WHAT IS IT ABOUT STEAM LOCOMOTIVES?


CRUDE, POWERFUL, FASCINATING, BEAUTIFUL, DEMANDING MISTRESS

If you don’t do right by a working steam locomotive, you are quickly dead! This must be your mindset when you are either a fireman or an engineer operating a steam locomotive. To bring the mindset to reality, engineers and firemen must be masters of the art of multi-tasking because everything vital to the avoidance of being quickly dead seems to happen in the same moment. And these “moments”seem to happen in quick succession. I must point out what may seem obvious to some; actions taken in these “moments” must be precisely appropriate to the situation at hand-or else! The essence of the foregoing went through my mind when I was asked to become a member of the crew operating our 2-6-2 steam locomotive – the VC2. I foolishly agreed to give it a try. But first, what is a steam locomotive?


Railroad steam locomotives run on track, that is, steel wheels running on steel rails to provide tractive force to pull trains. These machines work by converting fuel energy to mechanical energy. This concept has been in use for several hundred years; it is not exactly new. The fuel is burned in a furnace to produce heat energy; the heat energy flows through the furnace walls to raise the boiler water to the temperature necessary to produce steam. The boiler is a closed vessel and the pressure rises as the steam is produced. The pressurized steam in the boiler has within it the energy released by the burning of fuel. The stored energy in the steam is available for conversion to the pulling force necessary to move a train at the locomotive engineer’s pleasure. When the engineer pleases to move the train, the locomotive throttle is opened to allow the boiler steam to be admitted to the valve mechanism. The valves direct the boiler steam to to one of the locomotive’s cylinders. The cylinder steam is allowed to increase in volume by pushing on a piston within the cylinder. The piston is connected to a rod attached to one of the locomotive wheels. The moving piston, connected to the wheel, produces a torque which causes the wheel to turn. At the end of the piston stroke, the piston reverses its motion and the valve allows the depleted steam to exhaust to the atmosphere via the exhaust stack. During this exhaust cycle the cylinder located on the other side of the locomotive is producing a torque on the opposite wheel to sustain the locomotive motion. The most common of the various locomotive types applies four torque pulses per one revolution of the wheels. The high friction between the driving wheels and steel rails allows the wheel torque to produce the tractive force necessary to move the train.

The explanation of the workings of a railroad steam locomotive is complicated because such a locomotive IS complicated. A track-side observer will see a much simplier picture. A wave of the engineer’s hand, the whistle announcing coming movement, the bell ringing its warning, lots of steam vapor to enhance the picture, a series of sharp exhaust sounds and the train is gone. What’s not to like!

The fireman job that I agreed to attempt has many parts and most are important to the safe operation of railroad steam locomotives. As the job title suggests, the fireman is responsible for the operation of the locomotive furnace. The fireman’s tasks include: (1) the regulation of fuel supplied to the furnace burner, (2) the adjustment of air flow to maintain efficient combustion, (3) the maintenance of boiler pressure, (4) keeping a watchful eye on the boiler water level and adding more as required, (5) call out signal aspects, (6) call out track conditions, (7) keep a watchful eye at grade crossings, (8) ring the bell at the right times, (9) keep a constant watch that the fire does not go out, (10) re-light the fire if it goes out, (11) maintain an awareness of the amount of remaining fuel and water in the tender, (12) wave at children. These tasks tend to overlap each other, this is why the multi-tasking ability of the fireman is so important.

So, how did I perform as a fireman trainee? Not very well is the honest answer. Why was that so? My career as an Aerospace Engineer ingrained in me the habit of making decisions only after the gathering of “facts” and careful deliberations had been completed. Not the best approach in the sometimes hectic and fast paced scenes that played out in the cab of a moving steam locomotive. I was a bust at multi-tasking. I quickly realized the job of locomotive fireman was not for me!

I am now the machinist whose motto is “you break it; I’ll fix it”. I often work on steam locomotives, but at my own pace. I’m happy with that.

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