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"At The Throttle"
by Mark Bassett, Executive Director

A weekly series of columns originally published in the Friday edition of the Ely Times 
Mark Bassett is the Executive Director of the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation, operator of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. He can be reached at the museum (775) 289-2085 ext. 7 or e-mail: director@nnry.com

 


Where There's Smoke There's Pollution?!?
28 April 2006

April 15 was opening day of the 2006 operating season. It was the start of another year of exposing the general public to our industrial heritage. For the most part, people have no idea of how we got to be the only super power left standing. The museum plays a part in showcasing our industrial heritage by operating steam locomotives and offering demonstration rides. The uniqueness of the historic complex that makes up the Nevada Northern Railway Museum really allows us to take people back in time.

I was the Conductor for the first demonstration trip of the season at 1:00 p.m. The day was sunny, a little on the cool side, but all in all a pleasant day. Steam locomotive 93 had the honors of the first trip. Actually, this would be her second trip of the day because she had been out on the line once already with renters. (We have people come to Ely from around the country for the chance to operate a real live steam locomotive out on the main line.)

Call time for the 1:00 p.m. trip is 11:00 a.m. This allows the train crew to prepare the train for its first trip of the day. The train needs to be inspected and the concessions loaded. Since I was the conductor, I left most of the heavy lifting to my brakemen and stood on the platform exchanging small talk with possible passengers. Included with this group was a five-year-old boy with his grandmother. The boy was very excited.

 

Around 11:30 a.m., locomotive 93 entered the East Ely yard from her rental. She actually had come from the Keystone branch heading east. From the depot platform, you can see the locomotive cross a long fill heading for the wye and the depot lead. The wye is two blocks east of the depot. But again, you can watch the locomotive from the depot.

The appearance of locomotive 93 was like a jolt of sugar to the little boy. He was beside himself, jumping up and down and just generally excited. From my point of view this is what it is all about-showcasing this marvelous invention to the young.

I spoke with the grandmother briefly and she told me that this was his second time at the museum. He had come last year. In fact, she had a picture of me with her grandson from last year.

By this time, locomotive 93 had turned on the wye and was heading west on the passing siding to couple up to her train. As the locomotive got closer and closer, the little boy got more and more excited, which I didn't think was possible.

I talked to the little boy and told him where locomotive 93 was going. I explained about the passing siding and how the locomotive would be backing down and coupling up to the train. I asked the little boy if he was going to ride the train. His reply was an emphatic "Yes."

Locomotive 40 is heading towards Ely with passenger cars 20 and 5, just as she was during her heyday. The plume from the stack of locomotive 40 is 95% water vapor with 5% coal smoke. From 1910 through 1941, this was a daily scene. Today, it is a window to our past. Visitors are able to experience first hand what it was like to travel in a steam powered passenger train. They can experience the technology that opened the interior of the continents. As a static display, locomotive 40 and her coaches are comparable to a stuffed mountain lion. Yes, it's pretty to see, but way different from a living breathing mountain lion. Yes, pollution is a serious problem, but it can be better addresses by turning off some lights, driving a little less, carpooling, and taking public transportation. These actions will decrease pollution far greater than not operating historic steam locomotives.

 

I chatted with the little boy a little more. Whenever he had a question, he would come up to me and say, "Mr. Conductor" and then asked his question. He had what seemed to be thousands of questions or least hundreds, which was fine, because I was recruiting another soul into our steam fraternity.

Locomotive 93 backed down to the train. It stopped fifty feet away. The head brakeman dropped down and walked towards the rear of the locomotive. As he was walking down, locomotive 93 was putting on a show. The air pumps were chuffing, the cylinder cocks were open, steam was hissing out, and the fireman decided to put water in the boiler with the injector. This sent a blast of water out the side of the locomotive, followed by a blast of steam. Meanwhile the head brakeman had gotten to the back of the locomotive and received permission to go behind and drop the air hose and open the coupler.

During all of this activity, my small young friend was taking all of this in. Then the head brakeman walked opposite me to his side of the train and asked for permission to couple. I said, "Yes."

Using hand signals, the head brakeman slowly brought locomotive 93 down towards the train. With bell ringing, the cylinder cocks open, and three short toots on the whistle, 93 started moving back.

I made sure my young friend had a ringside seat to witness the coupling. Slowly 93, rolled down towards the train. The head brakeman was signaling, the couplers were getting closer, closer, closer, then touching and then head brakeman dropped his arms down to signal a stop just moments before the couplers hit. Momentum took the locomotive back and with a slight jar, the couplers connected, and the pins dropped.

My young friend's eyes couldn't get much bigger, I thought. He was dancing around with excitement; he was thoroughly enjoying himself and kept up the barrage questions.

The head brakeman stretched the train and then joined the air hoses. As the head brakeman opened the air hose on the locomotive to charge the train the air pumps on locomotive 93 kicked in.

It was time for a crew meeting. I gathered the crew together; we reviewed out train orders, track warrant, and compared watches. All of this was witnessed by my little friend who started with more questions.

Next up was to do a brake test. I radioed the engineer and asked him to set the brakes. I walked the train, inspecting the brakes. All was well. Once more on the depot side of the train, we released the handbrakes and then radioed the engineer to release the air brakes. We were now ready for our passengers. I walked up to the coach and dropped the stool. We still had plenty of time before boarding. As I walked up to the coaches, people followed. I told them we would be boarding in about ten minutes.

Then it happened. I heard my little friend's grandmother say, "Yes that's a good question, ask Mr. Conductor." It was a rare moment of quiet; passengers were grouped around. My young friend said, "Why do you operate steam locomotives since they pollute?"

Well you could have heard a pin drop. The little boy was looking at me. The grandmother was looking at me. And the gathered passengers were looking at me.

Great, I thought, how do I answer his question and why does a five year old boy know about pollution? There was no dodging his question.

"You're right locomotive 93 does pollute," I said. "But then so does the car that brought you here. Your furnace at home pollutes, just about everything we use either pollutes or was made by something that pollutes."

"We need to choose what pollution we can accept and what pollution we won't accept. It would be a shame to lose locomotive 93 because she pollutes. If 93 was stored away, we would lose a part of our heritage. In the big picture of things, we create very little pollution. I think it is acceptable to create a little pollution to show you what it was like to ride behind a steam locomotive. What do you think?"

He looked at me with a puzzled look on his face and ran to his grandmother. Shortly thereafter, I yelled, "Board" and passengers lined up to take a ride back in time courtesy of the hard work of the staff and the volunteers.

Other museums and tourist railroads have reported complaints about steam locomotives causing pollution. At first, I thought it was a laughable problem. But some of our sister railroads are not laughing. The complaints are getting some traction.

The question of steam locomotives polluting needs to be put in perspective. There are only 171 operating steam locomotives in the United States. Very few of these locomotives operate on a daily basis. Most of the locomotives operate infrequently, some only for a few days per year.

The pollution that these locomotives create is minuscule compared with the rest of society. And most of the "smoke" that you see is water vapor, the exhaust steam from the cylinders.

Yes, pollution is a serious problem, but it can be better addressed by turning off some lights, driving a little less, carpooling and taking public transportation. These actions will decrease pollution on a far greater scale than not operating historic steam locomotives.

On a scale of one to ten, the seriousness of the amount of pollution that a steam locomotive creates is a minus one hundred and fifty thousand. Modern society creates pollution, not the relics from another age.

According to Newsweek (May 1, 2006), the number of solo commuters has increased from 62 million in 1980 to 97 million in 2000. The number of carpoolers has decreased from 19 million to 16 million. People who take transit is steady at 6 million. But the most telling statistic is the increase of the number of cars on the road over the past twenty years—it is 75 million!

When you talk about pollution it's not the 171 steam locomotives that should concern society but the increase of the number of cars on the road and the increase in solo commuters!

 

 

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