High Iron

A blog about volunteering on a railroad in Berkeley

Sunday, August 27, 2006

A briefing on starting up

I haven't posted about the latest two trips up to the railroad. Real life is beginning to intercede with the impending new semester at grad school, so I slipped a bit on this blog.

Last thursday was 4 hours at the railroad, just working on the platform. I answered lots of questions about how steam engines work, and how track gets laid and maintained. I punched tickets, told people to keep their arms and heads inside the carriages, and picked up litter in the platform area. Fairly uneventful.

It's last Tuesday that was the interesting day. Number 11 had been in the shop, having its right-side injector checked. I helped him get it back onto the locomotive, and then he talked me through the process of steaming up. I can't remember it all, since there are tons of little things to do. I could work up a checklist at some point. Anyway, there are a dozen or so lubrication points, which require two different sorts of oil. There're check-valves which need to be closed at one point, and opened at others. When the engine is making steam, several components in the cab operate off that steam. When the engine is cold, however, we replicate steam with air pressure from an air compressor. The two primary components that run off this air feed are the blower and the atomizer. The blower is a pipe of live steam that exits right beneath the smoke stack in the front of the locomotive. It blasts steam up the smokestack, creating a vacuum in the front of the smokebox, which draws air through the fire. The atomizer, on the other hand, is sort of like a fuel injector in the firebox. Our engines are fired with #2 stove oil, which drips into the atomizer. The atomizer, another feed of steam, turns the oil into a mist which sprays over the fire.

Both of these components are essential to getting the fire going. You do it by lighting a few pieces of paper towel alight with a match and shoving it into the firebox. Once it's going, you turn on a bit of blower to create an airflow through the firebox, and a bit of both fuel feed and atomizer, to give the fire fuel. It'll (generally) pop to life, and then you just have to wait for 45 minutes or so to bring up the water to the boiling point.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Digging a ditch

Yesterday, Grant and I put in a 3" PVC drainage pipe. We ran it underneath the track in the Front Loop, where heavy rain water tends to pool up, and then parallel to the track for about thirty-five feet where the water can drain into a large field. This required lots and lots and lots of picking with a pickaxe, then digging and hoeing. We took care of a 4" diameter root with an axe, and then buried the whole shebang beneath eight wheelbarrow-loads of reclaimed ballast rock.

I'm feeling it in my shoulders today. I got to run the #2 again, though.

Tomorrow and Sunday are the work weekend for this month, so I'll be up there for about 9 hours. I'll take the camera.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Retaining Wall Photos

A few posts back, I mentioned the head wall that we rebuilt, and that I'd take some photos. Here they are, finally:

Picking up brush, and more planting

I got there bright and early this morning. Ray, Jim and I hung out in the roundhouse for a little while. I watched the two of them prep #4 "Laurel" for a day of running, and waiting for the fog to burn off a little. There was so much fog this morning.

Way back on my first day volunteering, Ellen and I cleared a ton of brush and weeds. I wrote then that
We pile the brush in neat, orderly piles by the side of the track; later we'll haul a gondola with the work locomotive and pick up all the brush for disposal.
And that's what I did this morning. Since the steam locomotives take more than an hour to steam up, and we're not open until noon on weekdays, so I'd have the track to myself (which was reassuring, since it was my first time unsupervised out on the mainline). I took #2 "Juniper", the work locomotive pictured on the right, and a flatcar, and worked around the whole track a few times. I wound up with nearly 3 car-loads of brush cleared off the track, which makes it look a lot neater.

Plus, hey, I was running a locomotive, by myself, blowing the whistle at the right places and in the right sequences (there's a code, you know).

I spent the afternoon doing more planting. I put in more liriope and lilies, like yesterday, and added a few lavenders in 1 gallon containers. I promise we're not working our way through the L plants; we're doing some Junipers later, and they start with a J!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Plants, Injectors, and Bearings

Did three things today. First, I put in more plants in the planter boxes that line the platform area. We're putting in Liriope (Lily Grass or Lily Turf) and Lilies, which will hopefully tolerate the shadiness under the redwoods. I'm getting pretty good at planting, especially in the hard-packed clay dirt in those planter boxes. The pickaxe is a useful tool for loosening up massive clumps of impacted clay soil. I think there's some more to do tomorrow.

The second thing I did was ride with Grant on the footplate of #4. The two injectors on the right-hand side of the cab were acting up, so it was my job to work the injector on the left-hand side.

So what does the injector do? As the engine uses up steam to push the train, work the whistle, etc., the water level in the boiler drops. The steam injector is used to top off the water in the boiler from the water in the tender. The injector's operation is sort of like an airbrush, in which steam (either from the boiler or from the cylinder exhaust) is forced through the body of the injector, into which water is also fed. The pressure of the steam picks up the tender water and forces it through into the boiler, the same way the high air pressure in an airbrush picks up paint on its way to the nozzle. Paul Pavlinovich has written an excellent article explaining steam injectors in more detail.

So, several times during the run I opened up the feedwater valve, and then the injector steam. This forces water through into the boiler, and the boiler's water level increases. On our locomotives the injectors are all "live steam", meaning the steam feed into the injector is directly out of the steam supply in the boiler. Since using the injector saps some of the steam pressure in the boiler, we only do it during periods when the locomotive isn't under heavy use.

The two biggest jobs that a locomotive fireman has are maintaining a proper water level in the boiler and making sure the fire in the firebox is an appropriate size and temperature for the needs of adequate steam production. It's all about water and fire. I'm not at the point where I'm firing the locomotive (which in our engines is primarily about regulating the feed of fuel oil into the fire, since we don't use coal), but I've got the basics of handling the steam injectors.

Finally, I helped Grant take apart, check, and repack the bearings on a passenger car truck. The trucks are the sets of wheels at each end of the car. They call them bogies in the UK (and that's the Wikipedia entry). We lifted the car end with jacks, and rolled the truck out. Propping up the truck, we removed some bolts that hold the journal box in place. The journal box holds a set of bearings within which the axle rotates. They wear down, and need to be cleaned and repacked regularly. Next time you see a train car, look on the outside of the wheel axles. Those squarish-looking parts are the journal boxes. So I got my hands all greasy on top of the dirt from the planting. A thoroughly satisfactory day.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Pretty full day yesterday, but I got up to the railroad for 2 hours to take some photos. A few of the best are below, and I've moved the whole gallery over to flickr (and updated the link on the left).

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


We're going camping tomorrow, up at Lassen Volcanic National Park, so this is a quick entry. Today, Ellen and I did a little landscaping work around the front platform. We have planter boxes lining the walkway up to the depot and the platform, and we've been replacing some of the plants in them. Using pickax and shovel, we'd loosen up the soil, work in some perlite, and bed the plants (dwarf ceanothus, lily grass, and something else lily-like; I'm not really a plant guy). Then the beds got a good soaking, along with a little fertilizer.

Meanwhile, Grant was running #4 "Laurel" with the passenger trains, as is typical for weekday operations. It was a pretty warm, and after we got the planting done, I went around with Grant on the footplate. I'm beginning to notice how one needs to fire the locomotive during the run. There's a slight downhill grade running from Army Camp into the tunnel, and then an uphill grade running from the tunnel out to the Back Loop.

Anyway, just a bit of work to keep things looking spiffy.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Finished a retaining wall, and ran around on locos

I left my jacket up at the shop yesterday, so I figured it was a good enough excuse to put in 4 hours or so at the railroad.

In yesterday's post I mentioned the work we'd done on the track running into the shop. Today we finished up the retaining wall, through-bolting the rail plate into the top of the wall and then filling it in with ballast. More tamping! We do a lot of tamping on this railroad, which is hard work, but it's so satisfying to ride over newly leveled and tamped track.

While getting the shop spur finished up, Ray had been steaming up #4 which had been in the shop when the track work had started. As we put away the tools (and headed in for a bowl of ice cream), Ray and Paul fired up #4 for a run. Oil-fired locomotives like ours can get soot building up in their flues, so when first steaming up you sometimes need to sandblast them To do this, you work the locomotive really hard, generating maximum draft from the firebox through to the smokestack, and then you drop in a little sand, which blasts through the flues. For a good description of the parts of a boiler, have a look at this page by Tim Overton.

I headed down just in time to see the #4 couple up to the #7 which was heading the passenger trains today. We doubleheaded a passenger train, with me riding on #4's footplate next to Ray while Grant and Harrison drove #7 behind us. Paul is supposed to send me a photo or two later on.

Then it was time to put #4 away, but yesterday Grant and I had put away #2 "Juniper" in its place. Having heard that I'd run #2 yesterday, Ray and Paul agreed that I could run #2 back down to Barn 1 (in the back half of the track) and Ray would follow us in #4. We'd put "Juniper" away in the work barn, and then I'd catch a ride back up with Ray and Paul on "Laurel". So two days in a row now I got to drive a loco on the railroad.

And two days in a row I did a lot of work, and my back is a little sore, and I'm quite tired. Good night!