PRUFFT, PRUFFT of the engine as it sluggishly climbs a grade; it’s as soothing as the tick-tock of a grandfather clock.  

So, there.  I drove a steam locomotive.  This means I know how to drive one—the Henschel 0-4-0 at the Boothbay Railway Village.  Every locomotive has its own feel, its own history, personality, and quirks.  To be able to safely and competently operate any locomotive means you must spend hours in the cab to become become familiar with its uniqueness.  Just because I took a small steam locomotive around the block doesn’t mean I can operate all of them, or even one of them, safely.

Before my final trip around the village, several museum visitors boarded the train.  Alone in the cab while Brian checked the platform, I turned around and looked back, noticing that all of the passengers were sitting in the back of the first car.  I leaned over the cab rail and yelled, “What’s the matter?  Are you guys afraid of my driving?” They laughed.  But only one person moved up—three rows.

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