Wednesday, October 1, 2014

15 Things the Public Wants to Know About Steam

 Author's collection. 

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Most railfans have a basic understanding of how a steam locomotive works. There’s enough information out there to get figure out that the fire fire make steam, the steam goes through the pistons, then is exhausted through the smokestack, help create a draft to suck the exhaust from the fire through the boiler.

Step outside of this little iron bubble, though, and the knowledge of how steam power works has almost entirely disappeared from the public consciousness. The physics and chemical reactions involved are so mysterious that  steam locomotives might as well run on magic.

Members of the public who do not think of themselves as railfans are just as wonderstruck at seeing a genuine steam locomotive in action as all of us are, and are not shy about speaking up with their questions. The following is a collection of questions that I hear over and over again when we take the steam locomotive out on excursions or bring it out for display.

Note that I have answered all of these questions with my experiences with the one specific engine owned by the Grapevine Vintage Railroad in mind--the 2248, AKA Puffy, AKA the William H. Davis, formerly know as the Tarantula. It is a Cook Locomotive Works ten-wheeler, built in 1896, and is the oldest regularly operating steam locomotive in the United States. It does not have a superheater or any other later developments. (I almost typed “Or any other bells and whistles” there...)

Also note that these are not stupid questions--they are coming from individuals that have absolutely no idea how steam power works.  Be nice.

...Except to Number 5.

1. Does it work? 

Yes, thanks to the staff and the dedicated volunteer crew, the steam locomotive is fully functional. And no, the diesel isn’t  secretly doing all the work.

2. What kind of fuel does it run on? 

This engine runs on recycled motor oil. Most people are surprised to hear this: I’ve gotten a sense that most members of the public are unaware that steam engines ever ran on anything except coal.  A lot of people have asked where the coal is, even though there are no shovels in the cab and no coal visible in the tender.  Others ran on wood, though there are exceptionally few left in running condition in this country, and in some places, such as Cuba, steam locomotives ran (and still run) on dried waste from local farm crops.

3. How many miles to the gallon? 

Fifteen gallons of fuel to the mile, and one hundred and fifty gallons of water.

4. How fast can it go? 

Alternate phrasing: “Can it do 88 MPH?”

The top speed of this engine is about 60 MPH, but track limits cap us at about 25 MPH. Late-generation American steam engines could do about  75 or 80 MPH. The top speed ever reached by a steam locomotive was 126 MPH by the  British Mallard.

5. How do you steer the locomotive? 

Trolling isn’t cool, folks.

6. Is it dangerous? 

Steam is somewhat more dangerous than diesel engines, but crews, railroad mechanics, and federal inspectors  take exceptional care to make sure that personnel are properly trained and the engines do not operate with any flaws. The crew who sits in the cab with the hot pipes and the fire  will be exposed to these potential hazards far more than the passengers, though.

7. Is it bad for the environment? 
All of a sudden I have a powerful urge to plant
some saplings. 

Yes, and no.

It is true that your average steam locomotive is far less efficient, and creates far more waste matter, than other forms of motive power. Coal engines dump large quantities of ash out of the firebox after each run and any locomotive, regardless of its type of fuel, emits smoke from its fire.

So if you are talking about one steam locomotive, they are in comparison a horrible source of pollution--trying to figure out exactly how much they put out depends on the class of locomotive being examined, of course. Taken as a whole, though, the number of operating steam locomotives is so vanishingly small and infrequently operated that they have a rather negligible effect on the environment. There are far bigger fish to fry.

8. How hot does it get in the cab? 

It is typically twenty degrees hotter in the cab than the ambient temperatures outside. In the summertime, it gets up to about 125 degrees. Coal fired locomotives are even hotter--the firebox doors spend more time open.

9. Where do replacement parts come from? 

These days, replacement parts are either made from scratch on site or custom ordered from one of a very few companies that specialize in repairing steam locomotives. They cannot be ordered from existing stock, as parts from a car or other modern vehicle can be.

10.  What does (this thing in the cab) do? 

They are usually pointing at the brake lever, throttle, Johnson bar, fuel valve, atomizer, or blower. Many members of the public mistakenly assume that the Johnson bar is the throttle, instead of the reversing mechanism. One memorable guest seemed confused enough by the whole setup to ask if the water was there to cool down the engine, as if she thought it ran on nuclear power.

11.  How long does it take to start up? 

This engine takes approximately three hours to get up to steam, if firing goes well. The largest engines took up to seven hours. Before steam was abandoned, railroad companies avoided letting steam locomotives go cold, unless they were due to undergo maintenance or would not need to be used for an extended period of time. Roundhouse hostlers typically watched the engines overnight and kept a small fire, just large enough to keep pressure up, going until the morning.

12.  Is this stronger than a diesel locomotive?


There are a lot of mitigating factors and mathematics that make figuring out whether a steam engine or a diesel engine is stronger. First of all, both classes of motive power have many, many, varieties within them. A Big Boy and a sofa-sized Hunslett tank engine were designed for different jobs, and will have vastly different power outputs. There’s the same sort of variety among diesel engines.

Supposing you select a steam engine and a diesel engine that are of relatively the same size, or age, or type of engine (or any other way you want to sort them out), it’s still difficult to answer this question. A diesel engine will more or less put out the same amount of horsepower, but the nature of a steam engine causes many external issues to affect its efficiency. For example, an unskilled fireman might not be able to make an efficient fire, and thus the engineer cannot run the engine up to capacity, or especially cold temperatures might negatively effect the water and fuel consistency in an oil-burning engine, or poor maintenance might cause poor heat conduction within the boiler or buildup of waste materials in other engine components.

Even assuming all of that is equal, it still depends on how each engine is being used during this theoretical comparison. Steam engines are more efficient when they get up to cruising speed than when they are first beginning to move; diesel engines are the opposite.  To take an average, steam engines can be as strong as diesels under ideal circumstances--but it was the higher cost and greater infrastructure of steam that caused it to be abandoned, not that it was inherently weaker than diesel traction.

There is a good breakdown of the mathematics here. 

13. Why are you dressed up in an engineer’s costume?

The more the people putting on any sort of historical reenactment are into their show, the more the public will be, too.  The costume helps with that, and there’s a reason why it became so iconic: The overalls keep your shirt from flipping up and keeps your stomach protected from burns, and it’s nice to be able to wet the bandanna to keep your neck wet.

14.  How did you get the opportunity to work with steam? 

Basically, I showed up and offered to work for free.

There are railroad museums and heritage railroads in most of the fifty United States, all over the United Kingdom, and in many other countries. Most museums, no matter what their specialty, operate on a shoestring budget and welcome volunteer help from the public. Railroad museums are especially grateful for people willing to do grimy work in conditions that can sometimes be a bit unpleasant, and younger people who will help keep the organization going.  While there’s no guarantee that every volunteer will get the opportunity to work on a train crew, since rules and regulations vary from place to place,  I highly recommend getting involved!

15. Why do you like steam? 
Happy spot! 

This is actually the hardest question for me to answer, because there are so many different things  that draw me in.

Every time I have seen a steam locomotive in person has been an emotional and memorable experience. Wanting to see them again is like an itch--steam hooks people in. Volunteering is easy, continued access.

There’s an element of serving posterity, too. Many of the people working in the heritage railroad industry are advanced in age. Without more young people following in their footsteps, there is very real danger of the knowledge of how to operate steam locomotives dying out long before the machines are too physically worn to operate. Since I live less than an hour from Grapevine--I had no excuse not to get involved and learn some of the skills to keep heritage programs going into the future.

Basically, I don’t want to see steam disappear completely in my lifetime. It’s just too damned cool.

What questions have YOU been asked? And is there any steam question that you have ever wanted to know?