Putting a steam engine to bed: more behind the scenes
Did we mention before that steam engines demand a lot of work? We did? Well, it’s true. After a fun day of pulling trains full of happy people up and down the length of Tiny Town, puffing up the hill saying “I think I can, I think I can”, we can’t just park a steam engine like a mini van and go home.
When the steam engine has pulled its last train for the day, we cut the engine off from the rest of the train, and usually bring one of the diesel engines to couple on to the train for the last trip or two. Then we drive the steam engine around the track, but this time throwing the switch to bring it to the roundhouse spur track, and park it over the ash pit.
Now the dirty work begins. First, we open the firebox door, and shake the grates, letting the last of the burning coal fall down into the ashpan. We clean the clinker off the cast iron grates too. Clinker is formed from the sand and other minerals in coal that don’t burn. When hot, clinker is similar to molten glass, and sticks to the grates, blocking airflow.
Once the grates are all clean, it’s time to dump the ashpan of the engine into the ash pit constucted between the tracks. The ash pit is lined with concrete to allow the ash to safely cool before being disposed of. It seems like the wind always changes direction just when you open the ash pan, so it blows in your face. After closing up the ashpan, the engine still has plenty of steam pressure, so we drive it onto the turntable for a bath, setting the air brakes to hold it in place.
There are a lot of moving parts that make up the engine’s running gear and valve gear, and they need to be kept lubricated and clean to function well. We attach a special high pressure steam hose to the engine and use some of the engine’s steam to clean off the day’s grime. It’s hot work – even though there is no fire in the firebox now, the steam is still over 320 degrees, so an engineer wears gloves for this work even on the hottest summer day.
Now that the engine is all clean, we still have one more thing to do. The engine is backed off the turntable and parked where we can easily open the smokebox. All the metal parts of the engine are still far too hot to touch. Inside the boiler are tubes called “flues” which carry the hot gases from the fire through the boiler to heat the water to steam. The insides of those flues get coated with a very black soot, which must be brushed out of each flue for the engine to work correctly and last a long time. We use long handled steel brushes to clean each of the 17 flues, one at a time. Sometimes a flue gets partially clogged, and then getting the brush through it can be very hard work.
Now it’s time for the engine to sit proudly for visitors to look at while it cools down enough to be parked in the roundhouse for the night, and it’s time for the engineers to find a well-deserved iced tea and cool down too.