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.

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Retrotechtacular: 6207, A Study In Steel

If you ever encounter railroad or railway enthusiasts, you may have heard the view that at some point in the past there was a golden age of rail transport that has somehow been lost. It’s something that’s up for debate as to when that age was or even whether with a selection of new super-high-speed trains snaking across our continents we’re in a golden age now, but it’s true to say that the rail business has had its fair share of decline in the last half-century.

It’s quite likely that when they talk of a golden age, they really mean a golden age of steam rail transport. At which point depending on where you live in the world it’s easier to put your finger on a decade. For UK residents a good candidate would be the 1930s; steam locomotive design had reached its peak, the rail network hadn’t been worn out by the demands of wartime, and private car ownership hadn’t eaten into their passenger numbers. The country was divided up into a set of regional rail monopolies, each of which had their own locomotive works and designers who were in fierce competition to show that their machines were the best and the fastest.

The LMS, the London Midland and Scottish railway company, served the northwestern segment of the country, North Wales, and the West of Scotland. Their high-speed express trains were in hot competition with those of the LNER, the London and North Eastern Railway, who served the eastern side of the country, to offer the fastest service from London to Scotland. It’s difficult to grasp through an 80-year lens, but this battle was one of national excitement, with the fastest locomotives becoming household names nationwide. The railway companies were justifiably proud of their engineering expertise, and so featured their locomotives as a key part of their marketing to the general public.

And so we come to the subject of today’s Retrotechtacular piece, a film below the break from 1935 following the construction of a high-speed express locomotive from start to finish in the LMS’s Crewe railway works. 6207 was one of a class of thirteen 4-6-2 Pacific locomotives designed by the company’s chief engineer [William Stanier], built between 1932 and 1935 and known as the Princess Royal class, all being named for princesses. In the film we see the various parts of the locomotive being cut, cast and forged from raw metal before being assembled in the Crewe plant. All the machinery is human controlled, and one of the surprises is sometimes the number of people involved in each task. The level of skill and experience in precision metalworking to be found in plants like Crewe was immense, and in some cases it is very difficult to find its equivalent in our own time.

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Rescuing The World’s First Preserved Railway

Preserved railways are now an established part of the tourist itinerary. It doesn’t matter if you call it a railroad, railway, chemin de fer, Eisenbahn or whatever, the chances are that somewhere near you there will be a line rescued from dereliction on which you can spend a Saturday afternoon in vintage rolling stock being hauled by a locomotive long ago withdrawn from regular service. They are established enough to have become an industry in their own right, with the full range of support services to maintain hundred-year-old machinery and even build entire new locomotives.

So we’ve become used to seeing preserved railways in a state of polished perfection. Sometimes a little too perfect, there was a wry observation in a recent BBC documentary on the subject that a typical British preserved railway represents an average day in the 1950s when the Queen was about to visit. Anyone who lived through that era will tell you the reality was a little different, how run down the system was after World War II and just how dirty everything became when exposed to decades of continuous coal smoke.

A particularly worn-out section of railway in those days could be found at Tywyn, on the Welsh coast. A 2’3″ narrow-gauge line built in the 1860s to serve a slate quarry and provide a passenger service to local communities, the Tal-y-Llyn Railway (Welsh pronunciation help) had been in continuous decline for decades and on the death of its owner in 1950 faced closure. With only one of its two locomotives operational and its track in a parlous state it attracted the attention of the author Tom Rolt, already famous for kick-starting the preservation of Britain’s inland waterway system. A preservation society was formed, and in a joint enterprise with the former owner’s estate the line was saved. The world’s first preserved railway had commenced operations.

"Lawnmower" Locomotive in 1952 [Source: talyllyn.co.uk]
“Lawnmower” Locomotive in 1952 [Source: talyllyn.co.uk]
In a country reeling from the economic effects of fighting a world war there was no infrastructure for a group of enthusiasts rescuing a near-derelict railway. Nobody had ever done this before, there was no body of expertise and certainly no handy suppliers to call when parts were required. To rebuild their line the Tal-y-Llyn volunteers had to reach into their own well of initiative gained over the “Make do and Mend” war years and build their own way out of any challenges they encountered. In case you were wondering what the relevance to Hackaday readers has been in the last few paragraphs there’s your answer: what would you do if you were handed seven and a quarter miles of run-down track and a single barely serviceable locomotive that is one of the oldest in the world still running?

We are fortunate that in 1953 an American film maker, Carson “Kit” Davidson, visited the line, and through his affectionate short film we have a portrayal of the railway’s state in the early stages of preservation. When the footage was shot they had secured a second serviceable locomotive courtesy of the nearby and recently closed Corris Railway, but had yet to replace the majority of the worn-out and overgrown track. It’s a treat to watch, and sets the stage very well for the home-made machinery that is to follow.

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Live Steam… chugga chugga

At Maker Faire this weekend. tucked in between a building full of homegrown foodstuffs and a rock polishing booth is the Bay Area Garden Railway Society (BAGRS). They’re running a few live steam locomotives, and they’re beautiful works of engineering and modeling. None of these trains are electric; they all move by boiling water with either coal or butane. It’s a true, proper locomotive running on 45mm gauge track.

[David Cole] of BAGRS gave me the walkthrough of their booth. It’s a simple oval track that took a solid day to level out. There are technically three sets of tracks, two G-scale, and another O scale sharing a rail with a G-scale track. Each and every one of these locomotives is powered by steam produced when water is heated by either coal or butane. Butane is the fuel of choice because of its ease of acquisition, but BAGRS had a few coal-fired locomotives with tiny shovels shoveling anthracite into tiny fireboxes. After loading up with water and getting the firebox nice and hot, these locomotives will cruise around the oval track for about half an hour, with the speed of the locomotive controlled by a servos and RC gear.

Maker Faire isn’t the headline event for BAGRS; in July 2016 they’ll be hosting the National Garden Railway Convention in San Francisco. If you’re local to the Faire, it will be a cool event to check out.