October 30, 2011

Engineer for an Hour

On Friday, I visited Rockhill Furnace, Pennsylvania, to ride the East Broad Top Railroad (EBT). In fact, I was to be an “Engineer for an Hour.” This EBT program, for a fee, allows one to ride in the cab on a regular trip over the tourist road and, for a few brief moments, to actually run a narrow-gauge steam locomotive.

I had been preparing for this trip for a while. Certain clothing—leather work gloves, boots, etc.—was required, and some other items seemed necessary to fully participate in the experience. I collected my outfit for the day over a couple of weeks, and I replaced my old engineer’s cap only the day before I arrived on the EBT property.

Ready for work
The Engineer for an Hour at the Orbisonia, Pa., station (manipulated photo; click for larger image)
I had to arrive by 9 AM for a pre-trip briefing. I didn’t quite know what to expect of the briefing, but I assumed that there would be some instruction on steam locomotive fundamentals, including operating procedures, and a good deal of talk about safety.

I was directed to the roundhouse, where Mikado No. 15 (BLW #41,196, 1914) was being fired, oiled, and inspected for the 11 AM trip. My briefing consisted of a quick trip to the cab, where I was shown the Johnson bar (i.e., reversing lever), throttle, and valves for the train brake and engine brake. Apparently, it was assumed that anyone who had signed up to be Engineer for an Hour already knew something about locomotives. There were no safety instructions.

Engineer’s side of cab (in roundhouse)
Engineer’s side of the cab. My briefing was here in the roundhouse. A work light provide illumination.
No. 15 in roundhouse
No. 15 being readied in the roundhouse.
When it was time to move No. 15 out to the turntable, I was sent to the station across the street to sign a release. Actually, I had to sign three releases, one for each of the corporate entities involved in the East Broad Top. (Don’t ask!)

Soon enough, the train was on its way to the station, where a handful of passengers were waiting to board.

Train heading for station
Train approaching the station for the 11 AM run.
Orbisonia station
Orbisonia station.
I boarded the locomotive shortly after it reached the station.

No. 15 before departure
No. 15 nearly ready for departure.
I had expected the cab to be somewhat cramped, given that the gauge of the EBT is 3 feet. There was little room between the firebox and the side of the cab. This locomotive was not intended to be operated by obese engineers! A particularly odd feature was the fact that the firebox door was at the very back of the cab. In some ways, I suppose, this was convenient; one could fire the locomotive standing on the tender, scooping coal from the bunker, and simply pivoting to throw the coal into the firebox.

The cab arrangement made it difficult to observe the engineer, however. To watch him, I had to stand on the narrow cab apron and grasp the handholds for dear life. It would have been easy to step off the apron and into the abyss. (In the picture above, the engineer can be seen in the cab window, and the fireman has one foot on the deck of the cab and one foot on the cab apron.)

The train ran about 5 miles, turned on a wye at a small park where it stopped for a few minutes, and then returned to the station after turning on another wye. On the return trip, I got to sit in the engineer’s seat. This was fun, but I had no intuition about what I should do. The locomotive had no speedometer, and the grades were hard to discern by eye. I couldn’t even determine for myself when to blow the whistle; there were no signs announcing upcoming grade crossings.Without crossing my fingers, however, I can say that I once controlled a real steam locomotive in revenue service.

By the way, the material describing the Engineer for an Hour program indicates that one would have the opportunity to shovel coal into the firebox. I didn’t get to do that, which was fine with me. I imagined that trying to fire the locomotive would have provided the greatest opportunity for personal embarrassment. Besides, that’s fireman’s work. 

When the trip was over, I received a certificate testifying that I had indeed been Engineer for an Hour.

My day with the EBT was memorable, and I would certainly commend the Engineer for an Hour program to any serious steam fan. There was one very odd thing about the day, however. I never introduced myself to the crew, and they never introduced themselves to me.


  1. Definitely a dream come true for you! I'm glad you got to do it, and that you never outgrew your fascination with trains. I guess my comparable thrill was spending almost an hour at the helm of an old restored square-rigged sailboat, like the Star of India. Good to hear from you!

  2. I so want to do that! Maybe another year. Consider confessing that you caused coveting here...

    Really, it looks like a really cool ride.



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