Steam Train with CN 6060, Stettler to Big Valley

I have a new girlfriend.

She’s a little temperamental, though. She gets hot really fast, she’s always blowing steam, and at the moment has a nasty tendency to run around mostly naked.

That, and she weighs 637,540 pounds.

Yes, I too have succumbed to the wiles of the Iron Mistress. I suppose it was only a matter of time. Hanging around the 6060 work crew probably doesn’t help matters, either.

Saturday was yet another trip for me out to the middle of Nowhere, Alberta (also known as Stettler). You’d think that with only a few measly hours of sleep that I’d have an awfully hard time trying to pull my butt out of bed early Saturday morning.

You’d think.

It’s amazing sometimes what willpower can do. That and a good bout of adrenaline. I was in a hurry. I had to be in Stettler by around 9am, and I was already 30 minutes late (I’d slept through my first alarm).

The trip up was nothing out of the ordinary. Drive Highway 2 to south Red Deer, fill tank with gas, take route 595 east to Highway 11, and then to Highway 12, which takes me right into Stettler, and right to the Stettler train station. I’ve done that route a couple times — it’s quite nice — and aside from a bit of traffic (road construction) it went pretty quick.

On 20 July, CN 6060 was supposed to do a run from Stettler to Big Valley (and back). Although it had been ready to do the run, the safety coordinator for the rail line had forbid 6060 from running on the line — the ballast (what holds the tracks in place and defines the rail bed) was too light in some places.

So when I arrived at the station, all I found was #41 — Alberta Prairie’s 1920 Baldwin Consolidation 2-8-0. It’s a small steam engine — a scant 62 feet long (6060 is one and a half times longer) and a piddily 244,000 pounds (6060 is over two and a half times heavier). It’s a nice little engine than can, but it’s not the one I was looking for. I found 6060 still in Warden, having been denied the run.

Me, Harry Home, Ernie Ottwell, Mitch, Don, Al, Warden, Alberta, 20 July 2001 #41 arrives at Big Valley, Alberta, 20 July 2001 Alberta Prairie #41 at Big Valley, Alberta, 20 July 2001

On Saturday morning, I was not disappointed. As I drove along (having to take a detour due to road construction), I caught a glimpse of a now very-familiar huge black and green locomotive sitting next to the Stettler station. Already, Harry, Ernie, and Don were hard at work.

Ernie (L) and Harry (R) talk with the conductor, Stettler, Alberta, 11 August 2001

This was the second day in a row that 6060 would run, having run also on the Friday. Like most days 6060 runs, the train had been packed — over 400 passengers. The anticipation of a large crowd was high. So there was extra pressure to make the train look (and run) as well as possible.

Donning my now very grubby jeans, I leapt at the chance to do whatever I could. So I got handed the jobs of helping Don grease the tender’s bearings (managing to get quite a bit of grease on myself in the process), and wiping down all the trucks (the non-powered wheels) and the drivers (powered wheels) on the engine. My hands were literally soaking in Varsol for about two hours. Ouch.

Barely a half hour after I arrived, it was time to get 6060 fired up. Because the insulation and jacket are still not back on (barely the first quarter of the boiler is covered), it cools off very quickly — there was barely one pound of pressure in the boiler that morning (6060 operates at 250 pounds of pressure).

I’d always wondered how you start a steam engine. It’s not like starting a car — there’s no key, there’s no electricity, and there’s no motor. In fact, starting a steam engine cold is quite a challenge, and not easily done.

The primary problem is draft. Like all fires, you need a draft to keep the fire burning. The problem with steam engines, particularly ones as long as 6060, is getting the draft started. For that, you need an air compressor. A big one.

The air compressor does two things: It charges the blower air tank, and it’s used to create the draft in the stack. The blower atomizes the Bunker C crude oil we use for fuel, spraying it into the firebox. This allows the oil to burn more cleanly, efficiently, and creates far more heat than just pouring it in. At the opposite end of the engine, jets of compressed air shoot up the smoke stack, drawing the burned gases from the firebox, through the heater pipes, and into the stack.

It sound complicated, but it really isn’t. Provided you have a source of compressed air, anyway. If you don’t, well, you’re not going anywhere. You can’t start 6060 without this handy little feature. So of course, the question is how did they start 6060 when she was operating with CN Rail…

A boiler. A big freaking boiler. Every roundhouse had a boiler room, whose sole purpose was generating steam for starting up steam engines. That’s all it did. If your engine ran out of water in the middle of nowhere, you were screwed. Even if you could refill your water, by the time you got it your engine was cold. After that, you had to be towed back to a roundhouse to be restarted. And you got in trouble.

Heating something the size of 6060 would take hours, or so I thought. But you’d be surprised how quickly something the size of 6060 can get hot. I noticed this the hard way, when Mitch (who showed up for a while to help fix a split steam line) called me out to the engineer’s side running board to help splice a line back together. Next to what little insulation we had on, the engine seemed cool. But once I’d passed the jacket, it felt like I was standing next to an industrial-sized waffle iron.

It didn’t help that I was on the sunny side of the engine, either.

Don checks the connection between 6060 and the caboose, Stettler, Alberta, 11 August 2001

Within two hours, steam started to trickle out of some of the various vents, ports, and exhausts. At first, it was just drops of hot water. But soon, little clouds were blowing out. The previously cold, calm engine was beginning to feel a little more dangerous. Of course, this was when I was rubbing very flammable Varsol all over the wheels right next to many of these steaming vents, under a now very hot boiler. I kept expecting one of the vents to suddenly blast open and peel my skin off.

But Harry and Ernie were well aware of where I was at all times. That’s why they’re engineers. They don’t open anything until they’re sure no-one’s around.

By 12:00, 6060 was approaching operating pressure. Passengers for the 14:30 trip were already arriving, mostly just to watch 6060 go through its paces. While Harry, Ernie, Tom (Alberta Prairie Rail Excursion’s engineer, who was on a “training” run — no pun intended) worked in the cab, Don and I finished off work on the outside.

My hands tingling from the Varsol, but otherwise done my tasks, I joined the engineers in the cab to hopefully absorb a few things about running a steam locomotive. I listened to what Harry and Tom discussed, periodically asking Ernie for explanations on things I didn’t understand. Don was learning as well — he’s many steps ahead of the game compared to me, but he’s also been with the RMRS for 15 years.

One of the most fascinating things was watching the fire in the firebox. Only a month earlier, I had stood inside it, wondering what it would be like when lit up. Now I could barely see the features, they were obscured by the orangey-red flames that swirled around. The heat was intense, but nothing 6060 wasn’t used to.

By 13:00, we were ready to start the engine in motion. Grabbing my camera, I took up position and waited. For a while, nothing happened. But then 6060’s forward bell started to ring, warning all around that a very hot 313 metric-tonne hunk of iron was about to start moving. A sudden (and very loud) blast of steam shot out from the cylinder cocks, and slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the huge engine started to move forward.

I felt a tingle in the back of my next. 21 years rushed by like a summer breeze. For a split moment, I was eight again, hiding behind my father as this giant black beast came tearing down the rails in Oakville. I remembered that it had scared me, but also deeply intrigued me. It was good to feel so young again. Now I know why those who work on 6060 are always smiling, and are so young at heart.

In front of 6060 was the caboose, and most of the day’s train. The rest was waiting down the yard — the train had been “broken” the night before, because a road bisects the rail yard. The train rolled down and softly linked up with the remaining cars. The linesmen hooked up the steam and brake lines, and a few minutes later, the entire train started back to switch onto the main line.

The Stettler station sits on a portion of barely-used track owned by the East Central Heritage Society. It used to be a CN short line, until the Government allowed CN (and CP) to start giving up their unprofitable lines. Now Alberta Prairie Rail Excursions is the primary user of the line. So we didn’t have to worry about tying anyone else up.

Because there aren’t any turntables or switch arounds, 6060 had to run in reverse for the trip down to Big Valley. For a steam train, it’s a little awkward, but almost no different than running forward. Besides, at the speeds we would be running, it was hardly an issue.

Finished my current round of picture taking, I returned to the cab, to see what was going on. Harry spotted me and called me up for an impromptu “meeting”. Being the youngest, I was the designated gopher. My job was to go for ice creams — Harry was buying. Being a hot day, it also meant I had to run.

There are times I don’t like the dryness of Alberta. But when you can run in jeans in 32 degree weather and know that your sweat will just evaporate, you really can’t complain too much.

Soon, it was 10 minutes until departure. Although we weren’t with a real rail line, everyone was running like they were — the conductors, Harry and Ernie, even Don read off in railroad time (military time) and were synchronizing watches. Old habits die hard, I guess. With 10 minutes remaining, it was time to sound the whistle. It should have brought back so many memories of watching 6060 roar past when I was a child.

Unfortunately, I was standing next to the whistle at the time, so it only succeeded in scaring the hell out of me.

It’s a powerful whistle too — none of these pipsqueak little tin whistles. This is fed by 250 pounds of steam. It’s loud. Loud enough to shake you to your bones. (Don wears ear plugs when riding 6060 because the whistle’s so loud.) You can hear it for miles. Out in the open prairie, it’s a beautiful sound. Standing right next to it … well, let’s just say my ears rang for a little while.

At 14:30 on the nose, Harry sounded the high ball (three short blasts of the whistle) to indicate that we were off. Don and I took position in the caboose’s cupola, right behind 6060. We faced the front of the engine the whole trip down. It was wonderful to see it running again.

It was so good, in fact, that I felt an urge to share the experience with the man who got me hooked on all this in the first place — my father. Through the miracles of modern technology, I called up my parents and let him listen to the chugging of the engine and the blast of the whistle.

Just as we started to pull into Big Valley, the train lurched to a stop. We were nowhere near the station, but our forward progress had been retarded … by train robbers.

Yes, train robbers.

This is part of the whole act. The robbers come, stir up trouble, get some money, and are promptly stopped by the local sheriff. It’s a prairie thing. Of course, the sheriff, late to arrive, has no clue who lost money to the thieves, so in a kind-hearted gesture, donates the loot to children’s charities.

Robbery completed, we finished the last 500 metres into Big Valley. While passengers disembarked and headed up to the hall for dinner (part of the price of admission), 6060 switched ends of the train so it could make the run back later. After she was hooked back up, Harry and Ernie did a quick inspection, and shut her down for a couple of hours, so we could go eat.

You never leave a running steam engine unattended.

Dinner is part of the package. It’s quite good, too, prepared by local Big Valley folks in their town hall. It’s typical fare — mashed potatoes, vegetables, roast beef (albeit a little overdone), and even has pork cutlets and shrimp. My sweat equity bought me a free trip on the train and a free dinner. Can’t argue with that.

Harry, Ernie, and the two conductors (Ed and Warren) told war stories of their days on the rails. One day, I’d love to write a book about some of these — most are unbelievable (Harry can actually say he drove a locomotive through a house), the rest stop at merely hilarious. Makes me wish sometimes I was 50 years older, and an ex-railwayman.

Following our dinner, we returned to get 6060 back in gear again. During the hour we were gone, she’d lost almost 60 pounds of pressure (another reason why we need to get the insulation and jacket back on — so that won’t happen), so firing her up was of big importance. A large number of people came out to look at the engine while this was going on. Don ran interference for Harry and Ernie, answering questions about 6060 and her history.

Soon, 19:00 rolled around, and we started back for Stettler. This time, Don and I were at the end of the train. It was much quieter (no hulking locomotive to rattle the windows), and we could clearly hear the clickety-clack of the wheels and the barking of the engine.

Yes, “barking”. This is another term I’ve learned. When a steam locomotive starts up a grade, or is hauling a lot of weight, it will chug loudly and distinctly — this is called “barking”. I’m not sure where that term comes from. I have to remember to ask. (I did ask what “hogheads” were and what that etymology was.)

We arrived back in Stettler around 20:30. I was exhausted, and I hadn’t really done much. There was still work to do — 6060 had to switch cars once they were emptied, the train broken, and then 6060 had to go back to Warden so we can continue working on her.

But I had to get home. I had plans for Sunday, and being in Warden, unfortunately, wasn’t part of them.

So for the first time in 21 years, I saw 6060 in action right in front of me. Not as impressive, unfortunately, as when I had seen her run through the Oakville sub as a child, but no less awe-inspiring.

I left the Spirit of Alberta behind, but only for a few days. I’ll be back on the weekend. There’s still a lot of work to do, and a lot for me to learn. We’ll be running again on 21 September, with the jacket back in place, and hopefully with a fresh coat of paint.

Hope you can all make it.