How To Operate A Steam Locomotive

Screenshot: Youtube

If you ever manage to take a peek inside the train operator’s compartment on the subway, the whole operation might strike you as kind of simple. There aren’t a whole lot of controls to work with. But that’s just an electric train. When it comes to steam engines, things look a lot more complicated.

This instructional video follows Union Pacific engineer Stephen A. Lee fireman Lynn Nystrom as they explain what the crew is doing to prepare UP 844, the last surviving Union Pacific 800-class passenger locomotive built by American Locomotive Company (ALCO) during World War II.


This locomotive was designed to carry 26 passenger cars at speeds of up to 90 mph over flat terrain, making it one of the most powerful and capable steam locomotives ever produced.

At about nine minutes in, Lee climbs up into the cab and gives a rundown of all the equipment, how responsibilities break down between the engineer and the fireman, and how it all comes together to help the team operate the locomotive.

Particularly impressive to me is how much of the process is achieved by sensation. Both the fireman and the engineer explain how listening to the sound of the locomotive and feeling the vibration of the train is as important if not more important than keeping an eye on the suite of gauges in front of them.

Today, with screens making up most of a train operator’s compartment, this locomotive seems ancient in comparison. But when it comes to actually making the train move, accelerating, and slowing down, not much is actually that different. There’s still a throttle and a speedometer. The rest of the gauges and instruments in UP 844 are all about keeping the boiler hot and healthy.


Now, I recognize that this rundown of what’s involved is pretty cursory. I don’t know a ton about how steam locomotives work, and I’m sure plenty of you have far more knowledge than I do. If I made any mistakes in this little recap, please let me know.

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