Putting the Steam in Steampunk: The Importance of the Railroad

Part 2: Brass Collars and Kettle Pieces

If you’re just tuning in to these blog posts, last week we went over why the railroad is particularly prevalent in 1879 and what it’s like riding on a train as a passenger. Given that adventurers rarely remain as passive passengers for long, however, this week we’ll be getting more into information behind the actual operations of trains. We’ll be going over the types of people you’ll find actually working on a train and taking a look at the basic parts of an engine. Whether your players take up legitimate jobs as railway personnel (such as guards or hired help for an event to do some undercover work), are planning to do some nefarious deeds that will put them in opposition to those working on the train, or simply get rolled into a conflict that puts them in the areas where they wouldn’t normally be, this should help add some flavor and fill in some gaps as you play.

First, for those who aren’t fully familiar, let’s take a look at some of the primary personnel that will be encountered on a train, and what it is they actually do.

Engineer: Also referred to as the driver, the engineer’s job is, as most would expect, to drive the locomotive. While in and of itself this sounds simple enough, there’s a lot of elements to moving an enormous behemoth of metal and steam, not to mention whatever it happens to be pulling, safely, particularly at high speeds. The engineer has to consider not only the locomotive itself and its capabilities and tolerances, but also the load they’re carrying, what sort of rolling stock it’s on, how much weight there is to the load and how it will react under various forces and conditions. Add to that the specific conditions of the track they’re on between maintenance, grades, curves, changing weather conditions, and the ever present dangers of the Gruv, and there’s a LOT to handle.

Unlike captaining a ship, which is a single unit and has a single captain in command, a train consists of multiple parts, and the chain of command is likewise split. This does bring up an important distinction in terminology: an engine or locomotive refers specifically to the mechanical piece of rolling stock that provides power for a train. A train, despite commonly being used interchangeably, refers to the entire consist of rolling stock that is connected together. An engineer is specifically in charge of the locomotive and top of the chain of command for their engine, and reports to the rail company or other owner of the engine specifically. This does not mean they are powerless in other decisions relating to the train they’re pulling, however; if they feel the locomotive can’t undertake a certain action safely, they are fully within their rights to order a stop or return as needed. They’ll be expected to account for this, to be certain, but they do have the authority and will use it as needed. The chain of command for the rest of the train falls to the conductor (see below).

Fireman: Also referred to as a stoker (mostly in the Union/Confederacy), the fireman’s main job is to see to the engine’s supply needs and to assist the engineer in driving the engine. Yes, seeing to the engine’s needs does mainly involve stoking the fire, but they also keep constant check on the water levels in the boiler and the tank/tender, check oil as needed to keep the engine properly lubricated, monitor sand levels (which are used when the engine needs additional traction), and generally seeing to anything in the cab that the engineer isn’t able to because they’re focused on the tracks ahead. If it’s a coal fired engine, as most steam engines in Britain are, they’ll need to look through the coal before it’s shoveled into the firebox to watch out for rocks or other problematic items and see that they’re tossed aside. For wood fired engines, they’ll have to make sure the wood is not only free of anything that would cause issues for the fire, but also that it’s of the proper size for what is needed and possibly split it up if needed to distribute the heat properly. When the train is dealing with difficult navigation such as going around curves, looking around obstructions, and so on, they’ll also assist the engineer in checking blind spots (and will need to make sure the engine has enough steam built up beforehand). If the engineer is incapacitated or otherwise unable to handle the engine, the fireman has the know-how to take over and see to it that the train is either brought to the next destination or brought safely to a stop as needed. The fireman serves as the engineer’s second in command (again, specifically with command over the locomotive).

Women who take up this profession will, depending on personal preference, generally either stick to the term of fireman or will borrow from across the pond and use the term stoker. Most agree that creating a distinction for firewoman is just too cumbersome to bother with. This is a frequent occurrence for many professions in rail industry.

Conductor: As alluded to above, the conductor is the top of the chain of command for a particular train. If it’s a passenger train, they are ultimately responsible for passenger safety and comfort, the condition of the coaches or other rolling stock, and ensuring that the train arrives at all destinations safely and on time. If it’s a goods train, they are similarly responsible for the condition of the cargo, the rolling stock used to carry it, and ensuring that deliveries are completed on time. For a civilian train, the conductor reports to the rail company or whomever is the proprietor of the train; for a military train, they are answerable to the commanding officer for the operation the train is deployed under, who may or may not be on board at the time (frequently on military trains, the conductor will themselves be a military officer). Of note, while the conductor will oversee loading and unloading of cargo in order to keep their time table, responsibility for handling (and any potential damages) at this point fall to the Stationmaster for whatever station they are at, as they are responsible for the porters who actually handle the cargo. Depending on the rolling stock being used for the train which may have specialist crews, the leads of these crews will ultimately report to the conductor as long as their rolling stock is attached to the train. For example, a galley car would have the same crews as any kitchen, all of whom eventually report to the head chef, and the head chef would then report to the conductor so long as the galley car remains part of the train.

The terminology for this position is frequently a source of confusion, as there are several terms that often get used interchangeably. Conductor is most frequently used in the Union/Confederacy, where as guard is generally used on British railways, which also occasionally use the term train manager. Adding to the confusion, there are also often multiple personnel on a large train that will serve similar functions, as the bigger the train is, the harder it is for one person to handle it all. To hopefully ease the confusion for game usage, use ‘conductor’ or ‘train manager’ to refer to the highest ranked person managing the train, and use ‘guard’ for any secondary personnel that assist in filling similar functions. In the special cases of slip coaches, which are designed to be detached from a train while it’s in motion, each coach would have its own conductor, as they will need to be able to function independently when they are detached. In any case where there is a discrepancy between them, the conductor of the coach closest to the engine would have highest authority.

Brakemen: Sometimes also referred to as trainmen, brakemen are responsible for applying brakes as needed on any rolling stock which have independent braking systems, throwing switches if the train is in a situation where a switch must be thrown manually, coupling and uncoupling cars when there isn’t a shunter to do so (many larger stations and most cargo yards will have their own shunters employed and on hand, but in smaller stations or in between stops, this job falls to the brakeman), and signaling to other trains when there is a dangerous situation. On British railways, most rolling stock don’t have independent braking systems and most switches are controlled by on site signalmen, so the position generally isn’t used there. The associated duties fall to the guard or conductor, depending on how the train is staffed.

Since we already went over the layout of several pieces of rolling stock from a passenger view, let’s do a quick run down on some of the basic parts of a steam engine. For our example, we’re going to look at the primary engine used for runs through the Rabbit Hole, the GNR 4-2-2 Stirling. Before going deeply into the engine parts, a quick note regarding the naming notation for those who are not familiar. The numbers separated by dashes as part of an engine’s name are its Whyte Notation, as devised by Frederick Whyte. It refers to the wheel arrangements of the engine, going front to back, describing the number of pilot wheels, then driving wheels, then trailing wheels. In our example, the GNR Stirling has four pilot wheels at the front, followed by two powered driving wheels, and then another two trailing wheels at the back. Wheels on the tender are not included, as the tender is technically a separate piece of rolling stock.

Original image from sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk

1. Fender: This is the front portion of the running boards, which extend through the length of the engine. It flares out into a mounting surface for various attachments needed at the front of the engine. Engines in the Union/Confederacy will have a cow catcher mounted to the front, though this is a rarity in British railroads (though it is more common in engines operating in the Gruv, which are much more likely to run into wildlife or other obstructions out on the rails).

2. Buffers: These are intended to cushion the impact between pieces of rolling stock running into one another. They can range from spring loaded pressure plates as seen here, to simple blocks of wood that get bolted onto the fender. Buffers typically aren’t used on railroads in the Union/Confederacy, instead relying on thicker couplings that sit proud of the fender to take any impact.

3. Coupling: Couplings are used to connect pieces of rolling stock together, with different styles being used on different railways. For British railways, couplings consist of an assembly of a hook and thick steel connectors running between pieces of rolling stock, with chains to provide a secondary means of connection in case the primary coupling breaks. The tightness of the coupling can be adjusted as needed; looser couplings allow the engine to pick up pieces of rolling stock one by one, making it easier to get rolling for heavy loads, but doing so will conversely allow the rolling stock to wiggle and bump around more, which can cause loads to be come unsecured and will give passengers a rougher ride.

4. Smokebox: This is the point on the steam engine where any smoke and exhaust from the firebox and through the boiler exits and heads out the funnel. Smokeboxes all have a hatch at the front, as access is needed during engine maintenance to clean out the fire tubes inside boiler.

5. Funnel: Also sometimes called the smokestack, this is where exhaust smoke and gasses leave the engine, with the length of the funnel being used to carry them up high enough to prevent them from hindering the engineer’s visibility and, ideally, keep them from affecting any passengers or crew further down the train. Coal fired engines typically have a funnel with straight sides, where as wood fired engines will often have a funnel with flared ends, containing the spark arrestor, intended to prevent sparks from the fire being expelled and potentially starting a wildfire along the tracks.

6. Pistons: There are multiple parts to the pistons themselves, enough to be its own subject of discussion, but in short, this is where the steam pressure that is built up in the boiler is converted to mechanical energy that drives the wheels. Pistons can be externally mounted, as seen here, or internally mounted, being placed under the running boards of the engine between the wheels. Pistons that are mounted internally are better protected from potential damage, but require pit facilities to undergo maintenance.

7. Driving Rods: This is the large piece of steel that connects the pistons to the driving wheels, transferring power to actually drive the engine. If the engine has more than one pair of powered wheels, it will also have additional side rods to connect and distribute power to them.

8. Boiler: This is arguably the primary component of the engine, running almost its entire length and largely determining how much power it can produce. Inside the boiler are a series of tubes where the smoke and hot gasses from the firebox run from the back of the engine to the front to eventually escape out the funnel. Water surrounds these tubes, picking up the heat and converting to steam.

9. Dome: The dome sits above the water level of the boiler, collecting steam to then deliver to the pistons where it can be used to do work. Not all engine designs use a steam dome; those that do not will need other separation methods to ensure that the steam delivered to the pistons is “dry” – that is being fully converted to steam and not containing any water. Unlike steam, water is non-compressible, and will cause damage if large amounts of it are allowed to collect in the pistons (most engines have cylinder cocks that allow for additional steam to be pushed through the piston cylinders to clear them of water, generally used when the engine is left still for a length of time and the pistons may have cooled, such as at a station).

Of note, some engines will have a secondary dome containing sand, which can be deployed onto the rails when additional traction is needed.

10. Cab: Also referred to as the footplate, this area is where the engineer and fireman stand to operate the engine. Often for engines with a tender, the actual space on the footplate of the engine is very minimal, with most of the standing space being at the front of the tender itself.

Not indicated in our image here as the angle isn’t the best for it, the firebox sits in front of the footplate and below the boiler. There is a door in the cab to access it in order to supply more fuel. As its name suggests, this is where the fire burns, the heat from which turns the water in the boiler to steam.

11. Tender: As mentioned above, the tender is technically a separate piece of rolling stock that is attached to the engine, containing its water and fuel supply. Different models of tenders exist, and can be interchanged on an engine if a larger or smaller one is needed depending on the type of work it is performing. Not all engines have tenders; engines that carry their water and fuel supply with them are tank engines. Tank engines will get a much more in depth run through in the Railroad chapter of the Fort Alice Sourcebook.

On retrospect, I probably should have broken these last two posts up more, but they’re about trains, and I simply love talking about them. If you enjoy this kind of content, let me know in the comments or on Discord, as there’s a LOT more I can discuss, but for a little bit we’re going to dial back and go over some other aspects of the game line. Speaking of Discord, don’t forget that FreedoniaCon is coming up next month (February 18th, 19th, and 20th) and will be primarily conducted there, and you can also catch several of our main room events that will be streamed on our Twitch channel. And make sure to stay tuned to our various communication channels, as we’ll be announcing our plans for our next 1879 Kickstarter soon!