Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Steam Locomotives And the Environment

Cinders have collected in the bottom of D&RG no. 480's smoke box. 

The image of a locomotive at speed throwing black smoke out of its stack  is so iconic that it has become a shorthand to represent past eras in which placed little--if any at all--importance on preserving the natural environment.

By the early 21st century, we have come full circle, and preserved steam locomotives seem completely out of place in a world where environmentalism and the long-term survival of the industrial world are linked.  Though at this point there has not been a movement to curtail their operation it is worth considering exactly what sort of an environmental impact do these machines create.

Working steam locomotives create two primary byproducts that could be considered pollution: Their smoke, and the ash left behind in the firebox as the fuel burns. Coal burning locomotives are far dirtier than their wood or oil burning counterpart: Most grades of coal, except the highest grades of anthracite that were seldom used as a locomotive’s  exclusive fuel, produce approximately one to three square yards of ash and leave a flurry of cinders in the train’s wake. Oil and wood produce much less ash, enough that it is usually  sucked through the tubes and expelled through the smokestack.

On average, burning a gallon of diesel fuel creates about 22 pounds of carbon dioxide, and a ton of coal about 5,725 pounds. A mid-sized (Mikado or ten-wheeler) locomotive will burn average 15 gallons of fuel to the mile or, to calculate based on available BTUs,  about one tenth of a ton of coal. One could combine these numbers with the length of a trip to arrive on an estimate of pollutants released. However, those numbers will be insufficient to represent the myriad complexities of operating steam locomotives that make it difficult to objectively measure its operation.

In this picture, I am using an air gun to clean the ash out of the 765's ashpan. 
First of all, the many different steam locomotive designs in the past and present--there are exceptionally few examples in which two members of the same class survive in functioning condition--means that there can be no “average” amount that accurately reflects the impact of each individual locomotive. The narrow gauge engines at the Milwaukee Zoo will obviously burn less coal and thus have much smaller footprints than an enormous engine like the 765 or the 611. Averaging the numbers will poorly reflect the reality of both sizes of engines.

What sort of tonnage a locomotive is hauling and what sort of land it is traversing at a particular point in time will also introduce imprecision into these numbers. I have been told by friends on the Durango and Silverton train crews, for instance, that their firemen will typically shovel between five and six tons into the locomotives on the way up to Silverton, but only one to two tons on the way back down.
The quality of fuel will cause even further variability in the amount of pollution that a specific locomotive produces: The higher a grade of coal a railroad is able to access, the less ash, smoke, and cinders the engine will produce. However, the exact quality and chemical composition of coal can vary significantly from place to place even within the same mine, so, again, there are too many factors at work to arrive at universally relevant figures.

The same is true for oil fired locomotive. Because the atomizer is much less discriminating in the exact type of fuel it can burn than the firebox designed for coal, “oil” can mean anything from Bunker C to, ironically enough, diesel fuel. Like coal, the different grades of oil burn at different efficiencies and contain different levels of impurities. Considering that many railroads mix more than one oil or switch back and forth between them, there is imprecision in trying to define the impact of oil fuels as well.

Finally, the crew’s individual styles in firing and operating the locomotive also have significant influence in its efficiency. As photogenic as they are, those pictures of locomotives charging ahead of billowing pillars of smoke represent significant waste of fuel (excepting cases that were staged for photography or where economic or geographic factors forced the railroad to burn poor quality grades of coal not typically used in locomotives). Railroad management placed great emphasis on running with a clean stack and conserving fuel--small waste added up into a significant loss of revenue when repeated across an entire railroad. An inexperienced or careless engineer could also waste fuel by using more steam than was necessary or by allowing the engine to slip or stall.  

To summarize up to this point, while we can of course calculate the amount of pollution per ton of coal or gallon of oil, the reality of operating steam locomotives is complex and makes it difficult to compile any useable data. The historical record, though, gives us ample evidence that steam locomotives created a substantial impact on the environment when they were the primary means of motive power.  That the government and other private organizations had not yet begun to monitor air, water, and soil toxicity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries makes it difficult establish the exactly amount of pollution caused by railroads--even if those numbers did exist, it would be difficult  to distinguish how much originated with railroads specifically and how much came from factories,
home heating, and other sources.
Steam locomotives at the Milwaukee Zoo 
However, contemporary citizens were keen to observer that locomotives were a substantial source of grime and pollution. Early wood-burning locomotives were also prone to spitting out live embers which frequently set nearby grasslands or forests on fire. The problem of smoke, not a need to develop machines that produced more speed or strength, that spurred the implementation of electric traction in New York City and other densely populated areas.  Elsewhere, the phrase “wrong side of the tracks” originated to describe less desirable and lower cost housing that was located downwind of the smoke and cinders originating from passing trains. The smoke and cinders coated any exposed surface: Anyone who collects insulators will be familiar with the challenge of scrubbing layers of “train gunk” off of the glass.

There is no way to completely eliminate the exhaust without fundamentally changing the nature of the machine, but in recent years there has been some experimentation to test and develop alternate fuels for use in steam locomotives. This is in part economically motivated--coal is expensive and difficult to source in small batches--but also helps to reduce the footprint of operating locomotives. At the Grand Canyon Railway, the preserved steam locomotives burn waste vegetable oil for at least part of their trips. At the Durango and Silverton, managers began burning wood pellets overnight to cut down on the smoke the locomotives release into the city. Most promising is perhaps the experiments with biocoal carried out at the  Milwaukee Zoo and the Everett Railroad in Pennsylvania— when perfected, these fuels will give operators of coal-burning locomotives additional options if coal becomes difficult to access.

In conclusion, each individual steam locomotives does, indeed, create a level of pollution that is staggering by today’s standards. However, it should be taken into account that there are very few of them running today--about a hundred and fifty by the most stringent definition of “running”--and that the majority of them run about a half dozen times per year. Taken as a whole, they are a drop in the bucket compared to major sources like power plants, cars and commercial aviation, and factory farming.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Colorado Steam, big and small

Today I'm up in the Denver area chasing steam, big and small. First the 844, then over the Colorado Railroad Museum running steam for the NRHS national convention.  It'll be a busy weekend with much more steam photography in the next few days!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The High Cost of Big Steam Excursions

Thus far, the summer of 2016 has been a great one for excursions pulled by larger steam locomotives. We’ve had several runs of the 611, a doubleheaded run pulled by the 630 and 4501, several excursions with the 1225 at the head, and the promise of the Union Pacific team program sticking a toe back in the water this coming July. The streak of good fortune was partially broken last week, though, with the cancellatio
n of two trains between Chicago and Galesburg, Illinois.

It was a disappointing announcement, particularly since this train would have departed from Chicago Union Station. The 765’s operators implicated low ticket sales and a shorter-than-ideal window to market the trip for the cancellation. Critics fired back with an almost unified response: If ticket prices weren’t so high, over a hundred dollars even for a basic coach seat, then more people would have purchased tickets.

This is a common criticism of any excursion, not just this one, and admittedly, they have a point. Ticket prices for excursion trains are high, and they do price many people out of riding, especially those who would like to take a whole family along. Where the critics are wrong is in implying that ticket prices are inflated across the board. In most cases, the high ticket prices reflect the very real challenges of operating steam in the twenty first century. This blog post will attempt to illuminate some of the general costs associated with running excursions and break down what, exactly, drives ticket prices up so high.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Brief History of Pointing Cameras At Trains

Three rail fans pose during a 1930s photo charter.

The name of the man who took the first picture of a locomotive or train has been lost to history, and it is unknown whether he made that image for personal pleasure or for commercial reasons. Whoever he was and whatever his purpose, though, he kicked off a hobby that would endure for a century and a half and would create thousands of participants on every continent where railroads operate. In this post, we'll take a brief look at the history of taking pictures of trains.

Railroads and photography both have technological ancestors that stretch back roughly to the 17th century, and both began to come of age in the first half 19th century. Railroads in Europe and the United States were built at a frenzied pace between the 1820s and the 1860s and soon composed a network of hundreds of miles in each continent. The new method of transportation revolutionized patterns of work and travel and made it practical to deliver mass-produced goods to markets beyond the immediate vicinity where they were produced.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Guest Post: Do What you Can, While You're Able

The exact moment at which youngster realizes his heart beats to the cadence of jointed rail is rare, but
poignant to capture on film. Here, the guest  article's author poses with the 611 in the mid 1980s. 

E/N: Today all eyes are aligned towards Spencer, NC, as the 611 makes its first excursions of the season. In the spirit of that event, enjoy this guest post from John, who's out chasing and riding this weekend.

As I write this, I’m sitting at the computer looking up routes to chase the 611 this weekend, contacting friends to meet up with while I’m there, and typing this note about my reflections on steam engines. Next week I’ll drive down to Chattanooga to get the last few steam hours I’ll hold down in the cab before I leave town for the summer. Three weeks from now I’ll start my  drive from my home in Tennessee to my railroad job in a Western state. 

Every time I leave for the summer, the feeling is bittersweet. Tourist railroading divides your time with the cycling on/off months feeling more like a long week. Steam trains only run during bankers hours, ironically. The majority of operations utilize the summer and holiday months exclusively, leaving the rest of the year with an unbalanced void that is only broken by a few limited schedules and special excursions. You might begin to think that the process of boiling water during the winter were not within the realm of physical possibility if you took a statisticians view of the unoccupied schedules. Potential passengers take vacations during the summer, spend January and February recuperating from holiday expenses, while the railroads use the downtime to work heavier repair jobs that consume those boring weeks. When I’m working my summer job, the rest of the world is running wide open with steam miles that I may never have the chance to see. That’s how it goes. 

I tell my friends all the time, see as many steam excursions as  you can while you still have the option. Since the schedule for the 611 was released a couple of months ago, I’ve been elated for the chance to see the thing run before my commitments take me north. My love for steam railroading would not have been created were it not for my dad taking us down to see the 611 regularly when I was younger. The first steam engine I remember seeing? 611. First cab ride? 611. The first engine I was taught the names of parts to the running gear? 611. I’ve worked as an engineer and conductor in some of the most beautiful places on Earth, all because of an interest that started and can be traced back to the 611. 

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that many other people have a similar affinity for the 611 in particular. (To counter that fondness, I still remember the Trains magazine coming out of the mailbox in 1995.) For some, it was their first experience of every human sense being wholly consumed for the first time. Others appreciated the innovative technology the N&W developed for the class, and benchmark it set for the steam industry. The fact remains though, the 611 has been absent of a soul for the last 21 years and there has been a hysteria associated with it's return more-so than any other locomotive I’ve known. I think there is a way that every museum can benefit from that connection. 

Decisions made about whether or not steam is allowed to run are made solely from tangible money. Time continuously passes with every day leaving fewer favorable conditions for mainline trips. Skill sets fade and the relationship of the landscape formed by the railroad has been lost in translation to the general public. I may be one of the odd ducks of my generation because I found a career that I love when I was young and impressionable, but that doesn’t mean it can be a selfish experience. In fact, the only way to save anything that you love to is to share it with others so that they too want to come and enjoy the shared results. 

No one understands the rarity of running steam in a native setting better than the two people looking out the cab window. All the shop time you could wish for is abundantly available but throttle time is always rare in comparison, gleaned from the thousands of hours necessary to make any locomotive operate before lighting the oily rag. Mechanical work is an art in itself, and the hours required to learn specific crafts are always available because shop work is harder to garner a following for. When the locomotive is outside putting on a show,  how many people go out to  ride the train, but don’t want to blow the whistle? If you can’t find a shop crew, you don’t have an engine, and without the engine you can’t keep the operating crafts alive. Therein lies the catch of working and preserving steam… 

Pulling the throttle and shoveling coal may be the most visible, but every specialty that goes into a steam special is important, from the work of the  lawyers writing the insurance policy to the dining service attendants. All of these elements must be orchestrated before that final moment when the engineer bails off the independent and pulls the slack. Every excursion takes years of work and countless skill sets. Looking out the cab window you may see hundreds of people lining up for miles to take in the show. Some may be curiously caught off guard in a wave of sudden traffic or have spent half the night driving in from out-of-state to get what may possibly be their last look at an old way, a way when people worked together and enjoyed the fruit of their labor. That, I believe, is the intangible way to preserve steam. 

So this weekend, I’m going to take in as much as I can just like everyone else driving to Spencer tomorrow. Who knows how much longer we’ll enjoy steam on the mainline? For the most part the engine looks exactly as it did when I was 3 years old. The view looking out from the cab windows may always change but looking in, time has thankfully stood still.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

When Good Locomotives Go Bad: Exploring Tales of Hoodoo Engines

The day after V&T #26 was due to be retired from service, embers escaped from the engine's belly and set its shed on fire. Locals supposed that the 26 had committed suicide rather than be scrapped or abandoned in a park. From 

This blog has gotten quite a decent amount of mileage out of exploring the way that steam locomotives are portrayed as and sometimes even give the impression that they are alive. It might be tempting to think that this comes about because pop culture proliferates with franchises like Thomas the Tank Engine and the Little Engine that Could which have anthropomorphic  locomotives and trains as main characters, but references to steam locomotives seeming to possess a consciousness of their own actually date back almost as far as the railroads themselves.

One thing about the nature of personality and consciousness, though, is that just because someone or something is in possession of them does not guarantee it to be a friend and ally. In fact, one of the best benchmarks in deciding if something is conscious may be that it can choose not to comply with what we would like it to do. The superstitions that steam locomotives may be alive do not neglect this unpleasant aspect of consciousness. In fact, an entire mythology grew up to describe it: The Hoodoo Engine.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

F-O-F has a big announcement--now selling Photo Prints!

Time for some self-promotion. Over the past few years, I've captured up quite a number of good photographs in the process of covering events for this site and for Trains Magazine. Today I've established a web site to sell prints of those photos. Images like this shot of Soo Line 1003 are available in a variety of sizes.Prices range from $30-45 dollars. Not only are these pictures make great decorations for your home or business, purchasing them will help F-O-F cover the many exciting railroad events slated for 2016. Visit our web store at