Category Archives: Q&As/Trivia

Guide to Model Railroading- questions, answers, terminology

Firing a Steam Locomotive: The Real Scoop

MORE COAL!“, roars the deranged engineer, as the over-exuberant fireman frantically dumps seven tons of coal through the firedoor all at once, in an effort to get the “Cannonball” in on-time.

…Or so the stereotype goes. In reality, firing a steam locomotive in the ways movies, or popular culture suggests, would simply result in a smothered fire, a stabbed schedule, and a fireman out of a job. Coal-firing a steam locomotive involves the same principle critical to nearly every aspect of life: moderation. As anyone who has built a wood fire can understand, having good air flow is just as important as having enough fuel on the grate, and quickly dumping tons of fuel on at once is a good way to give a locomotive “black firebox disease”.

In a nutshell, the guiding idea behind firing a steam locomotive is “little, and often”. This allows the fuel to be burned at a rate that doesn’t let it pile high across the bed, and block the air flowing through from below. Additionally, just as important as the rate the fuel is fed, is how evenly it is spread across the grate. In general, the bed of fuel should cover all areas, with no holes where the grates themselves are visible. When adding fuel, the fireman will usually spread coal with a scoop for each area of the firebox: the front (below the tube sheet), the center, each side, the corners, and the back, right below the firedoor.

Every locomotive is different when it comes to which areas of the grate burn more rapidly, or how the firebed shifts as the locomotive runs. The draft pulled through the grate from the locomotive working will draw the firebed to  different areas (usually from either the sides, to the center, or the rear, to the front), and a fireman has to know his locomotive to fire it properly, and avoid wasting fuel by dumping it in the wrong areas. As such, firing a locomotive has always been an art form, rather than an exact science. When adding water to the boiler, the fireman must also account for the cooler temperature of the water being injected, and will “fire against the injector (the appliance used to add water)”, and add fuel to prevent a significant loss in pressure from the cold water.

And with that, you should be all steamed up, and on your way!


Fireman at work on one of the Durango & Silverton's K-36 mikados.

Fireman at work on one of the Durango & Silverton’s K-36 mikados.





Gandy Dancers: Make a Rhyme and Keep Time

Before the dawn of mechanized track maintenance equipment, railroad section gangs, armed with spike mauls, lining bars, and other tools, maintained the right of way in all manners of weather, from under the beating sun, to driving rains. Working in groups which could range in numbers from a motley crew of a half-dozen, to small armies of men, these laborers kept the trains rolling amidst an endless battle with nature, and the relentless pounding of trains hammering their way over the road.

Many of the movements required in maintaining track, such as driving spikes, or lining (shifting the track), were best done in unison. To achieve this, the men would create a rhythm, often in the form of a song or chant, to perform the work to, with the tools providing the beat.

Below is a video recorded in 1929, in Columbia, SC, of an African American section crew at work on a spur line for the construction of the Saluda Dam, which was opened the following year:

Railroading Folklore Short: Washout

One day, on a division of the Louisville & Nashville, a young section foreman was sent out on his run, to inspect the track along a winding riverside branch of the line. As an educated man, his reports were typically well-written, and highly detailed, but could be overly verbose at times. This earned him the reprimand of the superintendent, who told him that while he was a good writer, that the foreman should, “get to the point, with just the facts; it’s not a love letter.”

On this day, he arrived at the point where the railroad crossed the river, after days of heavy rains had swollen the waters. Bringing his velocipede to a stop, he stepped off, surveyed the scene, and drafted this letter to the superintendent:


Where the railroad was, the river is.”

– Cinders

Speeding Along: Railroad Motorcars

Quite often, customers notice the peculiar, little motorized box with windows sitting on our shelf, and upon asking what it is, and getting my reply, this question usually follows: “What the heck is a speeder?”

Speeders, or railroad motorcars, were essentially a development of manually-operated railroad handcars, which were used for track inspection, and transporting maintenance crews. First appearing in the late 1890s, and becoming more common between 1905-1910, railroad motorcars replaced the manual pump-lever, and crank axle drive of handcars with single cylinder gas engines, connected to either a belt, or chain drive to the rear axle. Like handcars, these early speeders were typically open, with no protection from the elements; simply bench seats, with end handrails.  Eventually, motorcars were optionally fitted with windshields, roofs, seats, headlamps, and fully-enclosed cabs with side doors, although most motorcars came equipped with open sides, and canvas side curtains. By the 1920s, the speeder had all but replaced the ubiquitous handcars of the past on most railroads.

The size of motorcars varied greatly, from stubby two-man cars, to massive nine-man gang cars. As cars grew larger, the engines grew with them; although the early single-cylinder “hit-and-miss” engines lasted in production into the 1970s, most of the larger cars were fitted with the Ford, or Wisconsin four-cylinder industrial engines commonly found in tractors.

Speeders reigned through most of the twentieth century, but production ended for most of these cars by the 1980s. By this point, Hy-Rails, or road vehicles equipped with railroad wheels, were steadily replacing speeders, and by the 1990s, hyrails had taken the place of the quirky motorcars. Today, speeders are still operated by some shortline railroads, and individuals who organize excursions on railroads across the country, through the North American Railcar Operator’s Association.

On the left, an ST-2 model four-man car, built in 1972 by Fairmont Railway Motors for the Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad. On the right, a nine-man Fairmont A4-D, built in 1974 for the Army Corps of Engineers.

On the left, an ST-2 model four-man car, built in 1972 by Fairmont Railway Motors for the Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad. On the right, a nine-man Fairmont A4-D, built in 1974 for the Army Corps of Engineers. The ST-2 is equipped with the traditional single-cylinder RQD engine and belt drive, while the A-4D is equipped with a Ford four-cylinder industrial engine, and four-speed transmission.


Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Firebox: Steam Cuisine

Just as their modern counterparts are today, railroaders of the steam era were known for their legendary appetites. However, tight scheduling didn’t typically allow for meal breaks, and crews usually didn’t get a proper sit-down meal until the end of the shift. And with the bone-chilling winds of winter streaking around the cab, crews weren’t exactly keen on a cold sandwich and ice water. So what did you do if you wanted a hot meal? You used the built-in oven in the cab!  Many locomotive engineers, and firemen, were “backhead chefs”, and used the locomotive’s firebox to do their hot meal preparations. On coal-fired locomotives, the fireman would rinse off and oil his coal scoop, as one would a skillet, before placing the food on, and hanging it through the firedoor. This was a tricky procedure on fast-moving locomotives, as the draft from the locomotive’s exhaust could literally suck the food off of the scoop! As such, cooking on the scoop was usually performed either at slow speeds, or when standing still. On many wood-burning locomotives, in backwoods operations, or in the early days of mainline railroading, it wasn’t uncommon for crews to carry a skillet on the long runs. In addition to using the scoop, or traditional cooking utensils, crews also used the backhead shelf above the firedoor, installed to keep steam oil (tallow) warm, as a place to keep their hot drinks toasty.

Amtrak to Say Goodbye to the AEM-7

Tomorrow marks the end of an era, as Amtrak bids farewell to the AEM-7. The locomotives have been in use since 1979, they are being replaced by the ACS-64.


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