Sunday, March 13, 2016

Brushing The Iron Horse

One of my scattershot enthusiasms has long been the steam locomotive. Especially the technical peak of the steam era, which (naturally) occurred just before the technology disappeared altogether in the mid-1950s. I was born in 1962, so in historical terms I *just missed* this era. But I grew up among people for whom this had been mainstream technology their whole lives, people for whom diesel-electric trains were relatively new.

Steam technology made a very rapid exit. The largest and most powerful steam locomotives were built just after WWII, and within 10 or 15 years steam had vanished completely. Given the size of railroad operations, this was an immense change in a very short time. Dieselization (the railroad term for the replacement of steam with diesel-electric technology) was so rapid and total because diesels improved markedly on steam technology by every economic metric. It would be difficult to cite a more convincing triumph of one technology over another in the same application. The diesel-electric locomotive was much simpler in operation and construction, and that simplicity enabled a reliability steam never dreamed of. And diesels were hugely more fuel efficient than steam, and in maintenance matters the two technologies were almost too far apart to be meaningfully compared. I remember reading that the support staff needed to keep a fleet of diesel-electric locomotives running was a mere 10% of that needed for steam. 

In business that kind of efficiency just can't be ignored. To see how little diesel fuel was needed in a diesel-electric locomotive compared to tons of coal and water needed every 100 miles or so by a big steam engine, there was simply no stopping the change. A large railroad might have thousands of miles of trackage. Coal and water facilities would need to be placed everywhere along this route structure with enough redundancy to prevent operations falling thru the cracks. (If your train runs out of coal or water you can't just get out and push!) Add in that each locomotive needed thousands of gallons of water and tons of coal at each fuel stop--all of which needed constant replenishment at the fueling stations--and we begin to grasp the workforce involved.

And back to maintenance matters. I ran across a YouTube video the other day which spent half an hour detailing what was involved in a routine trip to the maintenance shop for a large British steam locomotive. I had never seen anything like this, and I was absolutely mesmerized. And this video gave me a little insight into what made the steam locomotive technology so alluring. 

And it was alluring--it still is for many people. Even before the end of steam was in sight, people routinely stopped to watch switching activities in local rail yards, and passing steam trains often caused people to stop what they were doing to watch. Once the end of steam became evident, there was a scramble for people to photograph and film these trains while they still could, and there were numerous "fan excursions" so people could ride on a steam-powered train before they were gone forever.

Two Baldwin "Big Boys," effectively the largest steam locomotives ever made. Just look at that smoke plume! Makes me think my MD-11 isn't so bad after all.

Whatever the economic arguments, however inevitable was steam's exit in favor of the diesel, some magical thing was lost in the trade.

UP #844, an Alco 4-8-4 "Northern" type from 1944. This is restored and operational.

I have a bunch of steam retrospective DVDs at home. It was watching one of these on a layover that led to a Google search for some tidbit of steam-related information that in turn led to the YouTube video that so entranced me. Watching my DVDs, I'm of course reminded that all those lost jobs constituted a solid career for thousands and thousands of people, grimy men in jumpsuits in dimly-lit roundhouses who came to know this technology intimately. And many thousands of men were hired to perform the railroad analogy of my own job: pilot. To be in command of one of these huge steam engines with thousands of tons of rolling stock behind you, and marshaling all that crude and violent power to pull a heavy train up through the mountains (this is where the biggest locomotives were often employed) seems very like a 1920s equivalent to what an airline captain does today. But dirtier. Much, much dirtier.

So this YouTube video. An engine is steamed into a maintenance facility after finishing its day's work--actually, after being on the go for 12-16 days of continuous use. The operating crew gets the engine to the maintenance yard where it is released by signature to the staff there. The service crew stands ready to begin its work. The engine is coaled and watered and then taken to a special area where the "fire is dropped." The tracks straddle a pit where the embers and ash from the current fire are dumped, and the engine continues on into the facility on residual steam power (there is no longer a fire to produce the steam, but the boiler remains hot for quite a while after the fire is dropped. I had never considered this).

Several structured cool-down periods are scheduled for the now-unpowered engine as a first order of business. Cooling is accomplished slowly, since cooling down too quickly can cause pieces to warp or crack. At a specified point in the process the engine is cool enough to drain all the water from the boiler, after which further cooling is specified before the engine is cool enough to begin disassembly. As the pieces come out, the engine attains room temperature.

We are then shown a brief description of the work to be performed and the numerous jobs that one had no clue even existed: people whose sole job is to brush *this piece* or to blow out *these tubes* or to systematically oil *these joints.* All sorts of these jobs, almost none of which have an analogous position in the diesel world. This complete service, from check-in to check-out, takes about 28 hours to perform, and minus the cool down periods the work is performed continuously for this whole time. And apparently something like this 28-hour service is required for every engine every couple of weeks.

What really captured my imagination--and what turned a little light bulb on in my head--was the re-ignition of the boiler after the work had been done. A cold steam locomotive is utterly inert. Like your car with the engine off and the key removed. Without fire there is no steam; and without steam there is no electricity or air or heat or power of any kind. But whereas starting your car is a five-second affair and the difference between running and not running is but the turn of a single switch, in the locomotive it's something entirely different.

To light the fire in the cold and now-clean engine, a bunch of wood scraps are thrown into the grate and ignited with some oil-soaked rags. (I'm so used to thinking of these things as trash, that it takes a moment to realize someone won't need to pick up the junk they just tossed into the firebox! They will become part of the mountains of cinders and ash produced by the engine as it works.) It looks precisely like lighting a fire in your home fireplace, except we're monitoring the size and quality of the fire via a couple gauges in the locomotive cab. Once the wood is burning nicely, some coal is introduced (with a shovel!) and the boiler is allowed to slowly build temperature and pressure.

After several hours the machine is up to temperature and the pressure is in the correct range. The engine can then move under its own steam (you wondered where that phrase came from?). It is taken to again top off its coal and water before being turned over to the operating crew for its next assignment.


It's the fire. That's the difference. Yes, there's a bunch of tiny fires in your car engine to make it go, and there's even a rather large continuous fire in each of the three jet engines of the airplane I'm flying across the North Atlantic as I type this. But all this is studiously hidden from view. With a steam locomotive, the fire itself is center stage. There's even a specific job--the Fireman!--to keep the fire burning efficiently and correctly. And continuously. The fire cannot be allowed to go out, and if it does it's not a simple matter of just turning a key to re-establish it. (For that matter, the engine also cannot be allowed to go without water. A vigorous fire in a boiler not full of water will quickly ruin the boiler.) 

It's the "dropping" of the fire that first struck me in the video. That, and the relatively involved process of re-establishing the fire when the work is done. I had heard the term before, "dropping the fire," but I had never seen it nor given the idea any thought. But this central issue for a steam locomotive--having a fire going at all times--brings all sorts of logistical issues I'd never considered. Who keeps the fires going when the engine is between runs? Or, if the fire is allowed to die out, who re-lights it the requisite hours before the engine is needed for work? (More jobs, I suspect.) It's often been said that a steam locomotive feels ALIVE compared to other technologies, and I agree completely. And that's not something one would say about an airplane, for example. There's something special at work here. And that was my revelation as I watched the video: I think it's the fire burning furiously right at your feet that makes the machine seem almost alive--that and the hissing and spitting and belching and smoking that makes it seem like it has a mind of its own. Dropping the fire seems much more like the death of a living thing than does, say, turning off the key of your car. It's a long, agonizing process which must be monitored and managed--just as the re-animation does.

Lastly, I have to look at the controls in the cab. 

Big Boy cab. Engineer sits on the right, Fireman on the left.

Every job has its particulars; everybody has tasks that are unknown to the uninitiated. Flying an airplane is a prime example: it's not a particularly difficult task, but you need to be specifically trained to do it if you're to have any hope of succeeding. And the job entails a whole bunch of little tasks which are specific to each model airplane. Surely operating one of these huge steam locomotives is quite analogous. There are a couple different positions in the cab, each of which has specific duties. And the guy in the right seat (in a train; left seat in an airplane) ultimately runs the show.

That's what led me to The Google, trying to figure out exactly what the controls were in the locomotive cab and how they were used. Naturally, it turns out there are just too many to keep track of unless you're immersed in that world. (An airplane is exactly like that.) But there are a couple main controls that are common to all steam locomotives. There is a large throttle lever at about the engineer's eye level, typically extending from the ceiling or sticking sideways from the boiler to his left. Pull to go, push to stop. (John Frankenheimer's awesome 1964 film The Train shows the operation of these controls close up--though, despite the name, that's not what the film is about.) And there are separate brake levers for the engine itself and for the rest of the train behind. And then there is the so-called Johnson Bar, or the reversing lever. 

The Johnson Bar.

This is a heavy lever extending up from the floor in front of the engineer with a ratchet handle so the lever can be notched into a specific position. The Johnson Bar is used to put the engine into forward or reverse, and something more. In between the extreme fore-and-aft positions, the Johnson Bar sets the "cutoff;" that is, it determines for how much of the piston's stroke steam will be allowed to enter the cylinder. As the bar is pulled back from its extreme forward position, steam gets restricted to a smaller and smaller portion of the piston's range of travel until, in the center (neutral), NO steam is allowed in anywhere throughout the piston's cycle. The Johnson Bar works by manipulating the complex valving arrangement one sees dancing beside the drive wheels as they rotate, called the  Walschaerts valve gear. It's all straightforwardly and deliciously mechanical.

Left hand on throttle, Johnson Bar in front of right hand, brake levers just left.

This is all very arcane, but it's the Johnson Bar that, in concert with the throttle, manages the power production and efficiency of the machine. And to operate a steam locomotive--to do this job as a career--was to know the finesse and nuance of this control (and of course many others) very well.

There is this overwhelming PHYSICALITY about a steam locomotive that even an airplane doesn't match. The machine captures the elemental things of nature--Fire! Steam! Steel!--and corrals them crudely into useful work. By this machine we take the latent energy in coal and with the fearsome and violent mystery of fire we transform it into massive and controlled pulling power. It's fascinating.

And that raw brutality translates into the job of operating the machine as well. In an airplane cockpit the business of flying the plane is done with small gestures and delicate switches. There's nothing small or delicate about a steam locomotive. Everything is mechanical and long-throw. Controls need to be operated with a rag in hand because everything is hot and / or greasy. And yet one sees the engines being moved around with great finesse.

To get a chance at the controls of one of these machines would be on my bucket list.

No comments: