Written by: TrainSim-Steve
Driving any steam locomotive is more about feel than about knowing which valves and switches to operate. It’s about listening to your engine and understanding why she’s making the noises she’s making to understand how to take the appropriate action. In fact, being intimately familar with your engine is key to knowing just how to get the most from her.
At times, driving a steam engine might seem like quite a bit of work but, once you get the hang of it, it will become almost like second nature to you – a bit like driving a diesel or electric engine. Steam engines can be every bit as responsive, as powerful, and even more controllable than modern traction is, with care and attention to your engine, there is simply no reason why you cannot become a master of these magnificent, living and breathing, machines.
Here’s a short introduction to driving the recently released A2 Peppercorn. Following the instructions below will have even the newest engine drivers, grinning from ear-to-ear with pride.
With any steam engine, you first need to familliarise yourself with the important controls, take a moment to review (and if necessary, write down/print off) all the keyboard controls for the following:
Regulator, Reverser, Live and Exhaust Injectors, Firebox & Stoking, Vacuum or Train Brake, Locomotive or Steam Brake, Cylinder Cocks, Dampers, Blower and Sander.
We’ll briefly explain each of these now:
The Regulator controls the flow of steam from the boiler, which is effectively just a giant kettle, into the cylinders. The cylinders contain pistons which, when pushed or pulled with steam pressure, moves the connecting rods to drive the wheels.
The Reverser much like the similar control on a modern diesel or electric locomotive, it determines the direction of motion. The reverser is often called the ‘cutoff’, because it effectively controls the inlet of steam based on the position or stroke of the piston in the cylinder. It sounds complicated but it’s really very simple. Reducing the cutoff allows you to maintain momentum without using all of your available steam, kind of like a gear box does in a car. Of all the important controls, this is probably the most important one.
The Injectors effectively control the flow of water, stored in the tender, to the boiler. The Live Injector uses live steam straight from the boiler to push the water through. The Exhaust Injector, uses steam that is effectively waste, from the cylinders to push the water into the boiler. Understanding how to use this properly is a fine art and it is worth spending a little time practising.
The Firebox is what holds all the burning coal and the fire. It’s situated under the boiler and heats the water to generate steam. Managing the firebox on a real locomotive is also an art form, knowing where to put your coal to ensure an even temperature throughout takes years of experience, particularly on a large express such as the A2 Peppercorn. Luckily, in our locomotive, this is simplified somewhat and always delivers an even temperature. On lots of engines, you also need to be aware of ensuring proper control of the firebox door. Leaving this open can alter how the engine draws air, instead of from under the engine and through the fire, it can enter via the firebox door and over the top of the fire, ulimately causing the fire to damp down.
Stoking is the act of loading coal into the fire. Managed by the fireman with his trusty shovel, moving coal from the coal chute at the base of the tender into the right places in the firebox. As mentioned above, the fireman often has lots of experience in knowing how to get the most from the coal and can usually see how a fire is burning within seconds of opening the firebox door. On a large express moving at high speed, the fireman will move considerable amounts of coal, almost to the point of non-stop to satisfy the voracious appetite of the engine. For anyone that knows just how heavy a bucket full of coal is, the fireman will move the equivalent of this on his shovel virtually every other second at high speed.
The Vacuum brake may be something you’re already familiar with. Some earlier diesel and electric locomotives used such braking systems. In order to hold the brake shoes off the wheels, a vacuum is created either via steam or via a pump, which pumps out all of the air. On most steam locomotives, other than GWR locomotives, 21 inches of mercury denotes a full vacuum (25 inches on a GWR locomotive) in the brake pipe and indicates the brakes are fully released. When you move the handle, it destroys the vacuum and allows air into the system thus allowing the brakes to apply. The vacuum brake is a remarkable fail safe system in that if there was a fault in the system, the brakes would automatically apply – bringing the train to a stop and thus negating a possible catastrophe.
The Steam brake is very similar to the locomotive brake on a diesel or electric locomotive but instead of using air to apply the brakes, it uses steam. The Steam brake will only apply on the locomotive and not the rest of the train. Very useful for controlling a train while descending a gentle grade and for use in yards or engine sheds.
The Cylinder Cocks control small valves on the cylinders to allow water, which is not compressable like steam is, to escape and avoiding damage to the locomotive. This is a particularly important control to be aware of when you’ve been sat still for some time, and even more so on cold days. On cold days and when stood still, steam will naturally condense into water droplets inside the cylinders. Before moving off, you should always open the cylinder cocks to allow this water to drain away. Failing to do so can cause serious fatal damage to the cylinders causing them to blow out as the piston moves to compress the water within.
The Dampers are just what the name suggests, they damp down and restrict air flow to the firebox. On many steam locomotives, there are two dampers – the front and rear. Typically, the front dampers controls the flow of air while you’re moving forward. Fast moving air through the firebox will cause the fire to burn hotter. Likewise, the rear dampers control the flow of air through the firebox while moving backward. Closing the dampers will restrict the air flow and cause the fire to ‘damp down’ or burn slower – a useful control if you’re generating too much steam!
The Blower is effectively just that, it blows steam at the base of the chimney creating a draught for the fire. Without a draught, the fire will quickly damp down, in much the same way as closing the dampers. The blower is quite important, you would normally close this when the regulator is open, as when steam is exhausted from the cylinders through the chimney, a draught is naturally created drawing air through the firebox. However, if you close the regulator, the blower must be turned back on otherwise the flow of air may be reversed and cause a fatal blow back onto the footplate – naturally this will have disastrous consquences for the crew!
The Sander allows sand, from the sand boxes, to be placed on the rails to allow the wheels greater grip. On some locomotives you can deflect the sand to the front of the driving wheels, or behind, depending on which direction one would like to travel in. The sander is particularly useful for preventing wheel slip, although care should be taken here as even the most careful of drivers can instigate a slip.
Now you’re familiar with the controls, it’s time to go through a mental checklist to get your locomotive set up and ready to pull your train. On a steam engine, it can be a time consuming activity but absolutely necessary to avoid damaging your engine, getting the most from your engine, and ensuring you’re alive and uninjured to drive again!
First things first, I find the easiest way to manage your locomotive is to bring up the F4 HUD or the F5 Status log (press it twice to show full details). There is really no right or wrong way here, whichever you prefer is fine. However if you wish to drive other locomotives, I would recommend you learn and get used to the F5 Status indicator to manage your engine as on some other advanced engines, they do not work with the F4 HUD.
- If the brake pipe is showing 21 inches of mercury, destroy the vacuum by applying the train brake [‘]
- Open the firebox [F], and commence stoking (you can control the rate of stoking using the [R] key to increase the rate, or [SHIFT][R] to decrease).
- Aim to bring the fire to a total mass of around 960lbs (F5 Status) or 80% (F4 HUD)
- Check your boiler level, if it’s showing a full boiler, there’s no need to do anything. If the boiler level is below 75%, read the section on ‘Adding Water’.
- Open the cylinder cocks [C]
- Check the front damper is open [M] (you can close the damper using [SHIFT][M])
- Check the blower is on [N], you’ll need to carefully regulate this while you drive (you can turn off the blower with [SHIFT][N])
- Check your lamps are on and headcode is correct [H] – see the corresponding page toward the rear of the manual for details on these.
- Switch on your dial illumination [CTRL][I] and/or cab lighting [CTRL][L] (if appropriate)
Note: Xbox Controller users will need to manually open and close the firebox to manage the fire mass, as there is no means to adjust the stoking rate.
Note: On a real locomotive, you would also check the various lubrication points throughout the locomotive as well as the sanding boxes – topping up where necessary.
Ready To Go
So now you’re ready to go, your passengers are on board and your locomotive is set up. To prepare you for the start, we need to cover a couple of things. Firstly, controlling a steam locomotive is a little different to a diesel or electric locomotive. The regulator must be used with care to avoid slipping the driving wheels – this could not only damage the engine but could cause you serious harm. The action needs to be very slight at first, increasing the regulator with a tap of the key. On some locomotives you would ‘pump’ the regulator ever so slightly to keep the rate of steam entering the steam chest under control. Secondly, you need to ensure you watch the railway at all times to read, follow and understand how you should behave on the rails.
- Wind the reverser to full forward [W]
- Release the brakes and while the vacuum is created, gently increase the regulator [A] to allow steam into the cylinders to force water through the previously opened cylinder cocks.
- If your wheels begin to slip, immediately decrease the regulator [D] (in wintry or wet conditions you can use some sand [X] to improve grip)
- Monitor the Steam Chest gauge to ensure you’re not allowing too much steam into the steam chest
- If your brake pipe is showing 21 inches of Mercury, Move the brake handle to the running position (15%) to avoid wasting steam [‘]
- After your driving wheels have completed four complete rotations, shut the regulator slightly [D] to avoid over charging the steam chest, then close the cylinder cocks [C]
- Ok this is where it starts to get a little tricky, you want to increase the stoking rate of the fire to keep up with the burning rate, watch the firebox and try to maintain it at 960lbs (or 80%). Remember you can control the stoking rate with [R] and [SHIFT][R]
- At the same time as the above, you want to manage your steam usage with steam production, begin winding back the reverser to keep the steam usage slightly below the generation (you can see this clearly in the far right-hand dial on the F4 HUD, if it’s red, you’re using steam, if it’s green you’re preserving steam). On the F5 Status log, you need to keep the value of the Steam Usage Rate just under that of the Steam Generation Rate value.
- Once you reach around 40mph, you can begin to gradually open the regulator fully (do this carefully, try to do it over several movements rather than as one continuous one) and continue to manage your steam usage rate as point 8 above, remember to watch the Steam Chest gauge
- As your speed builds, you should continue to gradually reduce the reverser (cutoff), and eventually reaching a value of around 20% (F5) or 15% (F4) – you should be able to achieve 100mph with this
- Watch your boiler level, you want to keep this between 50% and 75% for maximum efficiency, check the section on ‘Adding Water’ if your boiler level drops
- If you find that your engine is ‘blowing off’, you’re generating too much steam and you hear the safety valve opening, you can close the dampers to reduce the air flow through the fire or increase the reverser/cutoff to use more steam.
- Occasionally, as you pass over an AWS magnet, you may get an AWS Alert, you can acknowledge this using [Q]
Adding Water Step-by-Step
At some point, you will need to add water to your boiler – as you’ll be moving at speed with the regulator open, you’ll be better off using the exhaust injector as this uses almost no steam pressure.
- Open the Exhaust/Fireman’s Injector [I] and watch the water level, it should begin to increase.
- Once you’ve reached the desired level, close the Exhaust Injector [I]
- WARNING: Never overfill your boiler, this can result in priming the boiler, forcing water through into the cylinders.
If you’re standing still or coasting, and the regulator is closed, you will need to use the live steam injector to force water into the boiler.
- Open the Live/Driver’s Injector [O] and watch the water level, it should begin to increase. It’s important also to watch your boiler steam pressure too as this will cause it to drop noticeably.
- Once the desired water level is reached, you can close the injector [O]
Note: It’s important to note that you need to watch the railway to understand where you are before adding water. It is possible to overfill your boiler while negotiating gradients as the boiler level is not accurate under these circumstances. Conversely, it is also possible to expose the boiler tubes, with a low water level. So you should always do your best to pre-empt when you’re going to need water. Learning a route and understanding the hazards you could face, along the way, is always the best way to understand when you should take action.
At some point during your journey, you will encounter tunnels. It’s important to take action before you enter a tunnel to avoid causing serious harm to you and your fireman. Entering a tunnel at speed can cause a pressure differential and force air back through the firebox causing blowback onto the footplate. Here’s what you need to do:
- Close the firebox doors
- Turn on the blower, if it isn’t already on to create a draught
- Do not open the firebox doors until you are safely out of the tunnel
Slowing Down & Stopping Step-by-Step
Eventually there’s going to come a time when you need to stop, such as letting passengers off and allowing new ones to board. It’s important that you follow the correct procedure to keep your train under control and manage your engine at the same time. Here’s what to do:
- First understand when you want to start braking your train, having a plan well ahead of your intended stop can mean the difference between stopping in the right place or overbraking, causing your passengers to become upset or annoyed
- Close the firebox and cease stoking [F]
- Shut the regulator [D]
- Allow the engine to coast for a moment while you prepare to brake
- At your chosen braking point, gently open the vacuum brake lever/train brake [‘] and reduce the mercury to around 15 inches to begin slowing the train. You can hold the brake pressure by returning the brake handle to the running position (15%)
- Half way between your brake initiation and the stopping point, reduce the mercury to around 8 inches. This will begin to slow the train steadily
- It should not be necessary to move the brake handle again until you reach a stop but if necessary, you can regulate the brake between 4 and 15 inches to control the braking rate
- Never destroy the vacuum entirely while you’re braking, in an emergency, you may need to re-instate the vacuum in order to pull away quickly. Only do this when you have reached a complete stop to ensure the train does not move while passengers are disembarking/alighting.
Note: On a real steam engine, you would never hold the brake application as in doing so you could expose the boiler tubes, which works to efficiently deliver heat to the boiler, and thus resulting in causing catastrophic damage to the boiler as the water shifts forward under braking. In this instance, you would need to regulate the braking and ensure your boiler is at an appropriate level to reduce the risk of this.
Onward to the Next Stop
If you’re travelling onward, all you need to do is run through the setup procedure again. Follow all the appropriate steps and you cannot go wrong.
If you have reached this point, you should have somewhat managed to get from point A to point B in a roundabout fashion. Steam engines are a little trickier than diesels or electrics to drive but they’re much more engaging and even more fun when you know just what to do and when to do it. Keep practising, you’ll soon be driving steam engines like you’ve been doing it all your life. Well done and all the very best for your future steaming endeavours!
I do hope you’ve learned something from this basic tutorial but, if you’re having troubles mastering the controls of your engine, please comment below.