Realities of steam in winter

Brutal:  The realities of steam in winter

Repost with pictures

As my piece “An Austrian railroad Christmas” was well received, I thought I would share another article that resulted from that same December 2001 trip to Austria.

The following feature appeared as a sidebar to a longer piece about the Salzburger Lokalbahn (Salzburg Local Railway or SLB) that ran in the March 2005 issue of the U.S. magazine Railfan & Railroad (R&R).  American railroad magazines don’t run much on railroads outside of North America, but as I had done numerous pieces for them in the past, R&R was willing to consider this material.  It ranks among the top ten favorite pieces I have ever written.

By Ernest H. Robl

“BRUTAL,” the engineer exclaimed.  “Brutal,” the fireman agreed.

The word is the same in both German and English, just pronounced slightly differently.

We were aboard a WW II era class 50 steam 2-10-0 locomotive running tender first on an interchange track between the Salzburger Lokalbahn (SLB) and the Austrian Federal Railway (Österreichische Bundesbahnen or ÖBB).  Both the engineer and fireman were engineers from ÖBB who had traded in their clean, quiet, and warm electric engine cabs for the open cab of the historic steamer.


Condensing steam formed icicles on the running gear of the historic locomotive —even before departure.  (Click on the images to view larger versions.  Then, use your browser’s “back” button to return to the main article.)


As we followed the curve of the track on a pre-Christmas winter evening that was quickly turning into night, we suddenly turned into a fierce headwind that began blowing snow from the top of the coal pile into the cab.  At that point, even the heat from the firebox and all our layers of clothing didn’t help.



The sub-freezing wind filled with snow blasting our faces really was brutal.  With the hood on my winter coat pulled snugly to my face, I was able to turn my back to this icy blast, but the two crewmen had to keep watching for signals.

Fortunately, this blizzard lasted only a few minutes, but it had given the three of us a more vivid picture of what it had been like to work steam in the winter than any railroad history book could ever present.  I had been uncomfortable in many situations, but, for those few minutes, I was as cold and as miserable as I ever wanted to be.

It was Christmas season—even colder and more snowy than usual—in the Alpine country of Austria, and a group had charted the train of vintage coaches, headed by the 50.3519, built 1938 (new boiler 1966—Austria ran revenue steam into the late 1970s), for a corporate holiday party.  They would travel from the train’s home base on the SLB onto ÖBB rails and then onto a long industrial spur to the Stiegl Brewery.  (The SLB provides switching services at the brewery and has trackage rights on the ÖBB to reach the Brewery.)

To reach Salzburg’s main passenger station, where most of the group was to board, we first had to head up the interchange track towards the suburb of Aigen, where the engine could run around its train.

During a visit to the SLB’s headquarters earlier in the day to collect information about the railroad’s operations, SLB operations and marketing manger Peter Brandl mentioned that he was the railroad’s representative on a steam excursion that night.  Would I like to come along?

And, oh, by the way, he noted, as the passenger cars were fully booked by the charter party, I would need to ride on the engine.  Of course, I said yes.

I had seen the steam locomotive earlier in the day—first off in the distance and then from passing SLB trains.



The light was quickly fading as the locomotive gets a final check-out after having coupled nose-first to the excursion train.  (This photo and the following ones were all shot on very high-speed professional film.  Yes, I was still shooting film back then.)

As dusk was fast approaching, I waited for Brandl at the station closest to the SLB’s headquarters, watching an ÖBB diesel switcher deliver a lone refrigerated boxcar to the SLB interchange.  (Just before Christmas, freight traffic was already off considerably.)  An SLB steeple-cab freight motor quickly came out to collect the car and move it up the line to its destination at a food distribution warehouse.

Then, as the SLB’s regular commuter trains rolled past, Brandl and I crunched through the snow to the siding where the steamed-up class 50 waited.

Signal indication

Once final inspections of the engine and train were completed, I was invited up into the cab—which had not changed since the last revenue operations in the 1970s.  The lack of a train radio was handled by obtaining clearances for departure from both the SLB and ÖBB dispatchers by cell phone.  With both the SLB and ÖBB tracks highly signaled, we would be moving under signal indication all the way.



Getting ready to move out, heading backwards.

I barely had time for a few quick questions about the operation of the locomotive before we turned onto the connecting  track between the two railroads and into that fierce headwind.

Despite the biting cold and the blowing snow, the two crewmen remained in good spirits.  Once we entered the ÖBB’s tracks, progress was slow.  With heavy passenger and freight traffic around Salzburg’s main station, we were relegated to secondary tracks as we proceeded through yard areas to the suburban station where the engine could run around its consist to head into the station.

Both engineer and fireman—the two switched roles from time to time—noted that back in the days of revenue steam operations, helper crews on Austria’s mountain passes (and the country has quite a few of these) often spent half their time running cab first and probably endured hours of this kind of weather.



The very basic war locomotive did not have a mechanical stoker, so it was up to the crewmembers to keep the hungry fire fed with coal.


Their spirits were buoyed by the attention our train got as it made its way through the yards.  Despite the cold, windows on almost all railroad buildings we passed had been opened, with employees hanging out and waving.  The same was true from at least half a dozen diesel and electric switchers we passed.

Once we were on the main line, even the businessmen waiting at the commuter stops waved.

Sound effects

Unlike all modern Austrian motive power, this vintage machine was not equipped with automatic train stop.  But that didn’t mean that the beeps and honks normally emitted by such equipment when a train passed a restrictive signal (and the engineer then acknowledged such a signal) were absent.  Not only did the crewmen call the densely spaced signals to each other, but one or the other would provide the appropriate sound effects—to the point that we were all laughing despite the cold.

When we reached the suburban stop of Aigen, just under five miles out from the central station, a switchman was standing by to uncouple the cars.  But, it was quickly obvious that he had never dealt with steam lines before.  So, one of the enginemen climbed down and take care of that part of the process.

Another cell phone call to the Salzburg control center produced the needed signal indications for the run-around move, and the locomotive briefly disappeared down the tracks into the now complete darkness of the winter night.



The light of day was gone by the time the locomotive cut off from its train to make the run-around move under the wires of the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB).

When it reappeared to couple onto the other end of the train, the crewmen could now close the canvas curtain at the back of the cab—except when they needed to shovel more coal into the firebox.  (These very basic war locomotives do not have mechanical stokers, but that simplicity has also helped to keep them operable, long beyond their intended life.)

The run into the central station, again using mostly secondary tracks to work around the evening commuter traffic, was uneventful.

A good day

I could have stayed with the train all night, returning to the SLB around midnight.  But, not only had I been on the go all day already, but I needed to photograph pre-Christmas events in the “Silent Night” town of Oberndorf the next morning.  (The primary purpose of my trip to Austria was to photograph Christmas events around Salzburg.)

So, while the charter group was boarding the train, I reluctantly bade farewell to the crew, with many thanks for their hospitality, and then walked the two blocks to my hotel.

There, in the dining room, I thought that the lighting was unusually dim that night—until I removed my glasses and realized they were covered with soot.  As I cleaned them, I was smiling.  In spite of the weather, it had been a good day.  A very good day.




(A number of class 50 and 52 2-10-0 steam locomotives are preserved in operable condition in Austria and other countries.  So, provided they are used in excursion service, these steam locos would still be at home even on Era V and VI layouts.  Models of various versions of these locomotives are available from most major manufacturers.  The excursion train described in this story could be replicated with almost any combination of pine-green Era III four-axle rolling stock.  Worth noting for modelers:  The prototype class 50 and 52 run quite well in reverse—with the tender leading—and, provided they do not use a tender with a conductor cabin, visibility is about the same when running in either direction.  Therefore these locos can operate on lines without turning facilities.)


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