How to operate a steam locomotive

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If you ever manage to peek inside the train operator’s compartment in the subway, the whole operation may seem simple to you. There aren’t many controls to work with. But it’s just an electric train. As far as steam engines are concerned, things seem much more complicated.

This instructional video follows Union Pacific Engineer Stephen A. Lee, Firefighter Lynn Nystrom, as they explain what the crew does to prepare UP 844, the class’s newest passenger locomotive. 800 Union Pacific built by the American Locomotive Company (ALCO) during World War II.

This loco was designed to haul 26 passenger cars at speeds of up to 90 mph on flat ground, making it one of the most powerful and capable steam locomotives ever produced.

At about nine minutes, Lee climbs into the cab and gives an overview of all the equipment, how responsibilities are divided between engineer and fireman, and how everything comes together to help the crew run the locomotive.

What impresses me the most is how much the process is carried out by feeling. The fireman and the engineer explain that listening to the sound of the locomotive and feeling the vibration of the train is as important if not more important than keeping an eye on the series of gauges in front of them.

Today, with screens that make up most of a train operator’s compartment, this locomotive looks old in comparison. But when it comes to getting the train moving, speeding up and slowing down, not much is really different. There is always an accelerator and a speedometer. The rest of the UP 844’s gauges and instruments are aimed at keeping the boiler hot and healthy.

Now, I recognize that this summary of what is involved is quite superficial. I don’t know much about how steam locomotives work, and I’m sure many of you know a lot more than I do. If I’ve made any mistakes in this little summary, please let me know.

Jose P. Rogers