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Friday, February 27, 2004

Live Steam Magazine 

My latest issue appeals to me because it is not devoted to steam engines, in fact the cover story is about a heat operated fan! The title is perhaps somewhat of a misnomer in that the magazine seems to be actually more targeted at machinists who like mechanical projects than live steamers (scale railroaders). This is not to say that the average live steam railroader would not get anything out of the magazine - far from it. The comment was made to convey the broad spectrum of projects they feature with some (oddly) not even steam related!

I started a subscription to Live Steam Magazine last summer and although it is not dedicated to steam railroads specifically, it does have a great relevance to people who love steam locomotives (of all sizes). The magazine includes steam boats, machine tool information, steam locomotives and stationary steam engine information as well as traction engines. Certainly steam locomotives are the main focus but it is an eclectic magazine. There are ads for steam castings and electric motors as well as other related products such as machine tools and gas and electric powered scale locomotives. If you want to get just one magazine to see what the live steam hobby has to offer, this is probably the magazine for you. You could become intimidated by the articles but if you realize there are people of great skill and ability reading this magazine as well as beginners you can read those articles about the complicated projects to gain insight into just what goes into building a machine like a steam engine.

Simple engines are covered as well as detailed instructions to build your own live steam locomotive. Currently they have articles about building three different locomotives by three authors. It is interesting to see what detail each one finds important. One man writes about making the handles for the valves and mentions that he found prototype handles and his are based on those. Other authors buy valves and handles or make crude handles themselves. The contrast is amazing between the various builders, but then, steam locomotives at the club also vary greatly in detail and finish.

More than locomotives can be found - steam boats, steam motors and machining tips and instructions for making metal projects. If you have an interest in building or owning a steam related machine, then this is the magazine for you. You do not have to build or machine anything yourself as there are resources that can supply what you need ready-to-run in many cases. If you have a curiosity about metal work or steam power then you cannot be without this magazine.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Book Review - The Life and Times of a Railroad Engineer - Steffes  

This book was written by a man who was an engineer in the Los Angeles area on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Resembling a diary in some ways, when Steffes writes about things that happened on particular trips he writes in detail and he sometimes includes very personal comments such as when he writes about his marital infidelity. He does give you a sense of the life he led and what happened on the railroad. He is certainly forthright about his viewpoint and you might feel he is somewhat pigheaded in his response to some of the situations he mentions. His book is not a polished literary work but a tale of his life and it is in print - warts and all.

Throughout the book you gather he has a code of conduct that he adheres to. He struggles with his sexual situation and does not see his actions as problematic with respect to that code. He tends to see the work life as a separate entity from his personal life. I am not trying to say that he does not live a life of respect for marriage and his family rather I am saying his struggle for personal fulfillment seems at odds with his professional conduct code from time to time. He certainly does not act in the most honorable way at all times on the job either but it seems there is a dichotomy.

As an engineer, Steffes, appears to grasp the concept of doing the right thing and what he lacks in personal relations with his first wife and some other people at the railroad, he makes up with his concern for doing a good job. He constantly mentions the safety aspects of railroading and tries to operate only in a safe way - even if it will get him into trouble with the railroad. While the railroad seems to be motivated by money over safety, he and many others I am certain, want to do their job professionally to make sure they all get back home safely when the job is done.

Although the book is illustrated with a few drawings, it is relative devoid of images. You will have to use your imagination as you peruse the text. I almost prefer this as I get images in my mind as I read along and they are more vivid than the pen and ink drawings are.

The book is about an inch thick but it is printed on cheap paper like paperback books are printed on that is thicker than regular paper. There are a lot of train stories and he mentions names of the people he worked with and for at various places when he remembers their names. The stories are usually uneventful but just as you are lulled into thinking this is all there is, a story about a train wreck comes along. He diverges to talk about his personal business he and his wife have on the side - a landscape nursery. He writes about his friend who joins him in the venture and the results which are interesting to say the least.

He has little good to say about the railroad officials who seem to have a sole purpose to interfere with the smooth and proper operation of the railroad. Detailing some of the incidents and his reaction to those incidents you get a picture of grave disharmony between the working train crews and the railroad head office people. Obviously a great deal of history is missing from his book as some of his reactions to the officials make him come off as a jerk for no apparent reason. I suspect there are more unrelated stories under the surface that would help us to understand why he has such a strong animosity about the company but they are unwritten.

As an engineer he shows us that the main work he did was somewhat mental. When he reported for a "call", he would get his orders to designate his motive power and crew. He would then go to the locomotive or group of locomotives and begin checking them for operational status. Then he would look at the tonnage of the load and calculate the motive power needed and the amount of brakes to stop such a load. They would then proceed to the "consist" and hook up and after getting a go-ahead signal, do a brake test to ensure the ability of the brakes to stop the train. If all was okay, they would get train orders for the trip and permission to leave the yard or siding. The engineer and conductor worked together to ensure the train would make it safely to its destination. He has a high regard for the brakemen and firemen that he worked with and lamented the loss of the firemen from the trains mainly because it was not as safe to have just a single person looking.

Accidents are rare with trains but never the less they do happen. Steffes relates several in the book and we are spared the gore that could have been a part of their descriptions. He does not waste emotion on the incidents but in his remarks it is obvious that he was affected by each of them.

The book ends with kind of a whimper. Rather than a wrap up and transitional story, it sort of just stops and leaves you wondering what is the rest of the story.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Book Review - The Railroad That Came Out At Night - Frank Kyper  

This book is about the railroads running through the Boston area. In the city of Boston there were two terminals that served the city - a North and South terminal. After a short time they realized that they needed a connection between them but the city was reluctant to allow any trains to go through the city. Finally a compromise was reached with the city that they could build a railroad that would connect the two stations and service the piers along the waterfront if they restricted their operations to the nighttime hours. This provided the basis for the title of the book. Because of the narrow streets where they laid their double main line, they had to adopt the left side running or English system of running as the spur line curves were too sharp to connect with the track on the same side of the street. This made the track department a lot of extra work as they had to cut the rails of the second main track and put in diamonds to keep the wheels on the track at each spur. Since the street was not built on a high quality road base (actually it was built on a land fill) the tracks did not have much support so they constantly needed repair and alignment. The speed of the trains on the railroad was less than 10 miles an hour and even that was a risky speed for some stretches of the track.

There were factories and warehouses along the streets they operated on and when the First World War came about they were pressed into service to carry the raw materials for the munitions plant in Boston and the finished munitions to the docks for shipping over to Europe. One cargo item for the munitions plant was molasses and while conveying a large amount of the material it's railcar had an accident and a huge amount of it spilled on the ground. Unfortunately, molasses and railroading do not mix as it is slippery and very difficult to remove from rails and wheels. They had their shops people out for ages scrubbing and scraping molasses from everywhere. I can imagine the molasses attracted insects and vermin as well.

After the war they went back to their old routine but more was being shipped by trucks and less by rail. The manufacturing plants started closing during the depression and that cut further into their business. Although some fishing ships still came into Boston Harbor, the catches were dropping as the fishermen were over fishing the fishery. The railroad still transported fish from the B & M Fish Company but the business was dwindling. The Second World War brought more shipping bound for the docks to go to Europe but after the war ended, that business was gone and the railroad laid off more workers. They switched to diesel locomotives as they were more reliable and required fewer people to operate and this put more people out of work as well. The track got worse and the work petered out so the railroad eventually called it quits.

Other railroads played a part of the Boston railroad history. The Fore River was an interesting outfit. They were a part of the shipyard founded by Thomas Watson of the Bell Telephone fame. He got into ship building with a small shipyard and after getting a government contract for ships for the Great War, he expanded his shipyard at a new site near the mouth of the Fore River. His shipyard eventually became a part of General Dynamics but that is getting ahead of the story. His need for transportation into the shipyard of the raw material and assemblies was hampered by poor road service. Wagons and early trucks could not reliably deliver the material his factory needed to operate so he built rails. After using horses to pull the loads initially, he purchased locomotives and extended the tracks until they were about 3 miles long to where they connected up with another railroad. He came up against a wealthy landowner where he needed to make a curve to connect the track to the other railroad and the landowner would not sell the unused land to Watson. The man insisted Watson buy the entire estate so eventually that is what Watson did. The railroad proved to be an excellent aid in supplying the shipyard and even after the depression Watson's shipyard was again pressed into service for World War II with the Fore River Railroad working hard to make it all possible. The steamers were wearing out and the railroad stared buying diesels which proved to be underpowered for their needs. But the die was cast and larger diesels were purchased and soon the steamers were retired and scrapped. Not too long afterwards, the railroad was to see its last run. The shipyard ran out of work and the other industries along the track started to rely on trucks.

The book details other railroads in the area that came into Boston (i.e. Boston & Albany Railroad, New Haven, et al) and their relationship to each other. Since the author had been a crossing gate attendant for one of the railroads - the Boston & Albany, he had some first hand knowledge of the railroad situation in the Boston area. He also was involved with railfan groups in the Boston area and planed and took part in many railfan tours on the local railroads. He illustrates the book with photographs of many of the trains and places he mentions in the book. He was working when fire swept through the Chelsea area near Boston where he had been a crossing gate attendant and he tells his story about the fire and what he and others did to save the old buildings and railroad property.

There is a chapter with photos of Alan Flagler's train "The Flying Scottsman" when it came to the US back in the 1980s. They show it being unloaded from the ship that brought it over and the cars being unloaded as well. The green locomotive was in this country for almost three years and the story is interesting to read. It was sent on a trip around the country as a promotional tour for the English and served that purpose well.

I found it an entertaining book that was somewhat small but sold at a small price to match. The pictures are worth the price for the tome and the stories were interesting - even if you are not from the Boston area.

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