(and what the public doesn’t see…)
When we’re at steam rallies and shows during the summer we often have people come up to us and say how much they would like to own a steam engine, or, if they won the lottery, the first thing that they would buy would be a traction engine, it is an ambition held by a great many people.
Understandable really, as when they go to shows, the sun is shining, the engines are all looking their best, paint polished and brasswork gleaming, chuffing sedately around the field receiving admiring glances from visitors. What’s not seen is all the work that has to be done to get these machines to this condition and keep them there.
Maintaining and running any kind of steam road vehicle is a lot of work. For every hour that they are on the showground there has been an hour spent in maintenance, not restoration, just ordinary everyday maintenance to keep everything running correctly and safely.
Steam engines are by their very nature dirty things, everything associated with them is generally dirty. They burn coal, they produce ash and soot in great quantity, they are lubricated by several different types of oil, most of which gets thrown about all over the machine and crew, they require a lot of water, clean when it goes in but dirty when it comes out so almost every job on an engine involves getting dirty, and not just a bit grubby but really dirty.
Once a year, every steam engine has to have a series of tests to prove that it is safe and not likely to blow up! The first test involves stripping the boiler so that its innermost parts can be examined for any signs of wastage and corrosion to the steel or iron plates. The water has to be drained, ash and soot removed from the firebox and smokebox and various inspection doors and plugs removed. The boiler is then thoroughly cleaned inside and the insurers’ representative comes to examine it, testing the plate thickness and looking for any signs of fatigue and wastage. He/she also looks at the various fittings removed to make sure that they are unlikely to fail under pressure. This done, the lucky owner reassembles the boiler, fills it with water, (hoping that it does not leak, working on the assumption that it didn’t before so why should it now… not always a sound theory…) and invites the boiler inspector to view his pride and joy in steam, the second test. Once this hurdle has been overcome and everything found to be satisfactory, the engine can be shown to the public.
Mechanically, there are also numerous jobs that have to be done if the engine is to remain reliable, these machines are old, the youngest ones are in their seventies, and most are nearer to their century so it is vital that bearings, gears and such are well looked after if they are not to let the crew down when on the road driving to or from an event.
Moving from venue to venue can be quite an adventure, certainly time consuming if the engine is to be driven on the road. The average speed for a traction engine is 5 mph, and water has to be found to keep the boiler topped up probably every 8 or 10 miles so a journey of 20 miles can take all day.
It’s a well-known fact that some steam engines are strangely attracted to public houses so this is another factor that can lengthen a journey.
Route planning is essential, water stops found, the condition of the road checked and any hills inspected, steam engines can climb well given sufficient steam but descents can be a bit more difficult as many an unwary owner has discovered. It is not like jumping into the family car and setting off being certain that you will arrive at your chosen destination!
Operating a traction engine successfully is hard work and requires a lot of dedication but the results are well worth the effort. Arriving at the rally field after a trouble free journey is a wonderful feeling of achievement and makes the hours of work worthwhile. Standing back and looking at your steam tight and gleaming machine brings a lump to even the most grizzled of old steam men and you forget the blood, sweat, toil and tears that it cost you to do it.
So, if you are luckily enough to win the lottery and want to buy an engine, remember, “it ain’t all beer and skittles…” KL