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In Training : For the Men and Women Who Run Steam Locomotives, Learning the Vanishing Craft Is a Dream Come True


SACRAMENTO — When Laurie Greenquist volunteered to help out at the California State Railroad Museum here, she thought she'd probably just be showing visitors around, or maybe lending a hand with the paperwork.

"Then they said I could work on the train," the 38-year-old government purchasing agent recalled with a grin. "It suddenly hit me: 'Wow! I can work on a real steam locomotive! I can learn to run that thing!' "

And that's exactly what Greenquist and some fellow railroad enthusiasts--including a dentist, a sheet-metal worker, a Postal Service employee and a computer systems executive--have been doing.

It's noisy, hot, dirty, physically demanding work. And they love it.

Their mentor is Al Shelly, 69, a retired Southern Pacific railroad engineer who is part of a vanishing breed. Diesel engines--cheaper, more efficient and easier to maintain--started replacing steam engines on the nation's railroads 50 years ago. Shelly is one of the few engineers still around who actually ran a steam locomotive for a living.

The museum in Sacramento has one of the finest collections of steam locomotives in the world, and several of them are in operating condition. Shelly realized a few years ago that if the museum was going to keep its steam-powered Sacramento Southern Railroad excursion trains running along the banks of the Sacramento River, he was going to have to teach people how to do it.

One of his early students was Robert Church, a lanky Sacramento dentist who admits to having been "crazy about trains" since childhood.

"Al and some of the other engineers taught us everything," Church said. "It wasn't from books, it was practical experience, right there in the cab of a real steam locomotive."

Steam locomotives are cranky and idiosyncratic, and mastering them--learning to coordinate the throttle, valve gear and brakes--is not something accomplished overnight. A steam locomotive does not respond immediately to movements of either the throttle lever or the brake handle--there's a lag of several seconds.

"You have to learn to do it by feel, and that's hard at first," said Cheryl Meyer, a petite 39-year-old graduate of the Shelly academy. Certified by the Federal Railroad Administration, she is one of fewer than 20 women fully qualified to run a steam locomotive in the United States.

"The first time I tried it, I pulled on the throttle, and nothing happened," Meyer said. "So I pulled real hard, and wham! We banged into the cars I was trying to couple. It was my first practical lesson."

"But the hardest thing to learn is the brakes," said Church, another federally certified engineer. "You set the brakes and then you wait; there's 15 to 20 seconds before you start to slow down. If you set too little, you don't stop in time. If you set too much, you stop before you want to."

At 7 o'clock on a hot Sacramento morning a few weeks ago, a half dozen certified and apprentice crew members gathered at the museum roundhouse to get Engine No. 4466--a retired Union Pacific Railroad switch engine built in 1920--ready for the day's half a dozen excursion and training runs.

All the men and women wore the time-honored blue denim coveralls of a 1920s locomotive crew. The individuality was in the headgear: Church wore raffish bowler. Greenquist had on a pink locomotive engineer's cap. Meyer, despite the coal dust and greasy smoke, went bareheaded.

The first job was lighting the coal fire in the firebox--a task accomplished by tossing in some kindling and a flaming, oil-soaked rag. It takes the better part of three hours to build up enough steam to pull the train, and the crew spent much of the time polishing up soot-stained metal and greasing the massive main rods that turn the 80-ton locomotive' six driving wheels.

"It's not like an automobile. You don't just start it up and go," Shelly said.

At 10:45 a.m. Shelly checked the steam gauge atop the firebox. It read 150 pounds per square inch. "Just about right," he said.

By then, about 100 passengers--$5 for adults, $2 for children 6 to 12, free for those younger--had piled aboard the train's four cars, two of them vintage passengers cars and two of them old gondola freight cars refitted as open-air observation cars. The current 45-minute round trip is 3 miles in each direction, but the railroad hopes to extend it to 17 miles each way within a few years.

The engineer for the first run that day would be Red Hadler, a burly, 50-year-old postal employee who is another of the Shelly academy's certified engineers. Jeremy Levish, 37, would be serving as fireman, so that the regular fireman, Lou Bergandi, a 58-year-old aerospace executive, could train as an apprentice engineer.

Hadler showed the cool grace of a veteran as the engine chugged out of the station and began to gather speed. His hands glided smoothly from one control to another and his face settled into a contented smile.

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