Monday, March 25, 2019

Getting the Train Ready to Roll: 04:07 – 05:00: Part 1

Running #420, the Upbound Freight, on the Daylight Pass Railroad

October 20, 1954: 04:07 – 05:00

The inspection takes a little longer than usual but the Foreman of Engines, who is also the overnight Roundhouse Foreman, doesn’t seem to mind even though it’s nearing the end of his shift. Probably because the paperwork he hands Tom shows that while 1428 was in getting that ruptured flue repaired the roundhouse crew went ahead and pretty much overhauled the aging engine. It’s probably in better shape now than it has been in years.

The lagging was stripped from the boiler and all bolts and fittings checked. The firebrick lining the firebox was replaced along with the brick arch above that protects the rear flue-sheet from direct contact with the fire. While the firebox was stripped several broken or badly corroded stay bolts were replaced.*

*On newer engines stay bolts, which tie the firebox to the shell of the boiler and prevent the pressure from crushing the firebox, have very tiny holes drilled down through most of their lengths so a broken one will make itself known by leaking, but on these old Consolidations the staybolts are solid and the best way to find broken ones is to tap the heads with a hammer. If it rings it’s good, if it tinks it’s broken. DP rules allow for a maximum of 4 broken staybolts across the crown-sheet, the most vulnerable part of the firebox, and then only as long as none of them are adjacent to each other.

The roundhouse crew also dropped the running gear (which, in the railroad’s basic shop without very many fancy bells and whistles, actually means lifting the frame and boiler with an overhead crane.) and replaced all the two-part white-metal axle bushings. They also replaced the main cylinder and valve piston rings, rebuilt the air-compressor, installed new brake-shoes and refurbished the generator.

And, of course, all the flues were inspected, repaired, and cleaned, so right now she has no plugged flues at all,* which is a welcome change. Finally, as a road test, she was used to make last night’s transfer run down to Daylight and back.

*Flues can be plugged with residue from the fire or a leaking flue can be deliberately plugged to seal it off at both ends. The DP allows up to 3 flues to be deliberately plugged as long as none of those are the larger, super-heater flues near the top of the boiler.

But regardless, As Tom walks up alongside 1428, sitting patiently on the track, panting slowly (The air compressor) and hissing quietly, he is still going to do a complete inspection before he accepts responsibility for the engine.

The first thing he does is toss his carryall, lighter now that he has draped his goggles around his neck, tucked his gauntlet gloves under the left strap of his overalls, and flashlight into his cavernous right pocket, onto the footplate, which on these small C-14’s is only about 6 feet above the rail, and climb up after it.

Next he and Jake both check the level in the sight-glasses (There are two of them, one of each side of the backhead, in case one fails.) then Tom watches as Jake opens and closes a couple of the adjacent gauge-cocks, which, depending on whether they are above or below the water level, dump steam or water into the pan below. This verifies that the sight-glasses are showing a true level, very important because undetected low water causes boilers to explode, usually killing the head-end crew.

Then they both climb back down to the ground with flashlight, hammer, and long-necked oilcan in hand and slowly walk around the engine. They are checking that all the bolts and keyways are in place, that the oil cups are full and the wicks adjusted, the tires ring clear when struck with a hammer, all the brake-blocks are solidly in place, the valve gear and reversing links are in good shape, and the smoke-box dogs are all tight. Then, while Tom opens the drain at the bottom of the air reservoir tucked under the right running board to make sure the tank is dry* before climbing all the way up on top of the boiler and shining his flashlight into the sand-dome, the dome just behind the stack, to make sure it is full, Jake climbs up the rear ladder of the tender and shines his light into the oil and water tank hatches.

*Right now they could get away with water in the tank, but a dry tank is especially important during the winter because if water gets into the train-line it can freeze, blocking the pipe and preventing the brakes from working.

Satisfied that the engine will probably get them from here to Three Creeks, that she is mechanically sound, steam pressure holding steady with no excessive leaking, both the tender’s fuel-oil and water tank topped up, air pressure in the engine’s main reservoir holding at 120 pounds with the compressor doing a lazy thunk-chuff every once in a while indicating no serious leaks, the oil in the hydrostatic lubricator reservoir at the full mark, spare oil, waste, and tools on-board, (Sometimes tools walk so it pays to check) and gauges working, Tom finally signs for the engine and tucks his carryall into the right-hand seatbox. Jake’s carryall goes into the left-hand seatbox (No fancy seats on 1428, just boxes with hinged and padded tops.) and the two of them set about readying 1428 to move.

The engine has been left on the ready-track at a simmer so Jake opens up the blower* to increase the draft. Then he increases the fuel-flow slightly, while simultaneously turning up the atomizers, steam-jets that are located near the mouth of the fuel delivery pipe to blow a mist of oil evenly across the firing pan. (Wood or coal burners have a grate instead of the firing pan and no atomizers.) Watching the color of the flame through the lidded porthole just above the fire doors he adjusts the damper.

*The blower is not a fan like you might think but a ring of steam-jets surrounding the blast, or cylinder exhaust, pipe inside the smoke-box and pointing upwards at the flared petticoat mounted to the base of the stack. The jets improve the draft inside the smokebox, helping to suck the gasses through the flues and eject them out the stack when there is no cylinder exhaust to do it.

Looking through the porthole into the iridescent hell that is the firebox, most people would see nothing but impossible heat, but any halfway decent fireman sees a whole range of nuances in that shimmering conflagration.

A little tweaking to get the balance of all these components right and Jake soon has a clean sheet of roiling, red-orange flame all the way across the firebox with a few little yellowish tendrils lifted by the draft. This hot fire, about 2000 degrees, will start raising the boiler pressure from the current 182 pounds while Jake and Tom keep an eye on the gauge, a big, round one set high on the center of the backhead where it can be seen easily from anywhere on the footplate. Their goal is to make sure the poppets, the safety valves, two of them mounted on the rear-most dome, just over the top of the firebox, start singing at 200 pounds. A stuck poppet could be bad news, such as boiler explosion kind of bad news, so best to find out now.

While they wait for the pressure to come up Jake checks that the valve controlling steam flowing through the fuel supply hose outer jacket then into the heater coils in the tender’s fuel-oil tank is set properly. If not kept warm the heavy Bunker-C oil used to fire the DP’s steam engines reverts to the consistency of tar, even in summer, which clogs everything up to the point where the fuel won’t flow and the fire dies, but at the same time, too much steam to the heating coils is a waste of water and fuel.*

*On a related topic, the heated oil helps keep the water in the tender’s adjacent water tank from freezing during the winter, but in extreme conditions, such as can be found up in Three Creeks where an engine may sit in the frigid temps and clawing winds for hours, a little extra heating may be necessary, especially in preventing the exposed supply pipe connecting the watertank in the tender to the injectors on the boiler backhead from freezing up. In this case closing the valve on the injector’s overflow pipe will prevent it from priming, so when the injector’s steam valve is opened the only place for the steam to go is backwards down the supply pipe where it then burbles through the water in the tender. But it will be several months yet before such measures are needed.

While he’s doing that Tom checks the valve settings on three-legged Detroit hydrostatic lubricator mounted on the backhead just to the right of the boiler-pressure gauge.

This device is filled with a special high-temperature oil and capped with a heavy threaded plug. The steam pipe is then opened which pressurizes the lubricator, including the oil inside so it can be forced into where it needs to go against the boiler pressure. Some of that steam condenses and the oil floats on the resulting water, rising above the mouth of the feed tube.

Tom has already made sure the upper sight-glass, just to the left of the oil-fill plug, is showing a full glass of oil with no water showing in the bottom of the thick, round glass. If the sight-glass fills with water the lubricator needs to be refilled with oil. If this happens en route the engine must be stopped and the pressure and water in the lubricator drained. Once it has been refilled with the oil, sticky and thick until it is heated, and sealed the steam is turned back on then it’s a waiting game until there is enough condensate to lift the oil up to the feed tube. (Bubbles stop flowing out the feed nozzles.) Even then it sometimes takes some fiddling around to get oil to flow down the feed-tube and through all three feed nozzles again.  Not a procedure he wants to mess with while out on the road.

Because the engine has been sitting for a while the metering valves, the ones on the bottom of the lubricator, on the two outside legs that feed the main cylinders, are closed down, otherwise oil is being wasted since the cylinders are not working and need no lubrication. But the air-compressor is running and Tom makes sure that a drop of condensate shimmers up through the water in the sight-glass of the center leg about every 20 to 30 seconds. This is enough to keep the relatively small cylinder of the air compressor operating happily.

Since they are about to move he also opens up the metering valves on the two outside legs and initially tunes them so a drop of oil slips up through the sight-glass about every 10 to 15 seconds. If that isn’t enough the piston rings riding on the valve and cylinder walls will start to groan and he’ll increase the oil-rate accordingly.

Newer steamers have positive-displacement oilers on each side near the crossheads that are mechanically pressurized by the reciprocating action of the valve-gear and keeping them filled with oil is just a matter of opening the cap and pouring in more oil since the oil reservoir is not pressurized. These usually have many more legs on them with low-pressure legs that oil the journals and bushings as well, eliminating the need for individual oil-cups. But these old Consolidations still use the hydrostatic lubricators and individual oil cups, all of which must be watched over carefully.

Satisfied that the lubricator is ready to go Tom opens a valve to let steam start spinning the generator mounted on top of the boiler just ahead of the cab.

In his earliest days as an engineer, back when he was often assigned to the oldest engines, he would have to climb up the smokebox, fill the headlamp’s reservoir with kerosene, usually spilling some of the oily fuel on himself because of the awkward perch, polish the reflectors and glass, trim the wick into an even arc above the double-sided metal button he pinned through it to spread the top of the wick wide for more flame, (a trick not in the manual but taught to him by the old-timers that were still around) then light the thing. And on a windy night that, the lighting it part, could be tricky.

Now all he has to do is wait for the generator to spin up to speed then turn the lever on a big, heavy rotary-switch to light up the headlamp. On the DP, ever since the engines were ‘electrified’ the Company Bible, the rulebook by which all employees live by, calls for lit headlamps anytime an engine is moving, day or night.

Another valve sends compressed air from the main reservoir out to the actuator that swings the clapper inside the fixed brass bell. Steam engines are surprisingly quiet when moving slowly, easily sneaking up on the unwary, so the bell must be used anytime the engine is moving within yard limits and before the air-powered actuators came along someone, usually the fireman or head-trainman, had the annoying job of constantly tugging at the bell-cord.

Next he squeezes the release handle on the Johnson-Bar which is sticking straight up by his side with a notched quadrant near its base to hold the bar in whatever position it is left, and eases it from neutral (straight up) to full forward, or in ‘the corner’. (All the way towards the front of the cab.)

You have to watch these Armstrong (manual) reversers and make sure you’re braced before squeezing the release-handle which releases the bar from the notched quadrant, otherwise the weight of the gear will jerk the bar forward and try to throw you right out the front of the cab. In fact there is an angled metal plate fixed to the footplate just forward of the Johnson-Bar so he can brace his foot against the pull.

One of the DP’s engines, 1421, has a screw-reverser that relies on a follower on an acme thread rather than a quadrant, and this holds the gear wherever it’s left at. Another advantage of the screw-reverser is its infinite adjustment which allows dialing in the perfect valve-cutoff for the conditions as opposed to being limited to the detent positions of the quadrant. But 1421's pretty much perpetual assignment to the Pipeline, where there is very little switching involved, suits Tom just fine because cranking the reversing gear from forward to reverse to forward again, and again; and again; during the switching moves that are a natural part of a freight’s daily grind can be a lot of work and he prefers the heavier but fast-acting Johnson-Bar’s.

Finally, after releasing the independent brake by pulling the lower of the two handles (2) on the brake pedestal back to the run position, Tom gives two one-second pulls on the whistle-cord to signal a forward move and opens the throttle, a lever anchored to the upper left side of the backplate and  terminating in a shoulder-high handle near his left side with linkage through the boiler to the valve on top of the steam-pipe. This, which technically is called a regulator since it regulates how much boiler-steam is released into the steam-pipe, is also held in place by a notched quadrant.

To wake the engine up he opens the throttle by four or five notches, which gets steam flowing into the steam pipe, through the super-heater tubes, and finally into the cylinders. He holds the throttle there just long enough for steam to reach the cylinders then quickly shuts it back down and lets expanding steam do the initial work. Since the running gear is always quartered on a steam engine which puts each side 90° out of sync with the other, at least one of the valves will be positioned to admit steam into its cylinder, no matter which direction the engine is supposed to go in.

Tom carefully watches the ground below the side window, right now lit by a flickering orange light from the fire seeping out through slots in the damper. He looks for the first sign that the engine is moving then opens the throttle back up by a couple notches, noting that the throttle is moving slickly with no sticking, not always the case on these old Consolidations.

He holds the throttle there for just long enough to get the engine rolling with enough speed to coast through the switch at the end of the ready-track where Ronald, the head trainman, is waiting. Once he judges he has enough speed he closes the throttle down again and lets the engine drift. But 1428 quickly reveals that it’s moving a little stiffly and he notches back out by just a little to help it along. Hopefully it’s because of new bushings that haven’t run in yet. If so they will loosen up after some time out on the main.

The primary purpose of the cylinder cocks, small valves at either end of both main cylinders, is to allow incompressible condensate that might have collected inside the cylinders while the engine was sitting, from causing damage once the piston starts moving. The hostler left them open when he parked the engine on the ready track earlier this morning because their secondary purpose is to ensure that the little bit of steam being injected into the valves, and from there into one of the cylinders, from the lubrication system doesn’t build up and potentially cause the piston to inadvertently move.

But now it only takes a few strokes of the pistons, or, with the C-14’s small diameter drivers, about 8 feet of movement along the ground in either direction, to clear the cylinders of most of the condensate* so Tom closes the air-operated cylinder cocks before the engine passes Ronald. No need to blow steam and wet dust all over his head trainman.

*Any remaining condensate will quickly be boiled off as the incoming steam heats the cylinder up.

Once the engine drifts through the switch Ronald relines it and trots along the track to catch up to the receding tender where he swings himself up on the rear footboard.

Their rear trainman, Dean,* has already lined the next couple of switches and Tom eases the engine out of the ready track, around the slight curve and through the first set of crossovers which places him on the arrival track side of the yard lead. (The Upbound Ore Turn is currently occupying the departure track. Early mornings are a busy time in the Goat Crossing Yard.)

*Dean’s real name is Harold Winton Short, but one day he snuck off with a girl from school to see a new movie called My Friend Irma (The movie itself didn’t matter to Harold near as much as getting his female classmate into a dark place did.) she claimed he looked just like the dreamy Steve Laird character played by someone named Dean Martin that not only sang and looked good, but got the girl too. Harold decided that Dean was a much more fitting name, and image, for himself and quickly adopted it, as well as the man’s hairstyle, as his own, though his mother still calls him Harold, or worse, sometimes Harry.  

It only takes a slight application of the independent brake, which operates only the brakes on the engine and tender, by moving the lever all the way forward just long enough to lightly set them, then back to center to hold the set, to bring 1428 to a stop clear of the switch-points of that first set of crossovers. After grabbing the Johnson bar with both hands and hauling it back towards himself to the full reverse position, Tom sticks his head out the open side-window to make sure that the two switches behind him have now been lined for the yard-lead. Because he has a road tender which is too high to allow him to see anything down the left side, Jake is checking out his side to make sure things over there are clear for the reverse move coming up.

Three short whistles, no more than quick, practiced taps on the cord, signal his intent to move backwards and Tom releases the brake and repeats the notch-the-throttle-out, close-it-down, check-the-ground-is-moving, notch-it-back, and drift, sequence.

As it comes by Ronald swings up on the rear footboard of the tender again. This time he is facing backwards and begins wind-milling his lantern slowly to let Tom know to keep moving. It takes a slightly cracked throttle to keep 1428 trundling down the yard-lead to where Dean has already lined the switch for yard-track 3.

Tom closes the throttle several car-lengths before he reaches the switch and keeps his hand on the independent, carefully watching Ronald’s signals as the engine curls into the yard-track to fetch it’s consist.

Ronald starts reducing the circle his lantern is making until he has cut it down to just a slow curling of his wrist, which he finishes off with a final downward slash as he guides Tom back until 1428 kisses the coupler on the lead car, that loaded tank car Tom isn’t too keen on, with a metallic clang.

Tom then sets the independent and neutrals the reversing-gear by moving the Johnson Bar to the top-center detent. The next thing Ronald has to do is step between the tender and the tank car to buckle the rubber (hook up the air hoses) and, ever since flying and Dutch drops have been outlawed,* other than riding a cut down the hill in a hump yard, of which the DP has none, or negotiating the roof-walk on a moving car, (forbidden now by many union agreements and railroad rules) stepping between cars is one of the most dangerous things a trainman has to do.

*A flying drop was used to get a car into a facing-point switch without having to run the engine around the train to shove it in. With the car coupled to the engine the engineer would speed up, one trainman, riding the car, would lean over and pull the coupling pin, the engineer would race ahead with the engine and as soon as he cleared the switch another trainman would throw it and the coasting car would roll through the switch into the spur or siding with the first trainman, who by now has scrambled up the ladder, hanging on for dear life as he waits for the right moment to stop the car with the brake-wheel.

A Dutch drop, the reverse of a flying drop, was even more complicated and dangerous. In this case the engine would nose into the siding or spur, connect up to the car and drag it backwards. Once it was rolling fast enough the dangling trainman would uncouple it so the engine could race backwards through the switch which would be thrown as soon as the wheels were clear, then he would dart forward down the main to get out of the way and the switch would be relined to allow the rolling car to coast out onto the main behind the engine and, hopefully, be slowed enough by the handbrake that it didn’t crash into something.

To be continued 

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