Category: Reluctant Railroader

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.

There’s Nothing “Super” About Super Glue

Although claiming to bond “instantly”, all glues of the “super” variety (Krazy, Gorilla, Loctite, Super, etc.) fail to do so, at least in my experience.  I doubt that use of the word “instant” on packaging is required by law to mean something even vaguely expeditious.  Besides, when combined with the word “glue”, “instant” has about as much clarity of meaning as the packaged food phrase “all natural”.

Today I was preparing shipments for my customers, which is a very time-consuming process, even when nothing goes wrong. First, I run a final test on anything I’ve claimed “runs well” to make sure it does, and then I carefully package each item to ensure it will survive being dropped, stepped on, thrown, beaten, battered, kicked and otherwise abused via the United States Postal Service shipping gauntlet.  After weighing each package, I purchase postage, print labels, and tape up all the boxes.  Finally, I drag the load to my car for the trip to the Post Office.

One item was a set of caboose kits, two of which were partially assembled; meaning somebody (probably my Dad) had started to put the kits together.  Model kits, such as freight and passenger cars, buildings and locomotives, have many parts, made of plastic, wood or die cast metal. Sometimes the kits include wheels or trucks, which are modular subassemblies of the wheels and axles that attach to a rail car.  Packing these kits is somewhat labor intensive.  I gather up and seal the small parts in plastic bags, wrap larger parts in tissue paper, and make sure that once the kit box is closed it passes the “shake test” to make sure nothing rattles inside.

Model railroaders hate the sound of a rattling box because it usually means that something inside is broken.  And something always breaks.  While wrapping a nearly- assembled caboose in tissue paper, a plastic step broke clean off the bottom, right into my hand.  No customer appreciates receiving a damaged item if you’ve claimed in your listing that it’s in mint condition.  If you can’t fix what’s broken, you must inform the customer and find out if they want the damaged item or a discount/refund.  Regardless of the outcome, you risk flushing your auction winner’s victory thrills right down the Hopper (see my previous post).  So I got up and took the mess over to the workbench, grabbed the Super-Amazing-Fantastic Adhesive and got to work.

Round 1: The instructions were pretty clear: apply the glue to one of the two pieces, put them together and hold for 30 seconds, which is exactly what I did.  Upon lifting my finger off the step, it immediately fell to the floor.  After crawling around on my hands and knees for a while I found it on the carpet, under my chair.  I picked it up and looked it over.  The broken step had grown a beard; it was covered with cat hair, dust, and carpet threads.  I found a tweezer and picked off the debris.

There is one circumstance where Super Glue lives up to its claims: if you get it on your skin, you will adhere to anything with amazing speed and incredible persistence. Fortunately I managed to detach the step from my fingers without removing a layer of skin.

Round 2:  Placing the step back onto the caboose, I waited 60 seconds (twice as long) and then lifted the tweezers…along with the step because it was stuck to the tweezers.  Placing the caboose on the table, I grabbed the step with another pair of tweezers, detaching the first pair of tweezers from the step.  The step then fell, landing on lap.  Now I had two pairs of glue-covered tweezers in my hands and a step about to be bonded for eternity to my pants.  With one set of tweezers I picked up the step, and with the other hand I tried wiping the glue off my pants with a paper towel (I know, stupid, but you have to use what’s within arm’s reach in such cases), which clung to the glue on my pants. 

I was becoming unglued.

Note: “Super” Glue does not come out in the wash, even with “Amazing” detergent.

Round 3:  I had a clean pair of tweezers (I wiped them off with a cloth).  The glue was dry (Super!) on the caboose parts that remained as yet unglued.  After depositing a drop of glue on the caboose I carefully placed the step onto the glued area with tweezers.  I rested my elbows on the table to steady my hands.  Five minutes later, I lifted the tweezers off.  The step was there, in place…I exhaled.  Then I noticed a step on the other end was bent, sort of hanging there, just waiting to fall off.

If this is model railroading, I don’t think I have the strength…