Going to Antique Steam School

It’s been a long time, but I’ve gone back to school.

The last time I took a class, it was for work. I wasn’t learning anything I didn’t already know, and I wasn’t really all that happy about it. This time, I’m taking something I have (some will say) far too much interest in, and (so far) have been really happy with. What is this wonderous education that I’m receiving? What is this subject in which I’m so engrossed?

I’m going to Steam School.

Okay, you can stop groaning now. Yes, this is related to trains. But not in the same over-the-top manner many seem to expect from me. (Either I’ve set far too many precedents, or people seem to expect a lot.) It’s actually an Antique Steam course, which is something I need to take so I can start my safety training for steam boilers.

Why steam boilers, you ask? Remember my girlfriend? Well, she needs more people trained to maintain and operate her. There’s a lot of work involved with running a steam locomotive, especially one with a boiler the size of 6060’s. And with the bulk of our society getting older every year, we’re in a pinch to make sure our newer members (e.g. me) have the necessary training.

Now don’t get me wrong — the course I’m taking now doesn’t even come close to qualifying me to even getting me in the cab while the locomotive is running. As with all things, it’s a step in the right direction. Once I’ve obtained this permit, then I can start working towards my Class 5 permit. That will, at least, get me in the cab during operation. Then it’s a matter of time and training before I can write my Class 4. I need a Class 4 to operate 6060’s boiler — in other words, apprentice to be a fireman. (It’ll be a number of years before I can be an engineer.)

The class met at Pioneer Acres, a museum in Irricana, about 45 minutes northeast of Calgary. The village of Irricana is small, only about 1,000 people. It was likely once a railway town (the CN mainline — formerly Grand Trunk Pacific’s — to Edmonton runs through Irricana), but has since become little more than a small farming community. The village is surrounded by vast acreages.

Our instructor was late, caught in the snow where he lives. Although a chinook and the onset of spring has pretty much wiped out the snow in most of Alberta, some parts are still in a deep freeze. No-one seemed to mind too much, though. For the $100 fee, a large number of us are having the fees covered by employers or our respective museums and historical societies. It gave us a chance to get to know eacy other a little better.

The instructional material is … well, not so much in-depth as it is cohesive. Sounds a little odd, I know, but allow me to explain. Although I haven’t spent a huge amount of time with the Rocky Mountain Rail Society, my education started the day I showed up in Warden. Sometimes it’s just someone telling me the name of a strange blob of cast iron. Sometimes, it’s telling me how it works. If I’m really lucky, I get to see it in pieces. However, none of it really seemed to make sense.

The course I’m in is primarily aimed at safety. Steam engines (stationary boilers, traction engines, and locomotives alike) are all very dangerous. Even a stationary pressure vessel with pressures as low as 20psi can explode with disasterous consequences. 6060’s boiler runs at 260psi. As you can guess, safety is covered repeatedly during the session. The safety isn’t so much for us (though that is important), it’s mostly for the public. No steam engine would exist today were it not for the public wanting to see it operate. They’re far too expensive to own and operate without funding. So with the crowds we expect come the rules needed to operate them.

Over the last two days, I’ve received a very clear picture of how certain elements of a steam boiler operate. Most of them to me were textbook concepts. Our instructor make sure that the ideas that once seemed so simple were carefully explained. Luckily, we have several in the class who can explain things a little further. The SAIT instructor even managed to fill in the missing bit of information that finally cleared up how a steam injector operates. (Of course, having some knowledge of physics and thermodynamics actually does come in handy.)

I still get strange looks from friends and coworkers whenever I tell people about the things I do in my spare time. I guess most people expect that I would work on a computer all the time. With my job being close to the leading edge of computer technology, I guess I prefer having a hobby that has nothing to do with computers at all. There’s a certain amount of relaxation that comes from working with something that predates the electronic age. Something that has no knowledge of microprocessors (the federally-mandated radio notwithstanding), no cares about lines of software code, and no relation whatsoever to the mass-produced garbage of our era.

It might weigh more than 23 times the average city bus, but our nigh 60 year-old toy always seems to lift off the worries of my little world.