Retrotechtacular: How To Repair A Steam Locomotive

Steam locomotives, as a technological product of the 19th century, are not what you would imagine as fragile machines. The engineering involved is not inconsequential, there is little about them that is in any way flimsy. They need to be made in this way, because the huge energy transfer required to move a typical train would destroy lesser construction. It would however be foolish to imagine a locomotive as indestructible, placing that kind of constant strain on even the heaviest of engineering is likely to cause wear, or component failure.

A typical railway company in the steam age would therefore maintain a repair facility in which locomotives would be overhauled on a regular basis, and we are lucky enough to have a 1930s film of one for you today courtesy of the British London Midland and Scottish railway. In it we follow one locomotive from first inspection through complete dismantling, lifting of the frame from the wheels, detaching of the boiler, inspection of parts, replacement, and repair, to final reassembly.

We see steps in detail such as the set-up of a steam engine’s valve gear, and it is impressed upon us how much the factory runs on a tight time schedule. Each activity fits within its own time window, and like a modern car factory all the parts are brought to the locomotive at their allotted times. When the completed locomotive is ready to leave the factory it is taken to the paint shop to emerge almost as a new machine, ready for what seems like a short service life for a locomotive, a mere 130 thousand miles.

The video, which we’ve placed below the break, is a fascinating glimpse into the world of a steam locomotive servicing facility. Most Hackaday readers will never strip down a locomotive, but that does not stop many of them from having some interest in the process. Indeed, keen viewers may wish to compare this film with “A Study in Steel“, another film from the LMS railway showing the construction of a locomotive.

LMS Jubilee class number 5605, “Cyprus”, the featured locomotive in this film, was built in 1935, and eventually scrapped in 1964 as part of the phasing out of steam traction on British railways.

41 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: How To Repair A Steam Locomotive

  1. I love these videos – the tools seem much cruder than todays’ and there doesn’t seem to be as much health and safety. One guy standing underneath holding a glowing rivet inches from his face (no goggles) while the other guy hammers it while sparks fly off. Huge hand operated machines that are probably steam driven and likely have no torque control.
    Fascinating engineering.

      1. Yeah, the relative lack of safety equipment is quite apparent, compared to today’s standards. But it’s also nice to see workers getting stuff done without requiring tons of armour and orange vests to just turn a nut with a wrench.

        The scale – small humans and big, heavy parts – might make it look crude, but relatively speaking, this is precision work.

        I don’t see crude, I see a well-organized process that efficiently rebuilt several big precision machines a week. Given the amount of thimgs that must be inspected and rebuilt, you get an appreciation for how much work it is to restore and maintain the few remaining steam engines still around.

  2. ” Most Hackaday readers will never strip down a locomotive, but that does not stop many of them from having some interest in the process.”

    One would think there are much smaller versions like say for a park.

    1. There are some model engineers out there still building scale models. Some of which can be considered full size locomotives in their own right.

      I’ve driven model steam locomotives myself (7 1/4 inch gauge) and also driven steam tractors and rollers. To me no man made thing has ever come closer to being alive than a steam driven machine. The gurgles and pops of the boiler, the crackling of the fire in the firebox, the howl and hiss of the extractor pulling air through the firebox and boiler tubes and out the chimney, the quiet rattle and tapping of the valve gear and drive train. It all combines in a sort of language. Listen carefully and your locomotive quietly whispers to you all you need to hear. Starve it and it’ll run out of breath. Go heavy on the water feed and it drowns. Get it right and it’s so much fun.

      1. About the “being alive” thing. I once had the luck to see (or more like “encounter”) a 16.000HP steam engine driving a rolling mill in action before it was phased out a few months later.

        Seriously, I was overwhelmed with a sense of “presence” I can’t really describe. It was like meeting a giant whale or someting must feel like. Quite eerie…

        1. The most eerie thing about it is often the sense of effortless power you get from these machines. It’s a 16.000HP engine, yet you can whisper to one another within a few feet of it and effortlessly understand one-another (apart from other noise sources in some settings).

          For anyone ever visiting the Netherlands, if you have a chance, visit the Ir. D.F. Woudagemaal pumping station ( A UNESCO site and a fully operational steam pumping station. Especially on running days this is a feast for the senses (but expect to wait an hour and get only a short time inside on running days). 4x 500HP tandem compound steam engines quietly pumping thousands of cubic meters of water from the polder to the Ijsselmeer. A cathedral of steam power.

          1. Exactly! It was unbelievably quiet. Even when it changed direction it came quite gently to a halt, then some deep clunking was audible and it started up again with reversed rotation. All that with totally “effortless power”, as you put it.

            The constant changing of direction only added to the feeling that you are witnessing something alive. Like a quietly snoring dragon…

            It may sound really weird, but I had to stay a bit before I followed the group out, because I had to pull myself together to not get all teary eyed…

            I’ll be sure to visit Woudagemaal some time! It’s not THAT far away from the south-west of germany…

  3. I am a bit curious: Didn’t know steam locomotives was used til half of 20th Century. Is this a British/Scottish exclusive, or other parts of world used steam propulsion on the railroads?

    I’m from Brazil and, in my state, there’s a very old steam locomotive still in operation (for tourist purposes only), in a small patch between two cities. It’s nicknamed “Maria Fumaça” in alusion to the great amount of smoke it generates when in operation:

    1. India was still using steam into the 1990s, South Africa ditto on some lines, Australia at least in the early 70s some mining lines still using it. The Soviet Bloc was rather shy about their steam traction late in the communist era and didn’t like to let Western enthusiasts ride on steam passenger services or photograph any, due to the perception of steam power being backward and out of date. Possibly still running in Eastern republics, not sure.

          1. Because the mighty Soviet Union that singlehandedly (according to Russian history books) won the WW2 didn’t actually have any industrial capacity to mention. 80% of the population were peasants struggling under famines caused by the town-dwelling (lit. “Bourgeoisie” – town dweller) communists’ attempts at confiscating agricultural goods to sell in exchange for foreign industrial goods.

            You see, when the communists came to power, they didn’t realise that the urban society they came from existed because of the capitalist exploitation of the countryside. The communists were all upper middle class in origin. When they took power they split the land equally among the people, and as a consequence everybody left the cities to become homesteaders and plunged the industrial development of Russia 100 years backwards.

            So, at the end of the Finnish-Soviet wars, the 10% of land area that Finland lost actually contained enough hydroelectric dams to count for 30% of electric production in the whole Soviet Union. The war reparations, plus the US material aid where they sent hundreds of thousands of trucks, jeeps, even shipped entire factories over, basically built the Soviet Union for Stalin.

          2. So I guess the irony is that the steam locomotives aren’t so much a symbol of backwardness, but of the total incompetence of the Soviet system as they weren’t even built in the Soviet Union.

          3. >”Well, the Soviets got to space first”

            Yep, after putting Sergey Korolyov – an Ukrainian – into the gulag because Stalin started offing all the engineers and intellectuals on the point of becoming too dependent on them. You see, after the revolution, the communists found themselves in the minority and saw their power in jeopardy because the people had gotten their redistributed means of production and the vast majority were actually self-sustaining on their tiny farmsteads and small villages. They had succeeded in their purpose of making the parasites of society unable to sustain themselves – problem was: they were the parasites.

            Hence why Lenin made a little slight of hand – he departed from Marx in saying that the people would revolt automatically as they became conscious of their class, and instead maintained that the point and purpose of the communist party was to act as a “vanguard” of the people, to maintain the perpetual revolution against corrupting influences – the political class was now an essential class, essential in telling everyone what and how to think to keep heading towards socialism, and therefore they didn’t need to do any actual productive work to deserve their upkeep.

            So the communist elite had become the bourgeoisie instead of the bourgeoisie, and in reality they were left without a real purpose as they were living off the backs of the peasantry like the capitalists and the royalty before them – and they didn’t have any industry to produce the goods to pay for the food, or to import goods – except for what they got as spoils of war from the annexed regions – so Stalin started forced collectivization to transform the small peasant farms into large collective farms where the surplus could be more efficiently collected and taken away for the communist elite to consume. Reason being that if an individual farmer made an extra bag of rye a year, they would rather eat it themselves than trade for funny money from the state, which couldn’t buy anything. To add injury to insult, Stalin had let the charlatan Lysenko loose on the countryside, which resulted in massive crop losses and a real famine as his “science” was applied on the collective farms – but this only allowed Stalin to play on the myth of the food-hoarding Kulaks and kill more politically inconvenient people – especially in Ukraine which was worth more to the Soviet Union than the Soviet Union was worth to Ukraine. The easiest way for Moscow to fix the situation then was to kill or deport as many Ukranians as possible, and transplant ethnic Russians instead as the new ruling class.

            Anyways, Stalin started purging all the intellectuals who might still have political affiliations with the old regime, simply to consolidate his own power, and the rocket scientists were no different. Korolyov almost died in prison camps, and suistained injuries that later lead to his early demise, at which point the Soviet space program all but collapsed, because the new crew was less well educated mainly for the purpose of unquestioning loyalty.

            Out the window went good scientific practice of doubting and discovering, replaced with “do what you’re told and don’t think”. With that, out went the Soviet lead in the space race.

    2. Dunno if it’s still the case now, but doesn’t a lot of Chinese coal mines and steel smelters use steam locomotives for internal transport well into late 2000s?

      There’s a few steam locomotives still in excursion operation in the US too. UP 844 even claimed as the only steam locomotive never retired by a North American Class I railroad.

      Check out UP 4014 project if you want to follow ongoing steam locomotive restoration work. There should be a few videos made by railfans somewhere in the tube.

  4. “ready for what seems like a short service life for a locomotive, a mere 130 thousand miles.”

    That’s a bit of a misunderstanding – that is not the length of an entire service life of the engine but between general overhauls (large maintenance) like the one in the film. The total service life was much longer, there are engines that over 100 years old and still in running condition. With good maintenance the “miles on the clock” don’t really matter when you are replacing the worn parts every few years during the major overhaul.

      1. Not quite that bad, unless it was pulled out of field after rusting into a colander for 50 years, then you’re lucky if even the frame is any good…. normally I guess they’d have about 30% of parts replaced, boiler, cylinder parts and running gear.

  5. I would have thought they would have done much higher distances than that (ok ive never really given it much thought) but just thinking abouthow far I travel in my cars and I dont drive all day.

  6. There is still on our northside a gutted hulk of windows and brick that once housed the overhaul facility for the Monon Railroad. It got asbestos abatement years ago. Lookup Pat McClimans Group as images, it’s in the cover art.

    Sadly, repacking asbestos packing and gaskets was part of this overhaul.

  7. This beauty has just finished restoration and will be put into a scheduled service for enthusiasts and tourists in a few months:

    Day trip from Gympie to Imbil and back. South-east Queensland. Imbil is quiet, picturesque, and has a great pub for lunch. I was there one Sunday when the rattler departed for the return to Gympie. I was expecting noise and vapor clouds, but it was *quiet*, and majestic to watch, all those wheels and conrods.

    Also undergoing restoration at the same workshop in Ipswich, west of Brisbane:

  8. Greast film, thanks Jenny.
    For anyone who enjoyed this and has an idle hour and a half to spare, I highly recommend that wonderful old film “Oh Mr Porter”.. Made in 1937 when it was a simpler time, it’s in the public domain and of course on YouTube. You’ll love it.

  9. Wow. That was a great film. It really underscores how many steam engines were in service at the peak of rr steam; so many so that it justified the massive investment and effort to create such a well-organized rebuilding process. Steam power was an amazing technology built around the simple idea of burning stuff to heat water.

    Also, trains are so cool. Especially British trains.

  10. For those who want to see (and ride) a coal-fired steam train, visit the Dollywood amusement park in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The engineers were quite happy to talk at some length about their 100+ year-old narrow-gauge trains and were rightly quite proud of them.

  11. There’s also the steam railroad at Walt Disneyworld in Florida, USA. It’s four restored locomotives built in the early 1900’s. They were converted to burn diesel over coal, and carry about 3.7 million passengers/year around the park. They get refurbished / repaired as needed and will probably be steaming along for years to come.

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