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It Does Come in Threes

With jokes, fairy tales, and bad luck—everything comes in threes. Three little pigs, three blind mice, and three broken locomotives. It has been a tough summer here at the Nevada Northern Railway. First, we had our bridge challenge, but luckily, our fund-raising for the bridge was successful; we raised over $40,000! (Thanks! to all of you who contributed.) Then we started the bridge project and immediately thereafter, the rule of three kicked in. We faced equipment breakdowns, a monsoon season (in the high desert, of all places) which stopped the concrete trucks from coming in, followed by a shortage of ballast rock. As I’m writing this, we almost have the ballast shortage taken care of and we will be able to get that track back in operation in the near future.

No sooner did we put these problems behind us then the “three” rule hit again, this time on the locomotive front. First down was steam locomotive 93. We have been gingerly dealing with bearing problems on 93 for months now, until finally it happened: the axle got too hot on an excursion. After cooling down, 93 limped back to East Ely.
Taken into the machine shop, the offending axle was lowered and lowering an axle is not a decision to be made lightly. This is not like changing a flat tire on a car. To lower a steam locomotive axle, all of the rods need to come off, that much is obvious to anyone who’s ever seen one. What isn’t so obvious is that there are what seems to be one hundred other parts that also need to be removed. After our cracker-jack shop team successfully lowered the axle, we felt like we had opened Pandora’s Box. Short version is that once we lowered the axle we found that the crown brasses on both sides of the axle were worn out.

Crown brasses are the bearings that an axle rides on. The crown brass sits in a driving box that is held in place within the locomotive’s frame. In the case of No. 93, we have four axles, eight crown brasses, and eight driving boxes, so essentially each crown brass bears one-eighth the weight of the locomotive. Since locomotive 93 weighs 187,000 pounds, each crown brass carries 23,375 pounds, or almost 12 tons.

For the axle to do its work, the bearing surface and the axle surface needs to be extremely smooth. Any roughness will cause friction, which causes heat. If the heat gets too high, very bad things happen; this is why the engine crew constantly monitors axle temperatures. Through the course of time, sand and grit are sucked up into the crown brasses and start grinding the bearing surfaces, causing a rough surface. The rough surface causes the friction, which causes excessive heat, causing more friction and so on.

Upon lowering axle # 2, we found that one of the crown brasses was actually pinching the axle and that the other one was cracked. As mentioned earlier, the crown brasses sit in a driving box, and we found that one of the driving boxes had cracked. And this was just the beginning.

While examining the now-removed running gear, we found problems in the spring rigging throughout the locomotive. This was not entirely unexpected—after all, the locomotive is ninety-eight years old. But what was surprising was the severity of the problems with the spring rigging. It was sufficiently severe a problem as to cancel any plans for a quick repair. Number 93 was the first locomotive down.

The second locomotive to go down, just a few days after 93, was diesel locomotive 105, our ALCO RS-2. What the nomenclature means is that 105 was built by the American Locomotive Company, known for many years as ALCO. The RS stands for Road Switcher, and the 2 means it is the second locomotive design in the road switcher series. It when down because water was leaking into a cylinder and it also had governor problems. This was our second strike in the series of three. Then a week or so after 105 went down, diesel locomotive 109 called it quits with the same problems. Number 109 is an ALCO RS-3, which means it was the third locomotive design in the road switcher series.

ALCO was, for years, a premier steam locomotive builder; it had been building locomotives since 1848. In 1924, ALCO started to experiment with the production of diesel locomotives, which were just beginning to change the railroad industry. After World War II, ALCO had garnered 40 percent of the diesel locomotive market; two of its more successful designs were the RS-2 and RS-3.

Unfortunately, for ALCO, their line of diesel-electric locomotives depended totally on one of two different diesel prime movers. The prime mover is the diesel engine, which drives the generator, which in turn drives the traction motors, which then causes the wheels to turn. Initially, the prime mover in ALCO’s RS-2s and RS-3s was the model 244. Later, the model 244 would be replaced with the model 251. The reason for the change? The 244 had turned out to be a disastrous lemon. An ALCO-related Website states: “The later 251-series engine, a vastly improved prime mover, was not available in time for ALCO to recover from the loss of reputation caused by the unreliability of the 244-series engine. This was one of the contributing factors to the demise of ALCO.”

And here in Ely, sixty-years later-guess which prime mover is in our two ALCOs? If you guessed the 244, you would be correct. So when our locomotives were new back in 1949 and 1950, the 244 prime mover was a problem child and it did not improve with age. To quote Marty, our CMO: “We’re using parts that our predecessors deemed unfit decades ago, in order to keep these diesel locomotives running today.”

So within a month locomotives 93, 105, and 109 all went down. That left us with diesel locomotive 204 and steam locomotive 40. Then to make our life more exciting, at the time that 109 went down, we had only two days until 204 had to go into the shop for its FRA-mandated 92-day inspection. In order to accommodate 204, our only option was to cancel three weeks worth of the 1:00 p.m. excursion train. This allowed us to run the 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. trains and then spend the time in between performing the 92-day inspection on 204.

Then we were hit with a double whammy. We reduced our steam schedule because we only had one operating steam locomotive. Then we dropped the 1:00 p.m. to conserve our one remaining operating diesel. And we did this during the prime tourist months of July and August. The combination of a reduced steam scheduled, on top of a reduced excursion schedule, caused a serious loss of revenue just when we need it most.

Yes, our stress levels were becoming elevated but the show has to go on. On Fridays, we fire up No. 40, as she operates Friday through Monday. Every time she heads out we keep our fingers crossed; after all, she is only ninety-seven years old and suffers from many of the same ailments that her older sister, No. 93 does—and right now, she’s all we have.

So yes, I can attest that bad news does happen in threes. It will be tough going for a while; after all, we are endeavoring to accomplish the impossible here in the high desert. So are all of these locomotive problems unexpected? No. When you’re running locomotives that are near their centennials, stuff happens.

In fact, I have a copy of the Monthly Letter from the Motive Power and Car Department from February 1941. At that time, the Nevada Northern had sixteen steam locomotives. And guess what? Out of the sixteen locomotives, seven were down for repairs. So what we’re facing here is not unusual, just frustrating.

Will 93, 105, and 109 be put back in operation? Absolutely! When? That I don’t know. The impossible takes a little more time than the merely difficult. But yes, they will run again. After all, shouldn’t good things happen in threes as well?

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Sunday | 8AM - 4PM

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1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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