Thursday, July 31, 2014

Coal River: Firing a Steam Locomotive in the Rain

Story and photos by Tyler Trahan, RMNE volunteer
All photos were taken while off duty.

What kid hasn't dreamed about working aboard a steam locomotive? I expect most envision being the engineer, one gloved hand on the Johnson Bar and the other on the whistle cord as the fiery beast snorts and clanks along the main line. But to become an engineer, one must advance from the ranks of the fireman.

The Robin to the engineer's Batman, the fireman doesn't command the same hero status but is just as necessary. Steam locomotives get their power from the boiling of water into steam, and it's the fireman's job to regulate the water and fuel intake in the proper quantities: too little or too much of either gives the engineer insufficient steam pressure, and a careless fireman who lets the water drop too low will cause the boiler to explode.

Every summer, the Railroad Museum of New England plays host to a visiting steam locomotive, either Lehigh Valley Coal Co. No. 126 ("Sadie") or Flagg Coal Co. No. 75 ("Hank"), both restored by father and son team John and Barney Gramling.

Museum volunteers crew the train, with engineer and fireman carefully trained and supervised by John Gramling or experienced museum personnel. In July and August 2014, it was Sadie's turn to visit, and I was eager to try my hand at firing a steam locomotive.

The morning of Sunday, July 27th, dawned cool and cloudy over Thomaston Shop. Trains were scheduled for 10:00, 12:00, and 14:00, so crew call time was 08:00. Sadie was already at Thomaston Station so U23B No. 2203 would take the three coaches and caboose there from their overnight home at the shop, then lay over in the runaround track during the day.

At 08:30, the skies opened up just as the train crew was starting the terminal air brake test. Dressed in bright yellow raincoats and ponchos, they completed the test and then headed back into the shop for the job briefing and to receive a Form D movement permit from the dispatcher. We headed north as the rain ceased, pausing only to open the derail and switch onto the main line, and then again to close them behind us.

At Thomaston Station, Sadie was already waiting with her fire built. The two crews swapped locomotives to put No. 2203 on the runaround track and Sadie on the train.

Trains run from Thomaston Station four miles south to just shy of the Frost Bridge Road crossing, then return to the station. Sadie shoves the train down with a crew member giving the engineer car counts via radio ("Brakeman to LVC 126, clear fifteen cars, one five."), and leads the return trip. It's mostly downgrade or level track running south, but the trip north to the station traverses a stiff, winding grade along the Naugatuck River. Indeed, building a fire to provide steam for this return trip is the task of the day for the easy shove south.

I had signed up for the noontime run, and reported to the locomotive around 11:30 as the skies darkened with an approaching storm. Engineer Howard Pincus and fireman Sam Walker explained the controls and firing technique, and I started building the fire for the southbound shove. Sam would ride with me to supervise, as this was my first time even entering the cab of a locomotive under steam, much less firing one.

Two water sight gauges, resembling mercury thermometers, are mounted on the rear of the firebox -- the rear in this case being relative to the locomotive, so that the front of the firebox is in the front of the cab and the rear in the back where the fireman stands. It's a balancing act of giving the locomotive enough water to keep the boiler covered (if it’s not, a nasty explosion results), but not too much that steam pressure drops unacceptably low. On this locomotive, optimal pressure is between 150 and 160 psi, low pressure is considered below 120 psi, and the safety valves pop at 170 psi.

Firemen traditionally would handle both water and coal, but as a student I was pretty occupied with coal alone. In a low fire such as when sitting in the station or drifting downgrade, I watched for flameless "holes" and filled them with coal. When building or maintaining a hot fire, Sam recommended a methodical three-scoops-at-a-time approach, laying down three scoops across the width of the firebox in alternating front, middle and rear areas of the firebox -- nine scoops in total before starting over again.

At 11:45, it started to rain, building in intensity as our noontime departure neared. Thunder rolled through the Naugatuck Valley. I was busy filling holes in the low fire, starting to build up some steam pressure for the easy trip south. At five minutes to noon, the sky opened up, heavy droplets of rain pounding the cab roof and thunder exploding so close and loud that I thought I felt my skull shake. The conductor's radio transmission to proceed south was barely intelligible over the din. Sam began to ring the bell, sticking his head out the cab window to watch the platform. Three whistle blasts pierced the roar of the storm and Howard carefully eased the throttle back.

The apprehensive cylinder exhausts of the accelerating locomotive were lost to me amidst the sudden deluge of water onto the footplate where I stood. Heavy rain pelted me, mixing with slanted runoff from the coach roof above. My shirt darkened and stuck to my arms, and before we even cleared the platform, I was resolved to the fact that I was going to be soaked through within a few minutes.

As we rolled along the Naugatuck River, I began to clumsily stoke the fire, practicing the swing of the shovel in the cramped cab. It was difficult to throw the coal all the way to the front of the firebox even with the shovel inside the door opening -- most of the coal would fall off the back or sides of the shovel into the rear of the firebox. Sam suggested I both swap my grip on the shovel and throw from outside the door, which helped significantly. Meanwhile, the water sight gauges were becoming increasingly hard to read. While Howard had said earlier that grades, superelevated curves, and acceleration can complicate an accurate read, my main problem was with sloshing water that had the gauge reading alternately mostly empty to 75% full. While I kept an eye on the sight gauges for the entire trip, Sam took responsibility for watching and adding water, which I was grateful for.

Passing the shop, two miles south of the station, I was soaked through. My overalls seemed to weigh twice as much as I moved around the cab. Water ran down my legs and filled my boots. The bulletin order in my breast pocket was reduced to mush. My safety glasses were covered in fog and droplets, but kept the rain out of my eyes. Water dripped from the tip of my nose, the elbows of my shirt, and when I bent down to open the firebox door, my knees. I wondered if I’d be able to put my work gloves back on today or if they’d be too tight. The coal coming out of the bunker tumbled into a puddle, and a black river of coal dust ran downhill on the steel cab floor, under the engineer’s side door, and out of sight. Each shovelful of coal looked like a spoonful of thick soup, with coal potatoes and watery broth that steamed and hissed when it hit the inside of the firebox. To the passengers taking turns watching from the coach vestibule just behind me, I must have looked like I just fell in a lake.

The rain finally subsided by by the time we reached Frost Bridge Road to reverse direction. My fire was roaring, an impenetrable wall of flame that had the steam pressure close to 170 psi, dangerously close to popping the safety valves. As we gently braked to a stop, Sam added a long swig of water and I cracked open the firebox door. The pressure subsided slightly and we readied for the long uphill climb. “Conductor to LVC 126,” the radio crackled, “proceed north to Thomaston Station, out.” Howard carefully started the heavy train with nary a slip on the wet rail, and we began the difficult climb up to Thomaston Station.

My memory of the trip home is a blur of shoveling coal. I know the sun came out as we crossed Chase Bridge, and that our steam pressure hovered around 140 psi for most of the trip, 20 lbs lower than I would have liked. I know that we made the trip without stopping, and I remember the pain in my left leg from a firebox door left open too long. But mostly, I remember shoveling coal in a steady, rhythmic pattern.

The cycle starts with three scoops across the front of the firebox, all the way in. Shove the shovel into the pile of coal spilling from the door at the bottom of the bunker. Brace myself for the heat, lift the firebox door latch and swing it open. A wall of fire and heat greets me, like putting my face too close to an oven too soon after opening the door. I lean briefly against the rear wall of the cab to steady myself against the rocking locomotive, grab the shovel, and throw the first scoop. Front left. Another scoop to the front middle. Last one, front right. Gloved hand to the open firebox door, shut and latched. Ka-clank. The final step is to use the shovel or my foot to scrape any spilled coal on the floor back into the pile. The wet footplate of a rocking locomotive is no place for stray chunks of coal impeding your footing. Repeat until Sam tells me that we’re approaching Thomaston Station, and I should let the fire simmer down a little for the 45-minute wait until the next run.

The author after his run, sans wet gloves. Photo by HP.

We roll into the station victorious, to no fanfare but with the immense satisfaction of completing a tough run. When told by another volunteer that “if it’s any consolation, the passengers all felt sorry for you,” I simply replied that I don’t come here to sit around and do nothing. If nothing else, this was my first foray into the cab of a living steam locomotive, and getting drenched firing it up a stiff upgrade in a thunderstorm was an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life!

For more information about volunteering at the Railroad Museum of New England, visit