You do an hour of safety and skills training and then you take the full-size locomotive out on the main line, under the guidance of an engineer and fireman. Here’s Valley RR locomotive no. 40, a 2-8-2 Mikado built in 1920:
Actually operating the locomotive was surprisingly easy, considering it weighs something like 150 tons. Flip the headlights on. Confirm with the fireman that it’s clear on his side. Turn on the bell. Blow the whistle to signal. Push the reversing lever in full forward position. Release the brake. Pull back on the throttle ’til it hits the detent and give it one more tug…and you’re off!
The challenge seems to be in controlling the locomotive precisely (and of course, dealing with the behind-the-scenes maintenance). After a while, the engineer would have me try to stop the locomotive at a particular point. I found I was either overshooting or stopping short. And this was all without the technical (and customer service) challenge of pulling a train with 300 people in it.
All in all, incredibly fun. My favorite part was blowing the whistle, including the long-long-short-long signal before the grade crossings. Coal smoke has an unusual but totally recognizable smell. At home in New Jersey, I noticed the soot in my hair.
I liked my first hour so much (in April 2008) that I came back for two hours (in November 2008). The Essex Steam Train recently raised their prices (it’s now $500 for an hour of operating time). Pricey, but perfect if you’re into trains. As I’ve just illustrated, people will pay crazy amounts of money for a unique, in-demand experience.
Here in the N.C. Research Triangle, you can do a similar program at the New Hope Valley Railway, near the nuclear power plant in Bonsal, NC. The 0-4-0T locomotive is smaller than the one in Connecticut, but the program is a lot cheaper ($250/hour to run a steam locomotive, or $125/hour to run a diesel locomotive)…and it’s only 30 minutes from Raleigh.
What’s your version of Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp?
Photo credits: Karl Sakas