How to Fire a Steam Locomotive
Learning to fire can take years, but here are the basics...
Check for obstructions. First thing in the morning, the locomotive will be "cold", which means that the fire has already been dropped and the locomotive has cooled off. Before climbing into the loco's cab, check that there are no obstructions behind, between or in front of any of the wheels. Check the sandboxes are full and free from obstructions (a gentle tap on the feed pipe will ensure the sand will flow freely).
Board the loco. Once on the footplate, check that the water gauge glass(es) are full. Open and close the lower lever on the glass to check that it refills when empty, and therefore is not giving a false reading. Opening the lower lever will empty the glass, and closing it should enable a good view on how much water is in the boiler. If the glasses are empty and do not refill, bung up the overflow pipes outside the cab and turn on the water injector(s). This will fill the boiler with water. When satisfied that the glass is at least half full of water, check that the brakes are applied, the regulator is shut, the reversing lever is in mid-gear (pointing up), the cylinder drain cocks are open, and that the tender or bunker has sufficient coal to light up a fire.
Open the firebox doors. Shine a torch/flashlight directly onto the fire bars. There should be no clinker (melted material) covering them, and the ash should be removed as well as possible. Also check that there is no damp patch or water dripping onto the bars. If there is, you must 'fail' the loco and cancel your service. Next, look upwards to the centre of the roof of the box. The fusible plug should be visible, intact, and not leaking water. If it is at all damaged or leaking at all, then 'fail' the loco. Check the tube-plate at the front of the box. It should be free of debris and ash, and not leaking.
Climb onto the running plate of the locomotive above the front (buffer) beam. Open the smokebox door. On the majority of British steam locomotives, this involves turning the forward-most handle on the smokebox 90° to a horizontal position, then unscrewing the next handle while keeping the first handle in a horizontal position. The majority of North American locomotives utilize screw-locked hinges to keep the door in place. These are just generalizations based on average well-known practices. As so, methods on opening smokebox doors may vary between locomotives, countries, and locomotive builders. Empty the smokebox of any ash, and sweep ash away from the blower and regulator. Check that the tube-plate is clear of debris and is not leaking. Ensure the crossbar is inserted correctly. Close and lock the smokebox door by undoing what you did to unlock and open it.
Climb back into the cab and start a fire in the firebox. General locomotive fire starting is as follows:
Cover the fire grate with a layer of coal that's one lump thick.
Place kindling wood in the center of the grate.
Place a large rag on the coal shovel and drench the rag with paraffin, petrol, or lubrication oil.
Light in two to three places and allow to burn outside the firebox until burning well.
Place the now on-fire rag on the kindling in the firebox and immediately shut the firebox doors.
Check the fire after a few minutes. If it is burning poorly or has died out, light another rag, this time using more flammable fluid. If the fire is burning well, you can add larger pieces of wood, piling them up in a pyramid formation in the box, with the tip of the pyramid above the fire. When the wood begins to crackle, be very cautious when opening the firebox doors, as the fire is likely to blow back into the cab, or release toxic fumes. Stand well back and open the blower valve a little. Continue to add wood as the fire grows.
Wait until the fire has spread so the water in the boiler begins to boil, add coal on top of the wood, first in single lumps, and later when pressure has begun to build up, in shovelfuls.
Perform a blowdown. At 1/3 working pressure, perform a blowdown by opening the blowdown valve. Ensure that either the pit is clear of ash or that the locomotive is clear of the pit, to avoid blowing ash into the motion. A blowdown should always be performed at the driver's discretion.
Fill the boiler to 3/4 of a gauge glass at 1/2 working pressure, both injectors should be tested.
When moving off shed, the cylinder drain cocks should be left open for 5-10 mins to remove water that will have condensed in the cylinders overnight.
During the day, the duty of the fireman is to retain working pressure, and even firebed and preferably 3/4 of a gauge glass of water. Route knowledge is essential, and more pressure should be made when tackling long gradients. Avoid using injectors when standing in the platform or in tunnels, to avoid the danger of injuring passengers or railway workers. Avoid blowing off at all times, especially when standing in the station, as this wastes steam. When the fireman is not occupied with his/her fire, he/she should be looking out at the trackbed, watching for obstructions, trespassers, signals, and other hazards.
Know that permission should be sought from the driver and shunter before uncoupling. When uncoupling, be aware of hazards such as buffers, other trains and injector overflow. The vacuum or air brake bags should be disconnected first, as this applies the brakes of the engine and rolling stock, and ensures protection against either moving by accident. Next, steam heating pipes (if used) should be disconnected. Always shut off the steam heating valves on both engine and coach before disconnecting, as serious burns can occur through carelessness. Next, unscrew the screw coupling and lift the eye of the coupling off the stock and onto the engine. When coupling on, preform this sequence in reverse, i.e. Coupling first (which should be screwed as tightly as possible, with the weight pointing downwards), then steam heating (if used), then brakes. When coupling or uncoupling, always strive to go between vehicles on the track side rather than platform side of the rake, and always reemerge on the same side as you went under.
Disposal. At the end of the day, a locomotive must be disposed of. an hour or so before disposal, attempt to 'run down' the fire as much as possible, that is, do not feed it as frequently or as heavily, and on the run back to the shed, begin to rake the fire through the firebars using a pricker or dart. By running either of these instruments over the firebars, the fire can be encouraged to fall through the grate into the ashpan. Doing this prior to shedding the engine will save time when disposing.
When on shed, the driver will position the locomotive over an ash pit, adjacent to an ash bin. If the fire has been raked through as much as possible, it will be necessary to dispose of large pieces of clinker and burnt coal into the ash bin. A specialized fire shovel may be used for this purpose, and care must be taken to clear the back of the firebox (behind the doors) as well as the front. When you have satisfied yourself that the box is empty, and the firebars are free of clinker and coal, you must attend to the ash pan.
The ash pan is normally accessed by opening the back damper of the locomotive, and climbing into the pit. You should be able to look directly into the ashpan. An ash pan hose should be attached to one injector overflow, and the water valve turned on. This will allow you to damp down the ash in the ash pan, and prevent small particles of ash from entering the motion, where it would quickly cause wear. Use a firing iron to remove the sodden ash from the ash pan, and allow it to fall into the pit. Clear the smokebox as detailed in Step 4.
Although oiling is the driver's duty, many drivers neglect to oil moving parts on the footplate. While you wait for the fire to start burning properly during a light-up, it is worth your while putting a drop of oil on any moving parts you can see on the footplate, including the point of attachment of the regulator handle, the handbrake wheel, the regulator, the firebox doors, etc.
Coal can quickly build up in areas of the tender/bunker that are not accessible from the cab, especially on older (pre-grouping) locomotives, and industrial locomotives. If this happens, it may be worthwhile 'treading' the coal, that is, using the coal shovel to scoop the coal within reach of the cab.
Always check the firebox, smokebox and ashpan during light up, because although you would clean them before leaving the locomotive at night, you can't rely on anyone else to do as good a job as you!
Barrier cream is always useful, as it helps dirt to be washed off later.
While waiting for the fire to catch, it is always helpful to busy yourself in cleaning the locomotive. Paintwork is best cleaned using diesel oil mixed with paraffin, and metal polish can be used on most brass or copper fittings, both inside and outside the cab. Do not neglect windows, wheels, connecting rods or buffer beams, as all are on display to the public, and a dirty engine reflects on the society/company.
Never sit or lean against the door of the cab, as the dangers associated with this are evident.
Never jump down from the footplate of a locomotive. Use the steps, and descend backwards. This may seem awkward, but it will minimise the risk of injuries to the knees and ankles.
If water treatment is used (usually in hard-water areas), water that has been treated should not be touched, consumed or spilled, as it is likely to be highly toxic.
A locomotive footplate is a dangerous place. It is vital that you dress appropriately to work. A cotton shirt and fire-retardant overalls should be worn, along with steel-toecap work boots and industrial gloves. Cuffs and collars must be secured and not allowed to hang loosely. Long hair should be tied back and, preferably, secured with a headscarf. Sleeves must be long and rolled-down at all times to minimise the risk of burns.