Monday, May 2, 2011

Big Steam - An Icon of Sustainability

With all the recent talk about sustainability and designed obsolescence, engineers and industry gurus are taking pages from history on how to design products that last for generations.  (When was the last time your kids were happy to inherit your cell phone?)  I actually have in my possession my grandfather's pocket watches, the wind up kind, and they still work.  Talk about sustainable; it's a design with craftsmanship that has lasted two generations and with proper care, will last many more.  One watch is plain for everyday use and other is quite intricate in detail for those special occasions.  Plus, it is carbon neutral to operate.

Now, not exactly carbon neutral to operate but long living none-the-less is steam engines.  Beyond the childhood fantasies of days gone by, there is just something alluring about steam trains.  The Grand Canyon Railway rebuilds, maintains, and operates a route from Williams, AZ to the Grand Canyon using steam.  I have always told my wife that when I retire, I hope to work there helping refurbish old steam engines and cars.  I would do it for a living, but the problem is that a LOT of people want to do that.  High supply/low demand means you can't exactly make a living doing what you love.

But "The Train" isn't the only place restoring Big Steam.  There is a place in Bugs Bunny's favorite city, Albuquerque, NM, that has a team of dedicated volunteers putting a rare locomotive back into action.  The New Mexico Steam Locomotive & Railroad Historical Society is restoring one of the largest and most powerful steam locomotives ever built - one million pounds (1,000,000 lbs) of iron and steel generating 4,500 hp.  The boiler of this beast is twenty feet long and 7 1/2 feet in diameter.  The operating pressure is 300 psi at 700 degrees F powering two double-acting pistons that turns eight 80-inch diameter drive wheels.  The SA 516 grade 55 steel is only 7/16 to 1 1/4 inch thick in the boiler.  Oh, and the firebox is the size of a small bedroom at 9 X 12 feet.

What historic train has these stats?  It is locomotive No. 2926 from the Baldwin Locomotive Works built in 1944 for the Atchison, Topica, and Sante Fe line between Chicago and Los Angeles.  The train was retired from service in 1954 and has sat idle in an Albuquerque park since then along with its tender.  The team of volunteers restoring this beauty consist of: retired mechanical engineers, nuclear engineers, civil engineers, medical doctors, chemists, police officers, cryptoanalysts, machinists, ex-Navy officers, and national science lab veterans.  (But like I said, these are retired volunteers so highly unlikely this fun work will ever pay your mortgage.)

When the restoration is complete and all safety checks have been passed, this engine will roll out under its own power.  The restoration should be complete sometime in 2012.  You can learn about the entire project by viewing the AT&SF website dedicated to the project
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