Driving has gotten too easy… Fall into the seat, turn the key, put it in “D”, and just aim it. The cruise control will even brake for you on some models, and sensors will jar you back to consciousness should you wander from your lane. Even gettin’ that way with diesel locomotives, and thanks to the magic of electronics you can give a modern diesel full throttle from a dead stop without incinerating the traction motors while smoking the steel “tires”. The only challenge left is controlling the sheer massive weight of a train and it’s oddball braking system, but they’re workin’ on that. In fact, GE has demonstrated a computer controlled locomotive that once it has the timetable and track charts in memory, can run for hundreds of miles with no human assistance.

No wonder the railroads so quickly scrapped their steam locomotives, which required hour’s notice before producing usefull power and required refueling AND watering AND greasing et al every hundred miles or so. And after all that attention, these prima donnas of the rails produced peak power at the track speed limit while the railroads were looking for the torque to drag heavier freights. No wonder the diesel effectively retired steam in a mere decade after the close of World War II.

And bringing a steam locomotive back to life that’s sat cold, silent, rusting, and forgotten for decades with few living steam engineers and firemen is even tougher. For a start, steam locomotives are heavy, and modern railroads are reluctant to haul them from their resting places ’til they’ve been fully rebuilt. That means thousands of dollars in overweight load trucking just to get a steam locomotive to a shop for rebuilding. And that better be a biggish shop, with jacks that can lift pounds by the hundred thousand and an overhead crane to match. And before it can run the rails under it’s own power, a steam locomotive will need a complete rebuild… That means taking the whole boiler apart, a multi year job that typically runs at least a half million dollars, unless you’ve got some volunteer boilermakers.

And running a steam locomotive is no less labor or cost intensive… There’s a reason they had a big crew in those cabs. Actually, lots of reasons- A steam locomotive has valves all over the place, every one critical to preventing a melt down or explosion. In the background are dozens more workers and machines… Steam locomotives have big appetites! For just a days excursion, figure on a truckload of coal, and front end loader to get it up into the tender. The water is cheaper, but filling a steam locomotive’s tanks requires more than a garden hose, and often the assistance of a water or fire department is required.

But after a million dollars or more and thousands of hours work, it all comes together when the steam hisses, smoke belches from the stack, pushrods push, and the big wheels turn, slowly them speedily. Diesels are nice, but I’ll never forget the massive Northern Pacific steam locomotive that sent me running for cover in 1955 in Bismark, North Dakota. Was back there a half century later, and the station and neighborhood were just like I vividly remembered from when I was a running scared five year old. Diesels are forgettable, but steam is forever!

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