May 14 - 19, 2012, witnessed a remarkable steam-powered excursion "The Grand Canyon Limited," originating at Union Station in Los Angeles and traveling to the Grand Canyon and back. Powered by the San Bernardino Railroad Historical Society's 4-8-4 locomotive Santa Fe No. 3751, the trip was sponsored by the Central Coast Railway Club of the NRHS with contracted support from Amtrak, BNSF, the Grand Canyon Railway and the Arizona & California Railroad. The journey in part was a celebration of Arizona's Centennial year.
The consist was made up of 3751 at the head end, two P42 Amtrak Diesels, thirteen privately owned passenger/crew cars and one Amtrak-owned car. Of special note was the round trip from Williams to the Grand Canyon featuring a double-header with 3751 and the Grand Canyon Railway's steam locomotive CB&Q 4960. During the six day excursion "The Grand Canyon Limited" traveled over 1300 miles.
Under restoration in Albuquerque is another 4-8-4 locomotive, NMSL&RHS Santa Fe 2926, a younger, larger and more powerful sister to 3751. Realizing that 2926 will soon be taking her place at the head of similar excursions, the staff of SBRHS graciously invited four members of NMSL&RHS to become part of the 3751 crew, and by observing and working side-by-side, learn first-hand what it will take to operate and maintain our big Northern when on the road.
NMSL&RHS members selected were Chief Mechanical Officer Rick Kirby, Board Secretary Gail Kirby, and members Dave Van De Valde and Albert Leffler; Albert serving as head of the NMSL&RHS Advisory Council.
We were not sure what the 3751 crew expected when we showed up, but if they expected four NMSL&RHS observers lounging around with clipboards taking notes they were sorely mistaken. Instead, they got a hard-working supplement to their crew working side-by side getting just as grease-stained, sweaty and plain dirty. The 3751 crew members were amazing teachers and completely unafraid to apply old fashioned on-the-job-training. Minus the clipboards, our physical notes were taken with our cameras.
To most people, the opportunity to be part of an active steam crew would have been that of a lifetime. To us, this was just the first of what we hope will be many trips to come with 2926. There is of course that "Romance of the Rails" when around steam locomotives. The 3751 crew certainly made it look wonderful to the passengers and the thousands of observers along the 1300 miles of rails. But behind the scenes was a well-rehearsed routine that made it all possible.
What follows is a compilation of the experiences of the four NMSL&RHS members:
First and foremost, an excursion of this magnitude easily takes over a year to plan. "The Grand Canyon Limited" required coordination with SBRHS, Amtrak, BNSF, The Grand Canyon Railway, The Arizona & California Railroad, The Central Coast Chapter of the NRHS, the Trains and Travel tour agency, multiple hotels, bus companies, Fire Rescue departments in multiple states and cities (for water to refill the tender), food providers, insurance companies, engine crew (steam qualified engineers and firemen), merchandise suppliers and sellers, volunteer recruitment and supervision, etc. This planning takes a lot of everyone's time and it is, without lifting a wrench, hard work. For this major excursion, Paul Prine, President of SBRHS, became Paul Prine, SBRHS Business Manager, tasked with the many decisions and commitments involving 3751 and her crew.
The operation and maintenance of 3751 fell under SBRHS Chief Mechanical Officer Bob Kittel. Steam locomotives by their nature need nearly regular maintenance, usually every 100 - 150 miles of running. They also need to have the tender's water supply replenished. Those were some of the reasons every 100 - 150 miles or so railroads had water facilities and often a roundhouse where steam locomotives could be quickly serviced by an experienced railroad crew having all the necessary lubricants, tools and if needed, spare parts.
With roundhouses and water facilities having long disappeared from the landscape, the essence of the roundhouse must travel with a steam-powered train in the form of a tool car complete with spare parts, tools, and the all-important variety of lubricants reapplied at least every 150 miles. For this excursion, the tool car also served as a crew car, merchandise car and observation car with open doors for passengers. No air conditioning here across the desert with 107° temperatures!
The four NMSL&RHS members spent most of their time in the tool car as part of the 3751 crew and when in full safety gear, received instructions on duties at the coming maintenance stop. Our ID badges were given up upon exit and given back when boarding to make sure no one was left behind. We started with simple duties such as hauling supplies from the tool car and holding ladders while 3751 crew members refilled lubricator reservoirs. We also returned tools to tool boxes slung underneath the tender. Graduation to more complex duties came swiftly.
Perhaps the most critical lubrication for 3751 involved "shooting the rods" where all side rod friction bearings had to have grease forced between surfaces. This is accomplished by using a special air-powered Alemite "gun" with hand-fed sticks of grease. We all had our hands-on time both working the gun and feeding the grease. This is not a solo task as one person operates the gun, another feeds the grease and usually two observers look for tell-tale signs that there is sufficient grease and none is wasted. There were also two teams at work simultaneously: one on the engineer's side and another on the fireman's side.
Both 3751 and 2926 are 4-8-4 locomotives built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works for the Santa Fe Railway. 3751 was built in 1927 (rebuilt in the Albuquerque shops in 1941) and 2926 was built in 1944 (and received major modifications in 1946, also in Albuquerque). Both locomotives are more alike than they are different. However, the one major difference that will most affect 2926 excursions is one of those 1946 modifications: the application of Timken roller bearing side rods. This difference was never more apparent to the four NMSL&RHS members when every 100 - 150 miles they were on the ground sometimes in the middle of the 107° desert, "shooting the rods" compared to the future when 2926 with her Timken sealed roller bearings would be able travel anywhere between 800 - 1200 miles before needing to be serviced. While we politely refrained from talking about the service advantages of the 2926 Timken roller bearing side rods, the 3751 crew had no reservations with comments such as, ". . . bet you won't miss this little exercise . . ." to "don't even think about setting up a lemonade stand if we are double-heading and there we are slaving away . . ."
As we look forward to having 2926 back on the rails, the aspect of having roller bearing side rods will make a huge difference when planning major excursions such as the "Grand Canyon Limited" because mandatory stops for servicing will be fewer and farther in between. And if on busy mainline tracks this means less time stopped and potentially slowing down freight traffic.
The 3751 consist was to have included an auxiliary tender to lengthen the distance between water stops. However, the intended aux tender was not able to make it to Los Angeles in time so there were last minute schedule adjustments for more frequent water stops. The larger 2926 tender holding 24,500 gallons of water compared to the 3751 tender holding 20,000 gallons of water will also make a difference in being able to run farther before stopping.
We definitely saw the need for NMSL&RHS to start thinking about having our own Tool & Crew car and it would be practical to have our own auxiliary tender. All of course in due time . . .
Regardless of roller bearing side rods or the larger 2926 tender, the lessons learned while with the 3751 crew will almost all be applied when running 2926. Safety is foremost and looking and listening 100% of the time is paramount. Mechanically, both locomotives are nearly alike in construction, maintenance and operation. The lessons learning during our six days with 3751 were but a primer for more lessons to come, hopefully with the 3751 crew as our steadfast instructors.