A Retrotech Adventure

The Essex Steam Train and Riverboat leases 22 miles of railroad track from the state of Connecticut, and owns several steam and diesel locomotives plus various rolling stock. They operate regular passenger excursions plus seasonal specials.  Essex also offers a training and experience program for people who would like to learn a little bit about operating a steam locomotive.  Being interested in steam power, I signed up.

The program includes some written material to be reviewed at home, a group classroom session of about an hour, and then an individual hour operating a locomotive under the guidance of an experienced engineer.

On arriving, I was surprised at the scale of the operation.  Although I was there in the off season (early November), judging by the parking lot and the number of railcars the place must be quite busy during prime months.  First was the class, which covers safety rules and basic steam locomotive principles.  It was taught by the railroad’s machinist, who described himself as the “spare parts department.”  Next was a group visit to the locomotive cab to familiarize ourselves with the layout of controls and indicators.

For our group, the locomotive was #40, a Mikado type built in 1920.  (The name “Mikado” became popular because an early batch of locomotives of this type was sold to the Japanese Railways.)  #40 started its life hauling logs and lumber in the West, then pulled passenger and freight trains in North Carolina until it was retired circa 1950…purchased by the Essex for restoration in 1977.  The locomotive has a rated boiler pressure of 180 psi and can generate a tractive effort of 35,000 pounds.

On a steam locomotive, the cutoff point of steam admission to the cylinders can be controlled by the engineer.  Early cutoff lets the steam do more of its work expansively, improving fuel economy at the cost of some reduction in power.  The reverser sets the cutoff point as well as controlling the direction of travel–while the reversers on early locomotives were manually-operated and required considerable strength to operate (and sometimes led to broken arms), the reverser on #40 is a fingertip control, using air pressure to do the hard work.

It was a drizzly and somewhat chilly day, but very comfortable in the locomotive cab. (The boiler backhead is very hot, do not touch!)  Basic controls and indicators include the throttle, the reverser, the boiler pressure gauge, the injectors, the boiler water glass, and the brakes with their associated pressure gauges.


We ran about 4 miles, limited to a maximum speed of 15mph as required by the Federal regulations under which this railroad operates, then ran in reverse to return. For this run, only the independent air brake…which controls brakes on the locomotive and tender..was used; if we had been been hauling train cars, then the automatic air brake, which operates brakes on all cars almost simultaneously, would have also been employed.  (Proper management of the braking system is essential: the instructor cited the example of a train in which over-use of the independent air brake caused the steel tires which are shrunk-fit on the locomotive wheels to overheat and delaminate, stalling the train on a bridge.) Operating the independent brake is unlike using a car or truck brake:  you use the brake control to increase, decrease, or hold the air pressure level and hence the braking force.

On the other side of the cab, the fireman has a lot of work to do.  Even for this minimally-light train (‘light’ being a relative term: locomotive & tender weighing over 100 tons), there was a lot of coal shoveling involved to keep the steam pressure up…and the fireman also has primary responsibility for monitoring the boiler water level and adding water as required–low boiler water can lead to a catastrophic explosion. Water is added to the boiler via a clever device called an injector, which performs the seemingly-impossible task for forcing water in against the boiler pressure by using that same pressure.

Steam locomotives are not very efficient, thermodynamically-speaking:  6-8% has historically been about the limit.  (For comparison, a diesel gets somewhere around 30%, and a combined-cycle gas/steam turbine can reach 60%.)  Locomotive #40 coal consumption is cited at two tons per day; I believe this is based on hauling a 400-ton train for about 50 miles.  (It should be noted that on a per-BTU basis, coal is much cheaper than diesel fuel.)

There are several other steam-locomotive-running classes on offer.  Nevada Northern Railway offers experiences actually hauling a multi-car train, as well as basic locomotive operation.  For the true fanatic, there’s the Cumbrec & Toltec, which requires fireman school as a prerequisite to the engineer course.  The C&T has some steep grades…4% at one point…which should make train handling interesting.  For those that want the fireman experience without the shoveling, the Virginia Museum of Transportation, which owns Norfolk Southern 611, has sometimes offered fireman and engineer experiences on that locomotive, which is equipped with a so-called “automatic stoker.”  (These have been required on high-horsepower locomotives since the 1920s–they are not really automatic since they do require attention by an operator.)

As of the end of this year, positive train control will be required on most mainline trackage.  This is not an issue for the Essex, which operates over track that it owns and uses exclusively, but is a potential issue for operators such as the Virginia Transportation Museum and its NS 611 which have been conducting excursions on mainline railroads.  It appears that it is indeed possible to add PTC functions to historic steam locomotives, though the cost is nontrivial.  Also, Amtrak has apparently become somehow involved in the approval process for operation of trains that they do not own on tracks that they do not own, either, and they have apparently not been very friendly toward steam excursions.  Hopefully these issues will soon be resolved.

Other steam-related posts:

301 Years of Steam Power

180 Years of Transatlantic Steam

Retrotech, Revitalized

4 thoughts on “A Retrotech Adventure”

  1. My grandfather was a locomotive engineer. He was born in 1849 and died at the age of 50 from pneumonia, in 1899, 18 months after my mother was born. I expect their status at that time resembled that of airline pilots if they were driving passenger trains. I don’t know anything about his work other than that of engineer.

    There is a railroad park in Los Angeles, Griffith Park, or was the last time I was there. It is adjacent to a facility run by the Brotherhood of Live Steamers.

    The Live Steamers seem to be still active.

    The railroad park is explained here. We had my older son’s birthday party there when he was 3 or so. Since he will be 54 next March,. it was a while ago.

  2. Sounds like a fun time. I did a week long rail camp at Nevada Northern about 2005. It included a steam cab ride and diesel operation. I’ve been volunteering at tge Kentucky Railway Museum about 5 years, and qualified as an engineer a year ago. We inly run diesel but have the potential to testore a former L&N steam loco. There are other places offering be the engineer experiences. I think the 765 crew does on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic, and maybe some others.

  3. Also, the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad is restoring a Mallet locomotive…a French design which combines compounding with articulation: the exhaust steam from the high-pressure cylinders is fed to the low-pressure cylinders, which are mounted on a frame which has some swiveling ability and hence improves ability to follow tight curves in the track. So only the low-pressure steam needs to go through the joint which swivels. #smart


  4. This reminds me of a barely relevant anecdote from those distant days when steam driven railroads were becoming the primary means of long-distance transportation.

    One problem in those earlier days was more frequent derailments, which cost the railroads very large sums in lost revenues as the tracks were shut down for days while the line was cleared. Andrew Carnegie, as a smart young immigrant, trained as a railroad telegrapher — perhaps technologically roughly equivalent to a computer nerd today. In this capacity, he got to meet the executives of the railroad while delivering urgent telegraphed messages. One day, young Carnegie was not able to find the executive to deliver the urgent news of another derailment. Using his initiative, he telegraphed back an order to burn the derailed train and clear the track quickly to put it back into revenue-earning service. When the executive later learned of this, he recognized Carnegie’s potential and put him on the path which ultimately led to his becoming the richest man in the world. No Ivy League degree required.

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