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Steam Locomotive

feature storyby Alex Forbes

Blueprint image of the Spokane, Portland and Seattle 700 courtesy of The Pacific Railroad Preservation Association. Please visit their remarkable site.

See the website of the Pacific Railroad Preservation Association, home of the SP&S 700. Link to the original blueprint still found at SPS700 old site (2011). Thanks to the PRPA for permission to reprint this blueprint image. Image above is scaled to 60% of original in order to fit on this page.



I n the beginning of comprehension, a train was only a train. Then, one magic day ... You are five years old, standing right up upon the train platform for the first time in your life. Remember when? The locomotive is resting momentarily at the station, and you're standing only a few feet from a towering, almost-comprehensible black and gray panorama of iron and steel, stretching from horizon to horizon. The impossible warp of perspective on very large close objects makes the top of the locomotive look as if it is leaning over your head.

The cast black painted steel cylinder of the main drive piston seems as big around as a house. From the cylinder to the main drive wheel goes a shiny flat iron connecting rod as thick as your father's chest. The cylinder drips black watery grease, and hisses steadily and adamantly. "Come here!", it beckons, but it is too loud to fool you. You stand your ground firmly.

You, just five, are absolutely overcome by awe and wonder. The train is supposed to leave very soon. You know that you do not want this dimensional expansion of experience to ever end.

There is the persistent "ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding" of the track crossing down on Humphrey Avenue. Cars are stopped. A bell starts clanging, but it is not just a bell. This is a train bell . The whole world is waiting for this train.

Somewhere, someone shouts something. Everything starts now, all at once, with a jolt of live steam to the piston which makes you JUMP! backwards, but only a step back. There's an enormous sound of something filling the cylinder chamber suddenly! Miraculously, at the same time, the piston starts pushing the connecting rod back out of the cylinder housing. The giant main drive wheel (bigger than a car) actually starts to rotate, the top point of the wheel arcing forward past the point where it started. Wheels can do that?

You are repelled by a staccato series of extremely loud groaning metallic crashes. A small amount of free tolerance built into each part in the drive chain is taken up, and each part complains. It is the class of sounds we come to know as adults, of the cue ball hitting a cluster of tightly packed pool balls. Just as the ear knows the back ball gets hit last (but only by an instant!), your ear hears that the rear drive wheel gets the power last. With a CLANG!, all of the wheels to which the main drive wheel's connected turn a little ways forward with it.

So far, all of this has lasted a split second. Every instant in time is frozen into a series of discrete events you'll never forget. You have lived your entire five years for just this instant, and you will not let any instant of the experience get away from you, not ever.

And suddenly there's an even bigger sound:


Billows of spent white steam thunder out of a port somewhere near the piston, obscuring the train! Your skin crawls, and your hair stands on end, but the engine is just starting to roll forward.

All of the slack in all of the couplings of all of the cars of the train is taken up, one coupling at a time: CRASH, Crash, crash, clack, clack, and all of a sudden all of the cars are moving. The train is no longer a loosely coupled set of individual cars. It has become a train. Somewhere, the engineer advances his throttle:

Whoomph! Clang!Every fiber of your being SCREAMS! You are laughing, but you cannot hear it. Your mouth is agape in a huge smile, but you cannot feel it. Your arms are waving, but you do not know it. You have begun to feel the power of the train! The engineer must be telling the people on Humphrey Avenue that you are there:

WhooOO!THIS IS THE THUNDER OF THE WHISTLE you have heard from your house, blocks away, but this whistle is inside you, it is outside you; it is everything. This is LIFE, as it is, and as it ought to be lived!

Just for good measure, the engineer blows the whistle again, giving you terrible goose bumps and a tingly spine. You should not be here, you should not be this close; you cannot let this experience go. As the engine actually begins to roll past you, the awful moment of realization comes. The train is no longer starting; it is leaving.

A new rhythm builds, gradually increasing in tempo. The individual wheels of dozens of cars start rolling across the tiny gaps in the rail sections. The engine and the cars are so heavy, they make a sound as if they have fallen a vast distance in crossing the gaps:

CLANK-CRASH! Clank-Click!

The pistons are adding thunderous, whooping expirations to the sounds of the rails:

kA-wHOOSH, clank-crash

Something makes a THUD right after the piston's power stroke:


You can no longer keep all these bewildering sounds separate. They become something else. They become just "the sound of the train!"

The vocabulary of the train builds from the sustained earth-shaking low-pedal organ note to the full-bodied concerto for trumpet and organ. In between the heroic noises, there are all those squeaks and squeals which develop in rolling engine parts and cars, gigantic amplified mice and monstrous groaning coil springs taking turns with the ding-ding-ding-ding of the grade crossing. The richness, splendor, and complexity of the sounds of a train come alive to an orchestrated crescendo, much the same as the magic of the riverboats of another century. Every syllable, a language waiting to be understood, all experienced for the first time.

There is an overwhelming order in an intricately detailed sound "set", linked associatively with trains, but obviously patterned and obviously cause-related. To a train engineer, these sounds (and each component of them) all have distinct meanings, and collectively form a cohesive pattern, any break in which can mean instantly identifiable trouble. Instinctual survival mechanisms compel the brain to try to make meaning of it: what causes this particular sound, what is its "flavor", and what is important about it that I may need to grasp?

The roar of a distant freeway, to the archetypal "primitive man", would sound indistinguishable from the muted roar of the ocean. Comprehension of even this would require, at the very least, that one has been to the seaside to witness the ever-changing ocean, and has experienced first-hand its sounds. So too it is, with trains.

To us, this is perhaps the music of an era, a statement of an attitude about the world we live in, as well as a transient but intricately detailed record of the passage of a relatively brief event.


The last car has left the station. The symphony has Doppler-shifted down the scale, even as the tempo of its instruments has increased and merged to an almost steady sound. The clank-crash of the wheels on the tracks was first replaced by a stream of fast clicks, then an ascending ticktickticketytick pattern, to which even a very good drummer could not keep up (without switching from drum sticks to the "brushes"). It is possible again to hear the sounds of conversations starting, and autos beginning to move.

Down on Humphrey Avenue, the guard barrier has been raised, and the ding-ding-ding at the crossing is no more. The train is in somebody else's neighborhood now, and it is saying good-bye to you. A last long, low, mournful


reaches you now, and there is a painful lump in your throat that will just not go away, because you are too happy to cry, and the silly tears are just a mistake you can wipe away quickly.

The only important sound in the world has just ended. You never understand the real power and majesty of life, in standing away at a distance, and the future is always silent. It has all really only just begun.

© Alex Forbes, La Parola August 1995

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