I’m going to do something a little different this month. Over the years, people have e-mailed me to ask many questions. Here is a random sample of some of them:
Many folks new to American Flyer trains have often asked why did Flyer put those “Wide White Wall” wheel rims on their steam locomotive drivers? The reference is often to the large area of white rubber on automobile tires of the same era known by that nickname. In the case of Gilbert, it was to insulate the metal wheels from electrical conductivity. However, “Wide White Walls” are actually very prototypical, if overblown by Gilbert! The real steam railroads did exactly the same thing, but for other reasons. Replacing the drivers on a steam loco is a major operation, so early on, the manufacturers began mounting “tires” on them. The drive wheels themselves would not be subject to wear if these “tires” were between them and the rail. These rings of metal could be removed and replaced rather than removing and replacing the drive wheels. At first attempts were made to mount these driver tires with bolt or rivets, which soon became unsatisfactory. The solution to this problem was to heat the tire, causing it to expand slightly. Then mount it while hot to the driver itself. The tire cooled and “shrunk” onto the wheel, needing no other form of fastener. In some cases, lead and trailing truck wheels were also fitted with tires, and a few wheel manufacturers offered “tired” rims on rolling stock wheels.
One of the problems with driver tires was failure from wear or damage, particularly dangerous at high speed! Broken off pieces of the tire could be thrown many yards, destroying anything which they encountered, including engine crewmen! A broken driver tire could also lead to a derailment, as these tires were also the flanged part of the driver. Well-worn tires could detach from the wheel at speed as well, and only a few engineers got their trains stopped safely when this happened. Regular inspection was vital, and to help spot flaws and cracks, the driver tires were often painted white, light gray, or silver so that these problems could be more easily spotted. In the days of highly decorated locomotives, all the wheel rims on the engine and tender would be painted, a trend which ended when locomotive fleets got too big to keep up such decoration and became all black. However, many Class One passenger locomotives and some short lines with a small locomotive fleet painted all the wheel rims right up to the end of steam. Even large fleets painted driver tires for years after the rest of the engine was black.
Why was a Fireman needed on a diesel locomotive?
The Fireman was a key crewmember on steam of course. He stoked the boiler or operated the automatic stoker to fire the boiler, kept and eye on boiler pressure, cleaned flues with blasts of sand on oil fired engines, watered and fueled the engine at stops, and did light maintenance and repair. When diesels came along, things changed, but the Fireman did more than just ride! Many people forget that the early diesel locomotives were frail and cantankerous machines. Most railroads, which would even try a diesel in the early years, saw them as barely useful for switching in rail yards where they were near repair facilities. They were much less powerful than steam locos and far less reliable. The first “road” diesels were tried on new streamlined passenger trains in the mid thirties. Even pulling lightweight trains like the Burlington Zephyr and the Union Pacific M-10,000 were the peak of internal combustion on the rails at the time. Steam handled most “serious” passenger trains and all freight. Both the locomotive manufacturers and the railroads were sure that diesels “would never replace steam for heavy freight trains.”
But the diesels got better, with more railroads trying them for limited passenger train use. They still broke down fairly often and lacked the horsepower of steam, and the first Firemen on diesels had to be re-trained to handle different equipment. In a way, they were like the “Riding Mechanic” of the early days of automobile racing. They watched the gauges, watched the track, and did repairs. The Electro-Motive “FT” demonstrator set of four diesel units made the final diesel breakthrough by hauling freight. This “building block” approach to adding horsepower and reliability was long proven on electric railways, and confronted steam seriously for the first time in its strongest use. The rest is history. But even then, the Fireman had much to do. For instance, the shutters and fans for cooling were manually operated on some “First Generation” diesels. The Fireman watched the engine temperature gauges and opened and closed the shutters or turned fans on and off as needed! Instead of boiler pressure, he had to keep an eye on oil pressure. He handled the on board steam heater for the passenger cars which were still steam heated. He had to do running repairs and dozens of other chores, just as he had on steam locos. It would be the sixties before a Fireman was no longer required.
What’s the real story of Casey Jones?
Over 100 years after the famous wreck on the Illinois Central, it is hard to separate fact from legend. However, we can say for certain that John Luther “Casey” Jones was running too fast on that fateful night, trying to “make up time” lost previously on the run of passenger train Number One. Too fast to stop when he was confronted by the track ahead blocked by two freight trains and lost his life trying to stop. He “died at the throttle” saving the people on the train, and the legend was started as the tale was told around engine houses far and wide. In truth, such wrecks were not at all unusual, and most of the time the engine crew died. Train speeds were going up faster than safety equipment and signaling could keep up. Knuckle couplers and air brakes were only then “new fangled” equipment and not yet used on all railroads. Casey came to the Illinois Central known as a competent engineer and a “fast runner.” These were the racecar drivers or jet pilots of their day, handling the largest, most powerful, and fastest machines on the planet. Some were good, some were lucky, some were just maniacs when it came to “fast running.” Casey appears to have fit both of the first two descriptions. He graduated quickly from freight to passenger operations and gained a reputation for getting more out of a locomotive than others could. John Luther Jones was well liked by fellow employees and management and went on to be active in the Union and Lodge. By all accounts, he was a kind and friendly man, but willing to take a stand if he felt strongly about something. No question an outstanding individual. We must also understand there was a double standard in railroad operation of the day. “Speeding” was strictly forbidden by company rules. However, if you got away with it and kept a train on schedule, you were a hero with management. If you messed up and got killed wrecking their train, you were a worthless scoundrel and all blame was heaped upon you. Even today, this happens with truck and bus drivers and airline pilots. Need to deflect blame for an accident? Call it “Pilot Error!” Casey was both good at his job and lucky in his death. He got the train slowed before impact so that no one was killed in the wreck but himself. Therefore, he attained legend status instead of being written off as a no good. Considering the romantic times, he was indeed a hero!