How a Fast Train Is Run by Russell Doubleday

The conductor stood at the end of the train, watch in hand, and at the moment when the hands indicated the appointed hour he leisurely climbed aboard and pulled the whistle cord. A sharp, penetrating hiss of escaping air answered the pull, and the train moved out of the great train-shed in its race against time. It was all so easy and comfortable that the passengers never thought of the work and study that had been spent to produce the result. The train gathered speed and rushed on at an appalling rate, but the passengers did not realise how fast they were going unless they looked out of the windows and saw the houses and trees, telegraph poles, and signal towers flash by.

It is the purpose of this chapter to tell how high speed is attained without loss of comfort to the passengers—in other words, to tell how a fast train is run.

When the conductor pulled the cord at the rear end of the long train a whistling signal was thus given in the engine-cab, and the engineer, after glancing down the tracks to see that the signals indicated a clear track, pulled out the long handle of the throttle, and the great machine obeyed his will as a docile horse answers a touch on the rein. He opened the throttle-valve just a little, so that but little steam was admitted to the cylinders, and the pistons being pushed out slowly, the driving-wheels revolved slowly and the train started gradually. When the end of the piston stroke was reached the used steam was expelled into the smokestack, creating a draught which in turn strengthened the heat of the fire. With each revolution of the driving-wheels, each cylinder—there is one on each side of every locomotive—blew its steamy breath into the stack twice. This kept the fire glowing and made the chou-chou sound that everybody knows and every baby imitates.

As the train gathered speed the engineer pulled the throttle open wider and wider, the puffs in the short, stubby stack grew more and more frequent, and the rattle and roar of the iron horse increased.

Down in the pit of the engine-cab the fireman, a great shovel in his hands, stood ready to feed the ravenous fires. Every minute or two he pulled the chain and yanked the furnace door open to throw in the coal, shutting the door again after each shovelful, to keep the fire hot.

An operation that is practically continuous during a fast trip.

The fireman on a fast locomotive is kept extremely busy, for he must keep the steam-pressure up to the required standard—150 or 200 pounds—no matter how fast the sucking cylinders may draw it out. He kept his eyes on the steam-gage most of the time, and the minute the quivering finger began to drop, showing reduced pressure, he opened the door to the glowing furnace and fed the fire. The steam-cylinders act on the boiler a good deal as a lung-tester acts on a human being; the cylinders draw out the steam from the boiler, requiring a roaring fire to make the vapour rapidly enough and keep up the pressure.

Though the engineer seemed to be taking it easily enough with his hand resting lightly on the reversing-lever, his body at rest, the fireman was kept on the jump. If he was not shovelling coal he was looking ahead for signals (for many roads require him to verify the engineer), or adjusting the valves that admitted steam to the train-pipes and heated the cars, or else, noticing that the water in the boiler was getting low—and this is one of his greatest responsibilities, which, however, the engineer sometimes shares—he turned on the steam in the injector, which forced the water against the pressure into the boiler. All these things he has to do repeatedly even on a short run.

The engineer—or "runner," as he is called by his fellows—has much to do also, and has infinitely greater responsibility. On him depends the safety and the comfort of the passengers to a large degree; he must nurse his engine to produce the greatest speed at the least cost of coal, and he must round the curves, climb the grades, and make the slow-downs and stops so gradually that the passengers will not be disturbed.

To the outsider who rides in a locomotive-cab for the first time it seems as if the engineer settles down to his real work with a sigh of relief when the limits of the city have been passed; for in the towns there are many signals to be watched, many crossings to be looked out for, and a multitude of moving trains, snorting engines, and tooting whistles to distract one's attention. The "runner," however, seemed not to mind it at all. He pulled on his cap a little more firmly, and, after glancing at his watch, reached out for the throttle handle. A very little pull satisfied him, and though the increase in speed was hardly perceptible, the more rapid exhaust told the story of faster movement. As the train sped on, the engineer moved the reversing-lever notch by notch nearer the centre of the guide. This adjusted the "link-motion" mechanism, which is operated by the driving-axle, and cut off the steam entering the cylinders in such a way that it expanded more fully and economically, thus saving fuel without loss of power.

When a station was reached, when a "caution" signal was displayed, or whenever any one of the hundred or more things occurred that might require a stop or a slow-down, the engineer closed down the throttle and very gradually opened the air-brake valve that admitted compressed air to the brake-cylinders, not only on the locomotive but on all the cars. The speed of the train slackened steadily but without jar, until the power of the compressed air clamped the brake-shoes on the wheels so tightly that they were practically locked and the train was stopped. By means of the air-brake the engineer had almost entire control of the train. The pump that compresses the air is on the engine, and keeps the pressure in the car and locomotive reservoirs automatically up to the required standard.

Each stage of every trip of a train not a freight is carefully charted, and the engineer is provided with a time-table that shows where his train should be at a given time. It is a matter of pride with the engineers of fast trains to keep close to their schedules, and their good records depend largely on this running-time, but delays of various kinds creep in, and in spite of their best efforts engineers are not always able to make all their schedules. To arrive at their destinations on time, therefore, certain sections must be covered in better than schedule time, and then great skill is required to get the speed without a sacrifice of comfort for the passenger.

To most travellers time is more valuable than money, and so everything about a train is planned to facilitate rapid travelling. Almost every part of a locomotive is controlled from the cab, which prevents unnecessary stopping to correct defects; from his seat the engineer can let the condensed water out of the cylinders; he can start a jet of steam in the stack and create a draft through the fire-box; by the pressure of a lever he is able to pour sand on a slippery track, or by the manipulation of another lever a snow-scraper is let down from the cowcatcher. The practised ear of a locomotive engineer often enables him to discover defects in the working of his powerful machine, and he is generally able, with the aid of various devices always on hand, to prevent an increase of trouble without leaving the cab.

As explained above, a fast run means the use of a great deal of steam and therefore water; indeed, the higher the speed the greater consumption of water. Often the schedules do not allow time enough to stop for water, and the consumption is so great that it is impossible to carry enough to keep the engine going to the end of the run. There are provided, therefore, at various places along the line, tanks eighteen inches to two feet wide, six inches deep, and a quarter of a mile long. These are filled with water and serve as long, narrow reservoirs, from which the locomotive-tenders are filled while going at almost full speed. Curved pipes are let down into the track-tank as the train speeds on, and scoop up the water so fast that the great reservoirs are very quickly filled. This operation, too, is controlled from the engine-cab, and it is one of the fireman's duties to let down the pipe when the water-signal alongside the track appears. The locomotive, when taking water from a track-tank, looks as if it was going through a river: the water is dashed into spray and flies out on either side like the waves before a fast boat. Trainmen tell the story of a tramp who stole a ride on the front or "dead" end platform of the baggage car of a fast train. This car was coupled to the rear end of the engine-tender; it was quite a long run, without stops, and the engine took water from a track-tank on the way. When the train stopped, the tramp was discovered prone on the platform of the baggage car, half-drowned from the water thrown back when the engine took its drink on the run.

"Here, get off!" growled the brakeman. "What are you doing there?"

"All right, boss," sputtered the tramp. "Say," he asked after a moment, "what was that river we went through a while ago?"

Though the engineer's work is not hard, the strain is great, and fast runs are divided up into sections so that no one engine or its runner has to work more than three or four hours at a time.

It is realised that in order to keep the trainmen—and especially the engineers—alert and keenly alive to their work and responsibilities, it is necessary to make the periods of labour short; the same thing is found to apply to the machines also—they need rest to keep them perfectly fit.

Before the engineer can run his train, the way must be cleared for him, and when the train starts out it becomes part of a vast system. Each part of this intricate system is affected by every other part, so each train must run according to schedule or disarrange the entire plan.


Each train has its right-of-way over certain other trains, and the fastest train has the right-of-way over all others. If, for any reason, the fastest train is late, all others that might be in the way must wait till the flyer has passed. When anything of this sort occurs the whole plan has to be changed, and all trains have to be run on a new schedule that must be made up on the moment.

The ideal train schedules, or those by which the systems are regularly governed, are charted out beforehand on a ruled sheet, as a ship's course is charted on a voyage, in the main office of the railroad. Each engineer and conductor is provided with a printed copy in the form of a table giving the time of departure and arrival at the different points. When the trains run on time it is all very simple, and the work of the despatcher, the man who keeps track of the trains, is easy. When, however, the system is disarranged by the failure of a train to keep to its schedule, the despatcher's work becomes most difficult. From long training the despatchers become perfectly familiar with every detail of the sections of road under their control, the position of every switch, each station, all curves, bridges, grades, and crossings. When a train is delayed and the system spoiled, it is the despatcher's duty to make up another one on the spot, and arrange by telegrams, which are repeated for fear of mistakes, for the holding of this train and the movement of others until the tangle is straightened out. This problem is particularly difficult when a road has but one track and trains moving in both directions have to run on the same pair of rails. It is on roads of this sort that most of the accidents occur. Almost if not quite all depends on the clear-headedness and quick-witted grasp of the despatchers and strict obedience to orders by the trainmen. To remove as much chance of error as possible, safety signalling methods have been devised to warn the engineer of danger ahead. Many modern railroads are divided into short sections or "blocks," each of which is presided over by a signal-tower. At the beginning of each block stand poles with projecting arms that are connected with the signal-tower by wires running over pulleys. There are generally two to each track in each block, and when both are slanting downward the engineer of the approaching locomotive knows that the block he is about to enter is clear and also that the rails of the section before that is clear as well. The lower arm, or "semaphore," stands for the second block, and if it is horizontal the engineer knows that he must proceed cautiously because the second section already has a train in it; if the upper arm is straight the "runner" knows that a train or obstruction of some sort makes it unsafe to enter the first block, and if he obeys the strict rules he must stay where he is until the arm is lowered At night, red, white, and green lights serve instead of the arms: white, safety; green, caution; and red, danger. Accidents have sometimes occurred because the engineers were colour-blind and red and green looked alike to them. Most roads nowadays test all their engineers for this defect in vision.

In spite of all precautions, it sometimes happens that the block-signals are not set properly, and to avoid danger of rear-end collisions, conductors and brakemen are instructed (when, for any reason, their train stops where it is not so scheduled) to go back with lanterns at night, or flags by day, and be ready to warn any following train. If for any reason a train is delayed and has to move ahead slowly, torpedoes are placed on the track which are exploded by the engine that comes after and warn its engineer to proceed cautiously.

All these things the engineer must bear in mind, and beside his jockey-like handling of his iron horse, he must watch for signals that flash by in an instant when he is going at full speed, and at the same time keep a sharp lookout ahead for obstructions on the track and for damaged roadbed.

The conductor has nothing to do with the mechanical running of the train, though he receives the orders and is, in a general way, responsible. The passengers are his special care, and it is his business to see that their getting on and off is in accordance with their tickets. He is responsible for their comfort also, and must be an animated information bureau, loaded with facts about every conceivable thing connected with travel. The brakemen are his assistants, and stay with him to the end of the division; the engineer and fireman, with their engine, are cut off at the end of their division also.

The fastest train of a road is the pride of all its employees; all the trainmen aspire to a place on the flyer. It never starts out on any run without the good wishes of the entire force, and it seldom puffs out of the train-shed and over the maze of rails in the yard without receiving the homage of those who happen to be within sight. It is impossible to tell of all the things that enter into the running of a fast train, but as it flashes across States, intersects cities, thunders past humble stations, and whistles imperiously at crossings, it attracts the attention of all. It is the spectacular thing that makes fame for the road, appears in large type in the newspapers, and makes havoc with the time-tables, while the steady-going passenger trains and labouring freights do the work and make the money.