Sunday, August 16, 2009

Visiting the Selfkantbahn - Sunday

It was a long evening yesterday, and I had trouble getting out of bed at first. Reminder to self: If you are not used to drinking beer, do it in moderation...

However, today's the day!

Shortly before 9am we were back in Schierwaldenrath where Christoph and Jan had already prepared the locomotive for the day. There was not much left for us to do so we went inside the car hall for coffee and breakfast. Yup, the two of them did the job of oiling, lubing, and a light polish in less than a quarter of the time it took us yesterday...

The morning was cool, with patchy fog and overcast skies, and by 10am I found myself in the warm cab of the locomotive switching an extra freight car to the tail end of the train. By now I was much more comfortable with the controls and had a blast. I must have been grinning over both ears most of the time. I picked up the freight car, spotted it to the end of the train, and then pulled the train forward into the service area so that the folks in the dining car could comfortably load food and drinks for the day.

It's not trivial to stop the train in a way so that the dining car ends up near the entrance door to the workshop, since from the cab you can't see neither the car in the train, nor the entrance door. All you know is roughly how fast the train is going, and hear over radio how far away the car still is ("two car lengths, one car length, 1/2 car length"). No-one complained, so I guess I stopped reasonably well.

Once the dining car was loaded, we pushed the train back to the platform, uncoupled and topped off water. Then it was back to the coaling platform for refueling and cleaning out the ash box, and my Dad took over to bring the locomotive to the head of the train for the first run of the day. Thomas took some excellent video footage of my switching maneuvers with my camera and I'll post that (and more video footage) once it's edited.

Wolfram showed up shortly before 11am, and immediately started taking pictures. He looked so professional in attitude and attire that I had to clarify with the other seminar participants that, "yes, that's my brother, he lives nearby, and no he doesn't do this for a living". Quite a few passengers filled the platform, and at 11:15am we took off for the first run with Dad at the controls. He did a great job and carefully guided the train to Gillrath. It was very hard to take good photos or decent video footage even from the car behind the engine. The angles are not right and you often wish to be flying next to the train so you can film through the open cab windows.

After the return trip we had a quick lunch since it was almost time for the second run. Bernd took the train down to Gillrath and I brought it back to Schierwaldenrath. I (again) had a little problem with braking when we got to Birgden and accidentally left the brake lever in a slightly open position so the stop in Birgden became ... errrm ... a bit abrupt towards the end. Did I mention that braking is hard? Especially when you try to be gentle to the equipment. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Back in Schierwadenrath, I didn't want to leave the cab, I could have go on and on, but sadly my turn was over.

Wolfram, Dad, and me skipped the 3rd run and had excellent ice cream at the station restaurant instead. While Dad relaxed in the shade, Wolfram and I climbed on the loading ramp and waited for the train to return. It was already time to say Goodbye to Wolfram since he wanted to get back on the road to drive home.

Thomas took the train to Gillrath, and I managed to get back in the cab for the return trip to Schierwaldenrath with Jan at the controls. It's very interesting and enlightening to watch a professional engineer who knows the line by heart, play with the controls, move the locomotive with centimeter accuracy, and just the right amount of steam or braking. It was also another demonstration of how a good team of stoker and engineer can work together in an almost artful dance to feed and care for the machine.

Once we returned we received our certificates and now it was really time to say Goodbye. To the group, to the railroad, the people that cared for us all weekend long, and of course "our" locomotive 20.

On the way home the sounds and sights of the weekend continued to play in my head. It was an awesome experience, and if I lived closer to Schierwaldenrath I would be there more often. Contrary to modern locomotives, steam engines feel a lot more alive, a feeling that is impossible to experience by looking at photos or watching them on TV. If you ever have a chance to see steam engines in operation, ride in a cab, or maybe even, take the controls yourselves, go and you won't regret it.

Friday - Saturday

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Visiting the Selfkantbahn - Saturday

Today I drove a steam locomotive.

The day started with firing up the locomotive. It took about 4 hours from lighting the first firewood in the firebox until steam pressure was within operating range. Meanwhile, stoker ("Heizer") Christoph and engineer ("Lokomotivfuehrer") Thomas explained the very basics how a steam locomotive works, and we had the pleasure of oiling, cleaning, and polishing the locomotive. Yes, cleaning and polishing, too.

After lunch everyone got to move the locomotive within station limits to practice accelerating and braking. There are two mechanisms to control acceleration: Amount of steam sent to the cylinders and amount of steam expansion within the cylinders. The general effect is similar to gears in a car. High gear at high speed uses less gas, but barely has enough torque to get the car moving in the first place. Some steam with little expansion in the cylinders gets the locomotive moving. Relying more on steam expansion in the cylinders once the train is moving saves steam pressure and therefore fuel.

Braking is quite an art. The trains on the Selfkantbahn like most trains use an air brake system which uses air pressure to control brake cylinders in each car. The practical implication for a novice engineer is that contrary to a car,it will take a few seconds for braking to take effect, and the train will keep braking at the given pressure set in the main brake line. When the brake is released only slightly, it will fully release the brakes at each car, and on top of that it will take several seconds for the locomotive to re-pressurize the main brake line. We got to practice this on a demo system in the car hall.

There is also a direct brake system on the locomotive only, which is generally used when the locomotive is moving without a train, or, if we have a train, similarly to a hand brake in the car when going uphill from a full stop: Hold the train in place, while the brakes in the cars are already released.

During my practice run in the afternoon the main brake line overloaded (too much pressure). This caused quite a commotion since it was unclear why this had happened in the first place. I was standing in the locomotive twisting thumbs and making a stupid face, while both Christoph and Thomas got to figure out what happened, and decide whether it's safe to continue the trip. In the end the net effect was that we got to de-pressurize and re-pressurize the brake system.

All in all, I think I did O.K. Under direction from Thomas I brought the train up to speed, slowed down and stopped before railroad crossings, rang the bell, and, to my utmost delight, blew the whistle. The interaction between steam pressure and steam expansion is not yet quite clear to me so Thomas had to guide me a bit, but I think I managed to do a decent job.

It was a hot day, and being in the cab was even hotter with the fire burning like crazy 2 feet before you. The cab was very crowded with stoker, engineer, and two seminar participants, one driving, one trying not to be too much in the way, paying attention to instructions, shoveling coal, or refilling the boiler with water. We went through several liters of bottled water and "Apfelschorle" on each run. Replacing the empty bottles when we got back to Schierwaldenrath became an important chore.

The practice runs happened to be two specials with paying customers from Schierwaldenrath to Gillrath. Yup, the whole, whopping 5.5km of track all the way from one end to the other end of the line.
The first run was booked by a Mazda fan club. Quite a sight when 40 Mazda sports cars along with their owners and respective girl friends enter a railroad museum in their shiny, little cars passing "our" shiny little steam engine.
The other run was for the youth group of a local fire department, as well as a birthday party in one of the cars.

After we returned with the second run to Schierwaldenrath, we had coffee and cake, watched/helped set the fire for the night and left the locomotive in the engine shed for the next day. Later in the evening the group had dinner together, and we had a fun time. The fact that I'm living in California was drawing quite some attention and many questions about life and work especially in comparison to Germany.

Tomorrow I will drive the 13:45 train from Gillrath to Schierwaldenrath, which -- for extra fun -- runs with the locomotive backwards, and therefore the controls will be behind me when looking on the track ahead of the locomotive. I'm curious if Wolfram will be here in time for the 11:15 departure which will be driven by my dad.

Friday - Sunday

Friday, August 14, 2009

Visiting the Selfkantbahn - Friday

We arrived at the main station of the Selfkantbahn in Schierwaldenrath just in time for the start of the seminar. After a brief introduction in the Buffetwagen, we did a tour of the museum, and visited the engine shed where we saw "our" steam engine No. 20 for the first time. She looked a bit dead standing there in the shed with a cold firebox and cold boiler. And I couldn't decide whether I should feel sad, curious, or excited about tomorrow. It didn't quite feel real that tomorrow we will fire up the locomotive and it will come to life.

I'm nervous. After looking at the various levers and manometers in the cab, as well as a brief explanation from Christoph, our stoker for tomorrow, I re-read the explanations how a steam locomotive works. I hope I can get this thing to move once it's my turn, and especially get it to stop...

Later during dinner we received our engineer hats, and had a fun time discussing various railroady topics. The seminar group is quite interesting, and participants come from all over the country. I'm the youngest by far. Dad's the oldest by far. Most are in their fifties. Some came alone, others brought wives or family for moral support.

Saturday - Sunday