How to drive a steam locomotive

I recently got to drive a steam locomotive! The Nevada Northern Railway in Ely, NV, allows you to Be the Engineer for a 14-mile trip up and down hills, through two tunnels, and across several road crossings. This is an incredible experience – visually and physically!

(By the way – I learned that you “run” or “operate” an engine, not “drive” it, since no steering is involved. But that is how they describe the experience to newcomers :) )

Did you ever see such a beautiful engine?


NN 40, built by Baldwin in 1910

Before climbing into the engineer’s seat, I had to study a 122-page rulebook and take a short (open book) exam. I learned about whistle signals, hand signals, speed limits, track warrants, air brakes, and more. I learned radio protocol (interestingly, it’s backwards from typical airplane conventions; you announce who you are and then who you want to speak with, e.g., “NN 93 to NN Conductor 93, over”). In addition, “the use of ten codes” (I assume this means things like “10-4”) is prohibited.

I also helped get the engine ready for action. The rest of the crew gave me small jobs, like greasing the many bolts that connect rods and other pieces, and refilling the oil reservoirs. Meanwhile, they stoked up the fire in the boiler, cleaned the engine, filled up the tender’s 6000-gallon water tank, and ensured we had enough coal. The steam engine goes through 75 gallons of water *per mile* and consumes about a ton of coal in the 14-mile trip we did!

After three hours of prep, the engine was ready to go! I climbed up into the cab and learned how to start and stop the engine, then practiced this while we were still in the railyard.

The primary controls are the throttle and the brake. The throttle is a squeeze lever with many (~20) detents. Bouncing along, it requires some fine eye-hand coordination to move it precisely to the desired notch. It, too, is backwards from the throttle on an airplane: moving it out (towards you) gives you more steam, not less!

The brake is a smaller handle, easier to manipulate. If you want to slow down, you move it to a setting that allows compressed air into the brake cylinders, pressing the brake shoes against the wheels. You monitor how much brake you are applying through a pressure gauge. Then you move the handle the other direction to release the compressed air (you can hear it hiss out) and the wheels resume unimpeded motion.

The massive locomotive responds slowly to control changes, so both controls are best applied with careful anticipation of the upcoming track – its grade, any curves, preparation for tunnels, etc.

There is also a reversing lever that is mounted vertically in the floor. As one of my books warns, “A strong arm is needed for the reversing lever!” It has a more subtle effect on locomotion by altering the amount of steam that gets into the piston cylinders on each stroke. You want it set full forward to get moving, then back it off for “cruise” to achieve more efficient operations.

And we were off! We left the railyard and climbed a gentle hill. We went through two tunnels and several road crossings. For each crossing, I blew the whistle – LONG LONG short LONG! Mike, our fireman, was busy shoveling coal as needed, injecting more water into the boiler, and ringing the bell through all crossings as well. What a delightful noise!

We used a GPS-based speedometer to track our speed, which stopped working each time we went into a tunnel. However, after a while you get a feel for speed based on the sound of the pistons (and such a lovely sound it is). Pistons mounted on each side provide the driving power for the large wheels. Each wheel gets driven twice per rotation (unlike engines in cars, airplanes, etc.):


In addition, the left and right wheels are offset in phase so that one side gets maximal torque when the other is at minimum (end of its stroke). So what you hear is CHUFF-chuff-chuff-chuff as the pistons go right-forward, left-forward, right-back, left-back, for a smooth continuous overall motion.

At the top of the hill, I gave the controls over to John, the engineer who was training me, and he traced our way through a “wye” (track set up to enable a three-point turn by an engine), which got us set up to return back downhill.

We then continued back down the hill to return to the railyard. The whole trip took about an hour and 15 minutes. After the initial learning curve, it got very comfortable to roll along and listen and respond to the chuff of the pistons as needed. My mind quieted and I filled up with the pure joy of the moment. What an overwhelming experience!


Me driving Number 40

Thank you to Richard Ondrovic for taking these fantastic photos!

A new use for human corpses

Here’s a neat idea – use composting techniques to take care of our own dead bodies.

In this TED talk, Katrina Spade makes a compelling argument for a new way of managing the corpse part of dying. I’ve long been a fan of cremation over burial, for the reasons she explains, but she also makes good points about the downside of how cremation consumes a lot of energy and generates, effectively, human ash pollution.

The idea of “re-composing” bodies, in ways that allow your molecules to be broken down and eventually used to nurture new life, is refreshing! I also like the idea that bereaved family and friends can have whatever kind of ceremony they like as part of the send-off of the body. For those who like to visit gravesites in remembrance of those who are gone, why not designate a location of positive memories with the deceased (a favorite beach or park, or the site of a graduation or wedding proposal or other significant event), or even have a shrine set aside inside the home (I’ve always liked this idea anyway).

Wired wrote an article about this last year that contains some diagrams about how the envisioned recomposition center would look and operate: Inside the Machine that will turn your Corpse into Compost

And for the current status of the project, check out Urban Death Project (a slightly more creepy name than “Urban Recomposer” or other alternatives). They already demonstrated success in composting six cadavers, and it looks like they are starting the next pilot project this month. This will be fascinating to follow!

How to take apart an engine

Today I got to take apart an engine… and put it back together.

I attended a training class in small engines. Our idea is that this could be a great workshop for Kids Building Things. Getting to take apart an engine in middle school? Wouldn’t that have been awesome?

As it turns out, this class was also an unexpected refresher in basic engine knowledge that relates to my pilot training! We discussed 4-stroke combustion engines, why water in the fuel is bad, and what pre-ignition and detonation are. The plane I fly has a 4-cylinder air-cooled engine. The one we got to take apart in this class was a single cylinder, also air-cooled. I think it is the type of engine you’d use in a lawn mower.

EngineHere is the engine before we started disassembling it. The piston is in the big shiny hole at the top. The fuel/air mixture and exhaust valves are the smaller circles on the top. The shaft sticking out goes to the magneto/flywheel system (not shown) and the other end of that axis is the drive shaft (to actually do the work you want to achieve with the engine). The black radial looking part is the oil pan. In normal operation, that should be at the bottom, so this is a vertical mount engine, and it could (for example) spin a lawn mower blade).

UncoveredWe worked in pairs on our engines. After removing the oil pan, you can see the drive shaft (long cylinder pointing out) and the cam shaft (small plastic gear on the right). The cam shaft gives the valves their timing so they open and close at the proper points in the 4-stroke cycle.

Our instructor drilled us through the intake-combustion-power-exhaust process, which was nicely illustrated when you hand-turned the drive shaft and could see the piston go up and down and the valves open and close in synchrony.

Ring spreaderThen he had us extract the piston from its cylinder. It has three sets of pressure rings that help give it a good fit in the cylinder and also (apparently) wipe oil down from the cylinder walls. There is a really awesome tool called a “ring spreader” that allows you to easily remove and replace these thin metal rings. At right you can see the tool with some rings next to it. The dull grey slightly oval shape sitting above the rings is the piston head, with its disconnected shaft to its right. The piston itself is round, but underneath they apparently tweaked the shape to use less material (reduce weight) which is why it isn’t quite round.

We then removed the valve assemblies, including the springs. By then we were left with a metal block that did nothing. We then put all of the pieces back together. Re-installing the valve springs was definitely the trickiest and fiddliest part – my partner and I took several attempts before we got it (success!).

In a longer class, apparently you get to put your engine on a mount and fire it up! Seeing it run after you’ve taken it apart and put it back together must be really satisfying. But even without that, I can now see how you would go about getting in there and replacing a worn part. It’s not such a mystery. And now I understand a bit more about what probably happened when my ’86 Nissan Sentra’s timing belt broke. No wonder it was a major repair!

Solo flying practice

On Tuesday, I got in N19760 and flew out to the practice area, all by myself. It was the first time I left the airport solo, and one can’t help but wonder in that moment: Will I come back again?

I took my handheld GPS unit with me so I could track my flight path. The airplane has a small GPS display, but I wanted to collect data.

After a warm-up circuit around the pattern, I headed northwest to the Santa Fe practice area, which is less than 10 miles from the El Monte airport. You can see my path here, including the initial loop (right pattern at EMT from runway 19) and then my repeated circles and turns in the practice area. While there, I stayed north of the 210 freeway and was bounded on the west by Burbank airport’s airspace and on the east by El Monte’s airspace. Not a huge space to practice in — rather like a large parking lot!


Flight to the practice area

You can also see my eventual return, descending across the 210 for a right base approach to El Monte. I made it!

The GPS also tracks groundspeed, which is rather interesting to contemplate, since while flying the plane I am focusing on airspeed instead. Here is a plot of my groundspeed as a function of time (click to enlarge):

Ground speeds

I annotated it with what I was doing at each time. One surprise is that my initial circuit around the pattern shows a top ground speed of about 100 mph. On downwind, I am holding the plane very precisely at 80 mph (airspeed). There was an 8-knot wind from the south, so that could add ~10 mph, but I’m not sure how it got to 100!

After I reached the practice area, I leveled out at 3700 feet. You can see in this plot where I was deliberately speeding up and slowing down (while maintaining altitude, which you can’t see here). I then did some slow flight (near a stall) both straight and with shallow turns; you can see that I was down around 50-60 mph. Then I did two practice stall recoveries, which are quite evident as deep dips in speed (down to almost 40 mph) followed by speeding back up as I recovered and returned to my original altitude. Finally, I did some steep turns (45-degree bank) while maintaining my speed and altitude.

Near the end, you can see my gradual slowing down as I returned to El Monte. The speed levels out at what looks like ~60 mph, which would be rather slow for final approach, except that by this time there was a 12-knot headwind. So I was keeping the plane at 75-down-to-70 mph as I made my final approach, which concluded with one of my most satisfying landings to date!

How to lease a car (and win)

I took a little break after my failed attempt to lease a Leaf and then started looking around at other options. If an electric car wasn’t going to work for me, how about a plug-in hybrid? They’re like hybrids, but cooler: you plug the car in at night and get some initial pure-electric range that costs you zero gas.

I considered the Plug-in Prius, the Ford C-Max Energi, and the Chevy Volt. Their respective pure-electric ranges are 11, 17, and 37 miles. The Volt has the largest range, but it also costs about $6k more than the Energi, which is about $6k more than the Prius. I also had an abysmal experience when I returned to the Chevy dealership to discuss Volt numbers, although that isn’t the car’s fault.

After much consideration, I settled on the Energi. And the negotiations began.

The dealer’s first offer was to write down, on a piece of paper, the MSRP ($36,155) and then immediately subtract off $6500 in incentives. He then wrote $29,655 and wrote “Wow!” next to it. This threw me. I’d come in with data from TrueCar and was ready to haggle at least down near the average price for recent sales of this vehicle… which was about $31,000. What he was offering was lower, so there was nothing for me to do.

Ever get that feeling that you must be missing something, when it’s just a little too easy?

We therefore moved on to discussing other elements of the potential lease agreement. I asked for the residual value (estimated as 52% of MSRP, which I noted was a higher fraction than the Leaf’s 49%; maybe they expect the Energi to retain its value a bit better?). I asked for the money factor, which he punted on to give me an APR instead (3%, which translates to a money factor of 0.00125). I somewhat arbitrarily decided to pay $2000 down on a 36-month lease, which put me at $420/month. I went home to think it over.

$420/mo
The next day, I googled for any other Ford incentives for which I might qualify and found two:

  • A Conquest incentive, which is where Ford will give you $1000 off if you currently are a non-Ford car owner or lessee. The name is rather distasteful (they didn’t conquer me; I made a rational decision!) but hey, it’s $1000.
  • A student incentive, which gives $500 to current students. Hey! My perpetual student status pays off!

I went back in and asked for these incentives. And got them.

$373/mo
They didn’t have the color I wanted on the lot, but they said they could trade it and have it ready by the next day. So I went home to think about it again.

At home, I suddenly realized my tactical mistake. Because the first numbers we discussed had the incentives attached, we’d never actually negotiated the price. This is a mistake.

BOTTOM LINE: If you plan to accept a manufacturer’s rebate, don’t let the dealer add that during the negotiation. A rebate is your money from the manufacturer (not the dealer) and is deducted once the price of the vehicle has been agreed upon.

So I went back to TrueCar, and this time dug in to find out how to select my option package and deselect all of the incentives, so I could do an apples-to-apples comparison. I was a little apprehensive going back intending to negotiate more. We’d practically shaken our hands on the deal already. But nothing was signed, so it was still up for grabs.

The next day, the dealer called to say the car was ready — freshly washed, freshly charged, and with a full tank of gas.

Me: “That’s fantastic! I’ll be in this evening. And by the way — everything happened so fast yesterday that I realized we skipped an important step! We never negotiated the price.”
Him: “… Oh. Okay.”

So I went in with my TrueCar data, which pointed to an average sales price for this car with these options of $34,455, or $1700 less than what we’d discussed the day before. And I said, “I want that price.”

Him: “But that’s only $20 above invoice!” [True.] “That won’t even cover the tank of gas I put in for you.”
Me: “That’s what I want.”
Him: “How about $34,743?” [This seemingly random number came from the same TrueCar printout, which included a price they claimed they could get for you at a dealership that was signed on with TrueCar, which this one wasn’t.]

A weird feeling came over me. I REALLY REALLY wanted to say yes. This guy was super nice, he’d just knocked $1412 off the price, and how much of a jerk did I want to be?

Why did I feel like I was being a jerk?

With a supreme effort of will, I forced myself to say, “No.” And we sat there in silence for what felt like 3 million years. Finally I said, “How about halfway between, at $34,600?”

Him: “Would you feel 100% satisfied by that? And would you give me an Excellent rating in the survey?”
Me: “You care about that?”
Him: “Absolutely!”
Me: “Okay. Yes, I’d be satisfied.”
Him: “Done!”
$299/mo

The rest of the process went smooth as silk. The salesperson showed me the controls on the new car until the finance person was ready, and I then signed a bunch of papers.

The Ford staff, especially the sales manager, were great. None of them pressured me at all, and the sales manager patiently went over every single number until I was satisfied. That gave me a lot of confidence in the deal. (This was not true of other salespeople I interacted with at other dealerships. The Chevy dealership was the WORST.) Likely I could have haggled harder for this car, but I came away feeling that I got a good deal, and I didn’t have to go all nasty to get it. That made me feel good about myself, too!

Other lessons learned:

  • When leasing (at least in California), you only pay tax (use tax, not sales tax) on the amount of your lease payments, plus your down payment, plus any incentives for which the dealer is being reimbursed (e.g., by the manufacturer). The exception is for incentives paid by the federal government (like federal tax rebate for PHEVs) (not taxed) or cash rebates that the dealer is not reimbursed for (not taxed). I had to finally call the CA Board of Equalization to get a clear interpretation of this, because I couldn’t find an authoritative discussion of it online, and (to my chagrin) I found regulation 1660 extremely difficult to interpret myself.
  • You can look up the DMV registration fee yourself to confirm that you’re being charged the correct amount.
  • Plug-in electric hybrid vehicles qualify for a California rebate of $1500. Not the $2500 that pure electric vehicles get, but not bad!
  • They also qualify for California carpool lane access stickers. Still waiting for mine!

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