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!

Volunteer Power!

I just returned from two information-packed days at the Get Involved Institute, a California statewide initiative to increase the number of, and contributions of, volunteers at public libraries. I was asked to join the Monrovia Public Library team in attending this conference as a representative volunteer (what a nice compliment!).

We covered a lot of different material, including tips on how to brainstorm what additional roles volunteers might take on in the library, where you might find volunteers with the skills you need, and how to conduct good interviews. But what hit me the most was the way in which the term “volunteer” expanded in my mind. I saw that volunteers could do a lot more than “just” shelve books (which of course is my personal favorite way to contribute). They can manage other volunteers, read to kids en masse at the mall, organize events, organize “ESL Conversation Circles”, conduct surveys about the perception of the library, and more. Several “pilot teams” also attended, who had had the same training last May, and their stories about what projects they’d tackled (and succeeded at) were universally fascinating and motivating. It was great to be part of an enthusiastic, passionate crowd of more than a hundred librarians, volunteer coordinators, library directors, and other volunteers.

We had some hands-on time in which we worked to develop a plan for how to engage volunteers in a new way at our own library. Monrovia’s library is already rather advanced in this respect; our volunteers provide literacy tutoring, offer computer assistance to patrons, re-barcode old books, mend damaged books, sort book donations, staff the bookstore, and so on. But we did identify ways in which the volunteer corps (almost 100 active volunteers) could be better managed, and how to build a volunteer community (with social events and recognition for outstanding achievements). As we worked to develop a position description for a Volunteer Team Leader, the rest of the Monrovia team kept teasing me for my copious note-taking and fast work with the assigned worksheets. “You do know,” our Volunteer Coordinator said, “that you’re going to come home from this with about 20 new jobs for yourself, right?” They jokingly suggested that I quit my day job and just volunteer full-time at the library. :) While I’m not ready for that, I could see myself stepping into a volunteer team leader role, if they need me. I do so love the library!

From the other side of the Reference desk

“I’m looking for a book on trees.”

I blinked up at the library patron and experienced a moment of mental white-out. Almost, but not quite as bad as, “I’m looking for a book with words in it.” Since she seemed to expect some sort of response, I asked, “Ah… what kind of trees?” and we launched into a mini-game of 20 Questions that ended with me finding “Trees and Shrubs for Dummies” and her walking away beaming happily. Strictly speaking, though, I was breaking the rules.

I’ve been volunteering at the library since May, helping out with shelving books, re-barcoding books, sorting donations, and helping patrons with computer questions. Last week I was officially designed a “Tech Volunteer” and given a seat at the Adult Reference desk, next to the (real) Adult Reference Librarian. My areas of capability are clearly delineated: I am permitted to assist patrons in any way with computer questions and I can guide them in their OPAC computer catalog searches — but only if they are doing an Author or Title search. Subject searches, I was told, are more complicated, and for that I should direct patrons to the actual librarians. So yesterday I sat at the desk, a pile of books before me to bar-code, and every 30 seconds I would look up to see if any of the patrons at the 20 library computers before me were in need of assistance (I am getting very good at visually assessing this). Every five minutes or so, I’d get up and physically wander through the area, since this often elicits questions patrons otherwise don’t feel like getting up to ask. I helped with login questions, printing questions, and even one patron’s request for a “unique identifier” that she could use as a screen name. Given some coaching, she settled on a name — then came back two minutes later for help in picking a “tricky” password. I managed to give her tips on how to do this without her actually telling me what she came up with (whew!). And after each person I helped, I got to increment the tally on our official Reference sheet for the day.

At any rate, I had my station at the Reference desk, complete with a little sign that says “Tech Volunteer on Duty” that I get to put up to advertise my capabilities. But then the OPAC database access went down. It’s still not clear exactly what was wrong (and it’s still broken today). Patrons using the catalog computers could get a list of results by “Browsing” authors or titles, but clicking through to an individual book title yielded “title not found.” Keyword searches returned zero hits. Our library is small, but it does have more than one book with “Lewis” as the author name. So what do you do when the catalog fails? You go to the Reference desk! And from the patron view, I was apparently indistinguishable from a Real Librarian. Both of us were suddenly inundated with patron requests. One good thing was that our two computers, which use a different program to access the catalog, were still working. So I puzzled out how to look up books, check copy status, browse related subjects, etc., through the new interface, to help field the questions we were getting. Nothing like learning on the fly!

And let me tell you, they were right: figuring out what book is wanted by doing Subject searches *does* require some advanced skills, like being familiar with the Library of Congress subject listing (which now comprises six printed volumes!). Nothing is based on words actually in the content of the books, only what predefined subject tags have been associated with them. If you don’t know the tags to use, you can’t find anything. Sitting at that desk was like being on a quiz show.

“Do you have a book on resumes? One with examples so I can just fill in the blanks?”

Mostly this was fun (but somewhat adrenaline-rushy), except for one particular episode. A gentleman approached with, “Where are your cookbooks?” I replied, “I’ll look that up for you.” He said, “What, you don’t know?” I located the section and escorted him to it. “I didn’t bring my glasses,” he said. “Could you find me a slow-cooker book?” I scanned through three sections and triumphantly handed him three such books to select from. He picked one, and then I made my mistake. “Can I help you check that out? I’d be happy to show you how to use the self-check machine.” He grinned and accepted. As we walked across the library, he launched into, “Where did you go to school? How old are you? Are you single? Live by yourself? I have two single sons in their mid-40’s.” I was totally taken aback, trapped between the library customer-service mentality and a cringing horror at what was issuing from his mouth. I showed him the use of the machine and escaped as quickly as I could. How do you tactfully indicate to someone that they are overstepping the bounds of politeness? Maybe library training needs to include advanced social maneuvering as well.

Overall, though, I was able to help several people and, given the OPAC problem, I felt that my presence made a difference. Not bad for diving in! Even if I broke the rules by helping with Subject searches.

Today, I was off the Reference desk hook and instead shelving Juvenile fiction. But I stopped in to say hello to the Reference desk librarian, and then as I was leaving, I heard a patron ask her:

“Do you have a book on history?”

She answered, “What period of history are you interested in?” and I smiled as I walked back to the children’s side of the library.

Where library shelf entropy comes from

During my latest volunteer time at the library, I was asked to shelve more books. (Not that I really needed asking—I was already heading for the shelving carts.) I was given four shelves’ worth of “E” books (about 150 books, or probably 1/3 of the library’s holdings in that section). I think “E” stands for “Elementary”; these are books marked as Level 1, 2, or 3, which I gather is something like grades 1-3. At any rate, when I reached the “E” section, I found that it was already in severe disarray. So I sat down (these shelves are at kids’ height) and started shelf-reading and swapping books back into proper order.

During this process, I observed first-hand three specific sources of shelf entropy:

  • A toddler playing the “game” of remove-and-replace-randomly. (Possibly an attempt to imitate what I was doing, but not with any sense of the actual order.)
  • An indecisive and sulky 6-year-old who was told by her mother to “get 12 books”. She’d pull out a book, glance at it, and either thrust it back onto the shelf somewhere else, or … throw it on the ground.
  • The same 6-year-old’s embarrassed mother, who would pick up each discarded book and put it back somewhere on the shelf… not only in some new location, but with the spine facing inward! While this made it easy to spot misplaced books, I was puzzled as to how anyone would assume that that’s the proper thing to do in a library. Especially while I’m sitting two feet away obviously ordering the books myself.

As I worked, I overheard one of the children’s librarians advising an adult reader, who was participating in the library’s Literacy tutoring program and wanted to know which books to start with. The librarian said,

“Here’s the advice I give kids: the rule of 5. Open the book and read the first page. Each time you reach a word you don’t know, count it on a finger. If you get to 5 by the end of the first page, the book is too hard. If you only get to 1, it’s too easy. Find a book somewhere in the middle, and that will mean you’re learning.”

This advice struck me in two ways. First, how long has it been since I deliberately tried to find an English book to read that would actively stretch my vocabulary? And second, my, how wonderful it would be to have access to a huge selection of children’s books in whatever foreign language I wanted to learn! I’ve picked up kids’ books in Japanese and French on various trips, but they’re harder to come by here, and often pricey to order remotely. But a library! That would be perfect! Do the ESL learners here know how lucky they are? :) And are they aware of their anti-entropic efforts?

“The pursuit of knowledge is my own little battle against the second law of thermodynamics.” – Jeff Vinocur

I am an order-generator

Today I got to show off my ability to alphabetize. I’ve been volunteering at the library for the past two months, and I have encouraged them to give me any and all odd jobs that may need to be done (I do love variety!). So first I served as a greeter, helping patrons find their way around the library; then I stood around the computers and helped people log in, save documents, and print; then I learned how to mend books (repair spines, tape dust jackets, repair ripped pages); then I learned how to re-barcode books. They’re now discussing how to set up a special station near the computers for me, so that I can do one of these craft-tasks but be “on call” for any computer assistance that is needed, freeing up the reference librarians to do, well, reference things.

I had also offered to help out with book shelving. Apparently this task falls into a sensitive subject zone: how much work to allow volunteers to do versus work that is reserved for qualified librarians (or librarians in training). Initially I was told that shelving was for actual employees (called “pages”, which still cracks me up), but then today that’s exactly what I was asked to do. The volunteer coordinator said, “I told them that you have a Ph.D.”

I was first given a test cart of books to alphabetize. My trainer gave me tips that effectively translated to “I like to do selection sort, but let’s start you with insertion sort because it’s more straightforward.” Alas, when he checked my results, I had in fact mis-ordered one Babysitter’s Club book. I was however forgiven this mistake and then sent off to shelve the books.

It ended up taking me over an hour to shelve about 30 books. Juvenile Fiction was in a serious state of disarray. For every few books I shelved, there was a new one I discovered out of place that needed fixing. I was also “fronting” the shelves (bringing all the books forward to the same level for easy viewing). The amount of existing disorder was likely not attributable to the “pages” but instead to the happy, careless browsing of the under-10 crowd. I spent a good ten minutes on the Babysitter’s Club section alone (apparently I am not the only one who has made a mistake there). There are over 100 books in this series, most of which the library owns. I garnered great satisfaction from each decrease in entropy that I achieved. Really, is there a task better suited to my sensibilities? I already start twitching from the effort it takes to avoid doing this in bookstores.

As a side effect of this shelving, I now know the Juvenile Fiction section better, and can even respond usefully when children ask where the Horrible Harry or Magic Treehouse or High School Musical books are. Next time I may even be permitted to work with the Dewey Decimal System. Non-fiction, here I come!

(Book image by David Sillitoe)

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