• My Hand On The Throttle

    Your Hand On The Throttle

    By Nels Anderson (30 March 2003)

    Photos And Video By Gene Balinski

    Train-simming is great...as far as it goes. But I suspect that I'm not alone amoung train-simmers in wanting more--a chance to drive a real train, not just a moving image on a video screen.

    The same thing hit me some ten years ago early in my flightsimming career. Flightsimmers have more options though, as it's perfectly possible to become a licensed pilot (as I ultimately did) and even for those who don't want to go that far introductory flight lessons and a variety of experience flights are available.

    Normally ALCO Mikado #40 is used for the program, and for regular excursions, but it is currently undergoing some extensive firebox work

    Even though the other end is all taken apart, #40 is still a handsome locomotive from this angle

    In recent years, some options have opened up for railfans. It's now possible to get your hands on the controls of a variety of railroad equipment. Not as a full fledged operator perhaps but under the watchful eye of qualified instructors. I took up the opportunity to do just this on a rainy Sunday in March 2003 as part of the "Your Hand On The Throttle" program offered by The Valley Railroad/Essex Steam Train, located near the scenic Connecticut River in Essex, Connecticut.

    This is the real deal, a full size road worthy steam locomotive.

    The railroad operates two steam locomotives. Both are ALCO products from the 1920's. The primary locomotive is a 2-8-2 Mikado. However, that engine was under repair in the engine shop so the backup locomotive, a 2-8-0 Consolidation was under steam the day of my visit.

    The railroad's logo matches the style of the old New Haven logo

    #97 has its water topped off in preparation for the next student engineer

    Some History

    Though currently running only pleasure excursions, the Valley Railroad Company is a real railroad with a history dating back to 1868. In that year it was chartered under the Valley Railroad Company name and by July 1871 trains were in operation along the full 45 mile route from Hartford to Saybrook Point.

    Like many railroads, this one had its ups and downs. After a period of receivership, the railroad in 1892 became part of the New Haven. This relationship can be seen in the current railroad's logo, which is reminiscent of the old script New York New Haven & Hartford logo.

    Of course, the New Haven suffered its own problems. Traffic on the Valley Railroad line continued to decline until the last train ran in 1968. Concerned volunteers managed to get the line turned over to the State of Connecticut to avoid the Penn Central tearing it up. The new Valley Railroad Company obtained a lease from the state with authorization to use 22.67 miles of track for freight and passenger service and on July 29, 1971 (exactly 100 years to the day of the original run on the line) the first train of the new Valley Railroad ran from Essex to Deep River. Over the years additional track has been reopened so that now the complete route offers a 12 mile round trip.

    The Program

    The book supplied as part of the program

    A sample of the supplied diagrams

    The "Your Hand On The Throttle" is offered for one week before and one week after the railroads regular operating season, thus avoiding conflicts with their regular passenger schedule. The program is popular enough that it's necessary to sign up months in advance to get the desired date. I was going to do the program last fall but waiting too long to sign up!

    The program is not just a ride but an educational opportunity. Upon signing up the participant receives a sizeable package of materials. It's only required that you study a small portion of it, four pages of material related to safety. This is mandatory due to insurance requirements, and participants are tested on the material and it's fully reviewed as part of the briefing held immediately before the train operations.

    The entire package of materials includes a 54 page book, maps of the Valley Railroad facilities, labelled photos of locomotive controls and oversized diagrams of the Mikado type locomotive normally used in the program.

    The book is made up mostly of period study materials that real engineers would have used back in the day. Included is the "Engineman's Manual, Intended ForThe Engineer, Fireman or Mechanic who wishes to extend his knowledge of the Locomotive or Air Brake". This was originally published in 1917 (price $2.50 postpaid!). This includes details on all aspects of locomotive operation (in probably greater detail than you really want to know!) along with diagrams of important systems.

    Following is a section titled "Points on Engine Running" which appear to be taken from a different book. This covers in detail techniques of running a steam locomotive.

    The final section is a set of detailed specifications for American Locomotive Company No. A-9859-A, which includes the railroad's Mikado, ALCO Brooks Works serial number 61858 (August 1920). If you really want to know in detail what makes up those 178,000 pounds of locomotive, this tells all!

    The classroom for "Locomotive Engineer 101" was a table set up in the engine house

    Running Day

    Since each person gets a full hour at the controls the program is limited to four people per session, with two sessions per day. I was scheduled for the Sunday afternoon session, which began with a briefing for all participants held in the engine house at noon.

    The day was not really promising...periods of heavy rain interrupted by periods of lighter rain. I arrived well in advance of the required time and used some of that time to scout the route. Only a few minutes up the road a headlight was spotted on the parallel track and sure enough, here comes #97 down the line with one of the morning session participants at the controls. A cooperative traffic light forced a stop just long enough to watch the locomotive pass pass, whistle blowing and bell ringing.

    Some more of the route was scouted to check for suitable photo locations. There are numerous grade crossings and some nice scenery directly adjacent to the Connecticut River.

    Upon arriving back at Essex we had to wait at the crossing as the next morning session participant pulled out onto the line. Normally any day when you keep running across steam traffic is a good one, but of course this was only the beginning.

    By noon the other participants had arrived and the class session was begun. The required rules exam was soon out of the way, followed by a review of the safety necessities. This was followed by a session on general steam locomotive theory.

    This model was very useful in demonstrating how the reverser controls the valves

    Just like the real thing, this brake was used to demonstrate use of the independent brake.

    Before long we got into the meat of the discussion--actual steam locomotive operations. A model locomotive with working driving wheels, piston, valve and valve gear was used to demonstrate how the reverser control works and what it is actually doing deep within the locomotive. The old school model used is most effective in demonstrating the valve motion, something that's very hard to describe in a book with still pictures. An actual independent brake control was also available to demonstrate braking techniques.

    After all the material was covered and questions answered it was time to go meet the train crew and board the locomotive.

    All aboard!

    Yes, I really do have my hand on the throttle!

    Into The Cab

    The entire group boarded the locomotive to meet the train crew, who were inside the cab enjoying their lunch. The interior was nicely warm and dry, unlike the outside weather conditions where it was still raining lightly. The crew reviewed operations of the controls, this time with the actual locomotive controls instead of just models.

    Even as we sat, the fire was tended and the injector operated several times to keep the water level nicely in the middle of the glass. This kind of running does not require a lot of coal or water, as we run as just a light engine and at relatively low speed.

    Time To Hit The Road

    As luck would have it, I was scheduled for the first run, so the rest of the group reluctantly left the cab and I was left with the two crew members, and my chance to take the engineer's seat.

    Before going anywhere, a final review of the controls was necessary. I operated the independent brake several times, moving between release, lap and apply (without looking at it, to really get the "feel" of operating it). In addition, the reverser was cycled through its limits to get a feel for that operation. This locomotive has a power reverser, sort of like the power assisted steering on an automobile. What it meant here, though, is that reverser setting changes are made at the speed that the reverser wants. The reverser was very easy to move, but it moved relatively slowly.

    It's pretty hot in there!

    Before going out on the line we spent a few minutes in the yard getting the feel of getting the locomotive started and stopped. Train-simmers should be familiar with much of this, but train-simming is no preparation for the feel of the real thing!

    To get going the brake handle is moved to the release position, with an audible hiss of air. The reverser is moved to the full forward position. Finally, it's time to apply the throttle. There's a little more to this than might be imagined. One suprise was just how physically difficult moving the throttle is. This particular locomotive is apparently stiffer than average due to recent work on it, but still this is not something that just smoothly slides open. There's a reason for this too, that would not be obvious in simming. When closed, the throttle valve up in the steam dome wants to stay closed because 175 psi steam is holding it in that closed position. Thus, to get it to first open the force of that steam has to be overcome. After getting it to first open moving it is easier (though it did not feel all that much easier). Sheer strength really did not work well to get the throttle to move, rather hard jerks on the lever made it move slightly with each jerk. It's also necessary to allow for quite a bit of slack at the beginning of the movement before the actual valve starts to move.

    Getting the locomotive started requires some techique. Simply jamming the throttle wide open would make the wheels spin (especially on the wet track we were operating on) and would accomplish nothing useful and in fact could be quite dangerous. Slow application of the throttle is the key here.

    Steam starts to appear from the snifter valve

    This locomotive is fitted with "snifter valves", openings on the top of the main cylinder valve box that drop open when no steam pressure is applied. The first hint of steam passing the throttle also passes through these valves, so visible steam coming from the top of the cylinder housing is the first clue that the throttle is starting to open. Apply a little more throttle and the snifters close with an audible noise and now steam is starting to go to work. At this point the novice engineer is still likely to be a bit confused as nothing is happening, but after a brief pause...sure enough, the locomotive is starting to move!

    Things do not happen fast when running steam trains.

    Still being in the training phase at this point, once the locomotive was rolling it was time to stop it again. Moving the throttle to closed cut off the steam. Then the brake was moved to apply, but only for the briefest time before being dropped back to the lap setting. Closing the throttle is easier than opening it, but not much--it still required a good push.

    One more practice session and then it was time...

    Lots of steam as we get underway!

    On The Road

    It was now time to hit the road. We're starting to move out as before, but this time we're not stopping. The crossing gates are down, lights are flashing, bells are ringing, I'm sounding the whistle, and we're off!

    With no load the locomotives accelerates reasonably well though we're not pushing it and we're not really planning on going fast. This locomotive has no speedometer! A query about this brought some chuckles from the crew as apparently there was an attempt at one time to install something that was much more complicated than necessary but whatever the full story is, there is no speed gauge there now. Speed control is done by feel and by the experience of the engineer. Top speed on this line is supposed to be 20 mph and that felt about right (should have brought my handheld GPS from the plane to check...how out of place would that have been!?).

    The Valley Railroad route is pretty level, though we did have to adjust the throttle fairly often even so. "Drifting" on the downhill portions was interesting. The technique here is to put the reverser full forward and put in only the slightest amount of throttle. The steam going through the system is not to provide power, but to provide lubrication as the steam helps to atomize the oil inside the cylinders.

    Changes in throttle setting were done as described before, with little jerks in the desired direction rather than smoothly moving the lever to a setting. It certainly takes a feel for doing this, especially when you remember than even when the throttle does move the reaction takes some time so it would be quite easy to overcontrol. Due to the guidance provided this didn't happen though.

    Chester: one of the many grade crossings along the route

    Chester has a nice little depot too

    The route is very scenic. It goes through some back yards, over some small bridges and for quite a ways right along the Connecticut River. When excursions are being run one of the options is to detrain at the Deep River station and board a board for a cruise up the river. This would be very tempting when the weather is a bit better!

    The route has lots of grade crossings, so I was kept busy operating the whistle and the bell. Yes, blowing the whistle is fun and playing around with the different sounds it can generate is literally a blast. The bell operation is interesting. The fireman gets it started by pulling a cord but then it's kept ringing by air pressure, controlled by a valve on the engineer's side. The crew gets tired of hearing the bell so much so immediately after each crossing I heard "bell!" as a reminder to shut it off. I eventually remembered on my own.

    The route offers no place to turn the locomotive around, so upon reaching the end point we came to a stop, turned on the headlight on the back of the tender, set the reverser to reverse and headed back going backwards. In this particular Consolidation going backwords works pretty well. It's easy to turn around on the seat and see around the tender. There's even a mini windshield mounted in the window frame to keep the wind (and in this case, the rain) away somewhat. Operating in reverse is really no different than operating forward. One minor inconvenience is that the whistle posts are only visible from the fireman's side so at the appropriate positions he would start up the bell and remind me to use the whistle if necessary.

    All too soon we were back at Essex. One last chance to bring down the crossing gates, blow the whistle, ring the bell and we were back into the yard. A small application of the brakes and we came to a smooth stop behind the engine house, with the next engineer ready to take his turn.

    All too soon we were re-entering the yard at Essex


    Despite the wet and gloom the experience was great! Getting the chance to operate this amazing 80+ year old piece of technology was well worth the effort involved. I'd certainly recommend it to any other train-simmer who wants to experience "as real as it really is" instead of "just as real as it (virtually) gets".

    Some random thoughts:

    It's fairly cozy in the cab. The heat was noticeable upon entering and was welcome given the weather. I imagine on a hot summer day the reaction would be somewhat different though! A lot of ventilation is available when there's need, including a roof vent.

    Train-sim does not do justice to the view from the cab. In a real cab it's much better and easier to see where you are going. This is a problem with flightsim too I've noticed and I'm not sure what can be done about it other than making the sims run on either very large monitors or on multiple monitors allowing for much greater resolution and a wider view.

    The stick your head out the side window view actually was not all that much better than the view through the windows, though it was useful at times. I'm sure on a nicer day I'd have made more use of it!

    The cab offered pretty good protection from the weather, more than I might have expected. Even in reverse the only thing that got wet was the one arm I had hanging out the window.

    The firebox keeps your left knee nice and warm :-)

    I'm still surprised how hard the throttle lever was to operate. It's too bad we could not go fast enough to really let it out and see what that would have been like.

    Yes, it was fun!

    One drawback of this and most current steam operations is that the locomotives are not used nearly to the extent they are capable of. As a result, the way the throttle and reverser are used is not really representative of how they would have been used in the steam era when pulling heavy trains. The correct technique once the train is going is to run with the throttle full open and regulate the speed with the reverser; this is the most efficient use of the steam. We couldn't do this as we would have gone much too fast. Consequently, the reverser was used full forward to get started and then just set somewhere in the middle to save some steam and the speed was controlled by the throttle.

    The Valley Railroad and the operating staff are to be commended for running a fine program. Any train-simmers in the area would certainly enjoy at least a ride on the Essex Steam Train and perhaps some of you will also take the opportunity to put your own hands on the throttle.

    Nels Anderson
    [email protected]

    Additional Photos

    The Valley Railroad/Essex Steam Train

    Video Clips

    Leaving Essex (3.4 megs)
    Grade crossing at Chester station (2.8 megs)
    Returning to Essex (11.9 megs)

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