My short bio: So I am a software engineer by trade, but I also fire steam engines and drive diesel engines at a small heritage railway (museum) in the UK. Happy to answer anything from technical stuff to fun stuff!

My Proof:

Comments: 102 • Responses: 49  • Date: 

flexofreek30 karma

If I have learned anything from watching Thomas over the years, it's that there is complete carnage on the railway on a daily basis. How many derailments are you personally responsible for? How much confusion and delay have you caused?

In all seriousness, I'm envious, congratulations.

krisdouglas27 karma

I am responsible for only 1 derailment, and it was moving a single waggon by hand, it decided to fall off. No harm done but wasted a good 40 minutes putting the bugger back!

I'd like to think I have caused minimal confusion and delay, the Fat Controller (or whatever he's called now?) would be proud!

undercover_orb11 karma

Thomas' railway was really fucked up. I think the Fat Controller doesn't give a fuck about safety regulations. The worst one was when Mavis gets stuck on an icy level crossing because they forgot to grit the tracks, blocking traffic for an hour. Or that time when that dumb Narrow Gauge engine ran out of steam and had to stop on the way up a 45 degree incline.

krisdouglas6 karma

Haha, yeah, that rarely happens in the real world.

... Rarely.

onafoolsvacation3 karma

Sir Topham Hatt! Don't know why they changed his name from Fat Controller... probably not to give the sensitive new gen kids a complex about fatness.

Siegwyn2 karma

He was always called Sir Topham Hatt in the US versions. In the UK, he's still the Fat Controller.

krisdouglas1 karma

I can't honestly say I keep track! There's a Thin Controller too apparently!

krisdouglas2 karma

Haha most likely!

OrangeLimeZest11 karma

Best child-related experience?

krisdouglas19 karma

Haha, that's an interesting one, I suppose the good ones are always the classics, such as blowing the whistle and causing a kid to crap itself, but we're usually pretty considerate. One time a kid cried with happiness when he saw the steam engine, that kinda made my week too!

OrangeLimeZest5 karma

D'aww, that is adorable.

krisdouglas10 karma

I could go on, there's loads. We do santa trains in December, where santa comes down the train and talks to the kids. We sometimes work it so if the parents let us know the kid's name we can pass on a special message from santa, and santa will "know his name". The way the kids eyes light up when we do this is just magic!

OrangeLimeZest8 karma

Please say more this is all brilliant.

krisdouglas10 karma

Haha, you've got me thinking. We see thousands of kids, so as you can imagine it's hard to pick out specific moments. We have a lot of young children with varying levels of autism visit us. Children with autism seem to just love railways, and trains.

A lot of the time you see autistic kids at their most focussed and verbal when they're doing something they love, so we see parents having rare opportunities to interact with their kids on an often unusually 1 to 1 level. It's pretty fantastic to be fair!

OrangeLimeZest6 karma

I have mild autism so I understand why railways can be brilliant, there is just something magical even to this day about them.

Inverse of the original question, Worst child-related experience?

krisdouglas4 karma

Oh god, vomit related, a kid once threw up all over one of the carriages. Thank God I didn't have to clean that up!

OrangeLimeZest3 karma

No detail needed,

krisdouglas2 karma

Trust me, I don't think I could stomach writing it!

krisdouglas2 karma

It's just as funny ;)

rickmuscles9 karma

Why do you think learning about out dated technologies is important?

krisdouglas21 karma

Interestingly, a lot of the technology in terms of machining and engineering has remained the same, of course I work a lot with inefficient outdated diesel engine designs, and of course steam engines. It really does cover the basics of engineering, and gives you a firm base in most things we use today.

From a historical perspective, it's also great to learn from our mistakes, if we still used steam today there's some incredible science that could be applied that would have it's efficiency up there with diesel locomotives, but the future is electric!

PapiDimmi8 karma

Do you play any Steam games?

krisdouglas13 karma

I love Counter Strike:GO, also can't beat a bit of train simulator on lazy days... Pretty hooked on Planet Coaster too, that's ace!

AbednegoBR1 karma

Indeed an amazing game, fantastic soundtrack too!

On a related note what are the biggest similarities and differences between coaster and railroad tracks?

Amazing job you got there, btw..

krisdouglas3 karma

That's a really good question. Roller coaster tracks usually operate on a clasp based system, where you have a wheel both above AND below the rail, and even sometimes on the outside of it to hold it on the tracks. (I used to work at Alton Towers, a roller coaster park in the UK). Rollercoaster tracks are also "tied" together much more frequently and often welded. Most smaller railways in the UK, and even some parts of the main line still use wooden sleepers or ties quite infrequently to hold the rails at the correct distance apart.

chrome-spokes6 karma

Hey there, thanks for sharing on IAMA with us!

Have special interest in it, too, as I boiled water for a living. That's my standard off-the-cuff reply when asked what I did before I retired, then admitting I was a steam boiler guy, lol.

Okay, onward with question time:

1) On the steam locomotives you operate, is water feed manually controlled? To go with, are there auto-controls to shut down the burner in case of low water condition?

2) At your museum, how many working engines of both scale replicas and full size are there? (Photos show one of each, way cool.) And what types/makers/models are they?

3) On your largest steamer, can you break down all which entails to fire it up to working pressure, along with time takes to do so?

4) Does your museum have a web site we can looky-loo at?

5) Fireman? Singular. Didn't most old-timey locos's have both a fireman & an engineer? (I know the answer, which to me goes for safety as asked on question #1 -- for with one man only operating these monsters, say, has a cardiac arrest and is out of commission, now we have a explosion in the making come that low water condition!). So, hopefully imagine there are other knowledgeable people on the grounds whenever your steam engines are in use?

This you wrote earlier, "... a kid cried with happiness when he saw the steam engine" Yeah, recalls when I showed my own kids a bank of five fire tube HRT's i worked on. Kids are magic, their awe inspiring awe taking us jaded adults back to wonders that be. Such as even with boiling up some water, hah!

Also with this, "... I wonder why I put myself through this every third Sunday ... and I see a little girl with her hands over her ears, mouth in a little O, halfway hiding behind her father, and I am reminded".

That last quote from another train museum guy on this site. Also as with here, is quite educational for those whom have no idea about steamers...

Thanks again!

krisdouglas7 karma

Wow, such a comprehensive post! Thank you!

  1. Yes, the water is added manually using Steam Injectors, they are a rather old school way of doing it. One of our Victorian engines also has a feed pump off the crosshead.

  2. The one of me driving the miniature is at a different place, but we have 2 fully working steam locomotives in service at our place, and another will be ready mid this year. We also have many diesels! The first, and oldest steamer was built in Stafford, UK in 1897! Its a coal fired 4 wheeled quarry engine. The other is a 2008 built ultra light coal fired engine designed for use on road building, its a replica of an engine design built in Stoke on Trent around the 1920s. The one that's not finished yet is the same Stoke on Trent 1920s engine, but the genuine article! You can see photos on the link below, but if you like I can reply with some here. :) As a side point, these engines are different from your normal mainline engines as they are narrow gauge, meaning there's 2 foot between the wheels rather than 4 foot 8 1/2 inches.

  3. Firing the biggest one takes about 4 hours from cold. You clean the ash out of each end, check for any leaking fire tubes and the fusible plug, then light the fire. Once the fire is lit, you oil round, clean, fill the water tank up, check all the cotter pins and taper pins to ensure everything is still tight. Oil the axle boxes. Once that's done you should have just enough steam to go and have a cup of tea...or 4. Then you're off to blow steam through the cylinders to warm them up and you're off. At the end of the day you stuff the boiler full of water, make sure the fire is nice and flat and put it away in the shed.

  4. It does

  5. Yeah, so I'm a fireman, I work with a driver. And sometimes we have a third trainee who is there to learn what we do. I'm responsible for maintaining the water level and shovelling coal, the driver makes us go! We don't have one man operation just to make it all a bit safer. Though these engines are small enough to operate alone, and commonly were in the past.

Hope I answered these well, if you'd like to know more just let me know!

chrome-spokes1 karma

using Steam Injectors

Ah me-oh-my, my graying gray matter slipped right over these when asking! What a great invention. But to be fair to thy self, all boilers I've worked, (stationary types), used elect. pumps for feed & make-up, combined with not one, but two low water float controllers. Which of course, one was a back up to auto-shut off the burner in event of too low water condition, as is easy to do with oil & natural gas as fuel. But with coal, I've no idea???

These dual floats we even put on an old 1920's era cast iron sectional we lit off with a hand held torch -- Whoosh! I liked that ol' boy, but it was taken out of service, (edit: in the 1980's), & hauled to the scape yard rather than retrofit with an auto-burner. Low efficiency with BTU's to produced energy rating made sure of that sad day, says this sentimental old fool, hah. (Hm, and how many times can I say "old" here? lol)

/u/rickmuscles wrote, "Why do you think learning about out dated technologies is important?" Well, having no idea of your knowledge of steam & not sure if this will help answer? But here goes, along with what OP already stated... It is easy to suppose most know the given fact that world-wide, electricity is still produced in majority by steam power boilers by their running turbine generators. (Though yes-- along with hydro plants as power coming in second. With solar & wind still in infant stage as far as over all output.) Also, to this day vast amount of boilers are used & being manufactured for all sorts of major industry down to home heating systems. So, outdated here is only in application, though many steam trains are also still in use some countries for freight & people transportation.

Decades ago, a simple yet astonishing fact I learned when taking Tech School steam plant classes was this -- One cup of water when flashed to steam produced in volume 1,700 cups of steam! That energy harnessed, (by boilers!), is what makes it still viable. So, (to me anyhow), the history here with example through trains, shows how steam set the industrial age in motion like nothing else. And with that, simple fact is that the basic principles of steam engineering will never change, and are still very much in need here in modern times.

Nice website, OP. Got it bookmarked!

krisdouglas1 karma

Sadly we have nothing of the thing to ensure boiler water remains at an appropriate level, apart from a highly qualified crew of course. I suppose it makes sense with stationary boilers because the water level is always constant, with a steam loco you need a little more control, as constantly adding water can reduce performance, and if you're going up hill you don't want to over-fill the boiler such that water is pushed through the regulator and into the cylinders rather than steam, that results in catastrophic damage!

/u/rickmuscles is indeed correct, most of our power is still generated using super-heated steam in one way or another! Also correct, in some countries steam locomotives are still in regular day to day service because they are incredibly reliable machines!

SteveCastGames5 karma

What's the largest train you've ever fired?

krisdouglas3 karma

The largest was a Polish OL-49, absolutely huge!

SteveCastGames2 karma


krisdouglas1 karma

It really was, quite scary coming into a station at 60mph with a commuter train and slamming the brakes on at the last second!

CrazyJelloman5 karma

Have you had any dangerous experiences? What is the best experience you have had?

krisdouglas8 karma

Dangerous, if you don't consider fires and boiling hot saturated steam dangerous, I don't think so, no. Railways are heavily governed in the UK and we have a comprehensive system of safety management to ensure the risk doing anything is absolutely minimised.

The best experience, probably our steam galas, we sometimes have up to 6 steam engines on the go and as our line is only just about a mile long, it makes for one hell of an experience! The other thing I loved doing was taking one of my friends steam engines to Belgium for an event there, went on a lorry, steamed the engine for 2 days and then came back. Amazing to meet Belgian train drivers too!

-ninninon2 karma

Where abouts are you?

krisdouglas1 karma

Staffordshire, UK

forava75 karma

why the jump from software engineering to steam engines?

krisdouglas18 karma

I have always liked trains since I was a kid, I am still a software engineer, but sometimes it's nice to work on something big, industrial, low tech, and dirty (especially the last one!).

I guess it's nice to take a break from the keyboard and do some real engineering once in a while.

Plus, everyone needs a hobby, right?

forava72 karma

So true!

when was the moment, you knew that you wanted to work on trains?

krisdouglas1 karma

It was about 2012 that I started thinking about actually working on them.

unixlover3 karma

Not OP but software engineer who loves trains and a little jealous of OP here.

krisdouglas2 karma

I'm sure there's somewhere near you desperate for volunteers, go get involved!

CommentsPwnPosts3 karma

You seem to have a lot of fun riding those trains. Have you by any chance read Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett?

krisdouglas5 karma

I actually haven't, I am not a huge reader, and when I do, usually stick to sci-fi like Iain M Banks, etc. Is it worth the read?

CommentsPwnPosts3 karma

I think you might like it based on the topic (the first railroad (company) on the diskworld), despite being a fantasy setting. Not sure if you like Pratchett humor (closest sci-fi would be hitchhikers guide I think), but if you do it will be worth it.

krisdouglas5 karma

Thanks, I'll check it out!

Halcyon2203 karma

You are one lucky person!!! Got any jobs going??? xD

How awesome is it to drive steam trains? I'm a trainspotter and I want to volunteer on the ESR nr Shepton Mallet, is it hard to get to this kind of thing?

Which heritage railway do you work at? :)


krisdouglas4 karma

Our railway is always looking for volunteers, in the interest of impartiality I am not going to name it directly, but it's in Staffordshire. I don't do driving so much as I do tending the fire, on steam locos that is. On the occasions I do get to drive it's great fun, but always a little stressful knowing you have ~50 lives in your hands.

Incidentally, I'm not a trainspotter, I've never really been interested in it, but each to their own!

FourNominalCents3 karma

What's your take on the trade-offs between 45mm, 3.5", 5", and 7.5" live steam?

krisdouglas1 karma

I think you should go for the size you can afford, I don't have any of the above myself. Also if you're going for anything big, where are you going to run it? If you have a local club you're sorted! 2 foot gauge is a bit trickier and 4' 8 1/2" is nigh on impossible.

rickmuscles2 karma

what does heritage railway mean?

krisdouglas4 karma

Okay, I probably should have explained this better, a "heritage railway" is essentially a railway museum. We call it that in the UK to differentiate working "old school" railways from normal ones. So essentially I work at a railway museum.

RedPhoneBoot2 karma

I've been on the lile ratty a few times when I've been back to the UK to visit fam. Any chance you work there?

krisdouglas3 karma

No, that's quite a way away from me, I'm based in the Midlands :)

_snoop_2 karma

Ever see any carnage on the tracks?

krisdouglas1 karma

No, fallen trees are about the worst we see!

BlackSuN422 karma

Do you get annoyed at those other Firemen? I mean you are the one that makes fire, those other guys should be called watermen when you think about it.

krisdouglas1 karma

Haha not at all, they do an amazing job and I have seen them come and assist on hot days when a steam locomotive has caused a fire in a field.

TheRze2 karma

Was this a dream of yours since you were yonug? or did you get into trains when you were older?

krisdouglas3 karma

I always liked trains when I was a kid, and used to visit the particular railway I volunteer at a lot when I was little. I didn't actually start railway stuff properly until early 2012, which is when my interest in mechanical engineering started developing. This is quite common with people who volunteer at the railway, a lot of people joined because of a later life interest rather than a childhood fantasy to drive trains.

Death_Blooms2 karma

Big man on a little train. I love that photo.

In all seriousness how much power do those steam engines produce?

krisdouglas1 karma

Which ones? The big 2 foot gauge ones are around 100hp but will pull a huge amount more than a similar horsepower truck.

Death_Blooms1 karma

Is that because of tracks vs road? Better traction?

krisdouglas2 karma

No, the way a car with an internal combustion engine lays down power requires high revs for peak torque output. Whereas a steam engine has a vastly increased starting power, and because rails are low friction, you have a fairly easy pull once everything is moving.

FourNominalCents2 karma

Do you think there's much value to building a replica geared locomotive there or a replica garratt here, (US,) for the sake of exposing both groups to variants of an old technology that they wouldn't otherwise see?

krisdouglas1 karma

I think there is always room for more development in re building designs that are un-preserved. There's a huge movement for that in the UK. If there's the money and the willpower, get it done!

FourNominalCents1 karma

It's not so much about un-preserved as the fact that neither design really crossed the Atlantic in its lifetime. I'm in CO, USA, so we have Shays and old Rio Grande unarticulated equipment all over the place, and I think UP runs their surviving Big Boy and Challenger through my state, but I don't think a Garratt ever ran on American soil.

krisdouglas1 karma

I'm fairly sure there aren't any running preserved garratt locos, there are definitely some shays running, I don't think we have any of those in the UK. We had a slightly different angle on geared locos. I'm sure the US has some garratts off us at some point though.

FourNominalCents1 karma

I looked it up, and apparently there's one in Texas on a private 2' line, but that's it. I'm sure the difficulty of arranging some kind of temporary swap is exacerbated by the fact that much of our running geared equipment is 3', and AFAIK, Manx railroads didn't really put together any especially unique equipment. Especially not anything that can handle the grades the Shays can. When you say the UK used a different type of geared locomotive, what was it? I've never seen any references to UK geared equipment.

krisdouglas2 karma

Have a look at Sentinel steam locomotives, they were a twin cylinder geared locomotive used for shunting purposes. Crazy design.

kmlxb22 karma

Hey there! Fellow steam train aficionado here! I drive a 4-4-0 Crown locomotive every day for a US amusement park. I ride in both the fireman and engineer seats. I find there's no feeling more satisfying than blowing the whistle to make my presence known :)

My question for you is a relatively simple one:

We follow a standard whistle pattern used by small and large railways across the US (where - is a long whistle and * is a short whistle):

vehicular crossing: --*-

pedestrian crossing: --

backing up: ---

brakes set: *

ready for departure: ** etc.

Are whistle signals you're familiar with across the pond different from those I'm familiar with in the US? If so, how? I'm beginning to learn more and more from railroad community members and I'd love to get your input! Thanks, in advance!

krisdouglas2 karma

At our type of railway there is very rarely a specific whistle code used, usually 2 peeps indicates a vehicle intends to reverse. Most of our signalling is done with flags and hand signals, and thus loco whistling is not required. This does vary depending on the railway though.

krisdouglas1 karma

By the way, Is the Crown Metal Products loco oil fired or wood/coal?

kmlxb22 karma

We actually burn propane. It's rather unconventional, but its cleaner for the environment (or so they say).

krisdouglas1 karma

Oh, that's a cool idea!

WhyAllTheTrains2 karma

Which heritage railway museum? I live close to a similar sounding place.

Serious question though, how hard is it to get into volunteering with a heritage railway?

krisdouglas1 karma

To get into volunteering you just go down and visit, say hello to the staff and introduce yourself. You may have to be a member but usually you can start volunteering almost straight away and you'll be able to work your way up to the footplate in good time.

I'm at one based just outside Stafford.

Meritania2 karma

In your opinion, what is the best locomotive? To drive or wish you could drive

krisdouglas2 karma

Anyone will tell you they have a favourite engine to operate. Honestly I do love the little Stafford built Victorian Bagnall we have, but I couldn't possibly say without driving them all. :)

little_green_lamb2 karma

I was just thinking the other day about how there were no check-engine lights on trains (my kid was reading Thomas the Train and one of the engines needed water for its radiator to avoid overheating). I thought to myself, "Dayum, engineers back in the day must have had to really know their shit about the mechanics of trains." Amirite? Was it a whole crew of people or just one mad scientist who could keep the whole thing running smoothly?

krisdouglas2 karma

Once you spend time working with them you can quickly diagnose most faults from just a sound, or something not feeling quite right. They are mechanically very simple machines, and once you understand the underlying principles of how they work, the "check engine light" issues do make themselves known. It's amazing what a bit of a knock or a wheeze can tell you about what's not quite right.

Every ten years we also completely strip the locomotives down for servicing, this allows us to replace any commonly wearing parts, or make adjustments to take up wear. We also do analysis of the boiler metalwork to ensure it is still a suitable thickness to maintain pressure and conduct stringent hydraulic (cold) tests and steam (hot) tests. Kind of like servicing your car.

little_green_lamb1 karma

You sound handy. Can you come calibrate my sewing machine? I oiled it myself!

krisdouglas2 karma

calibrate my sewing machine

Ha, given a manual, and some time to work out how the hell it worked, possibly. Can't honestly say I have ever used a sewing machine in anger. A car, tractor, or locomotive, sure. I'll calibrate those till the cows come home! :P

IceBlue021 karma

I used to visit Amerton a lot when I was younger (I'm just across the border in Derbyshire) but TIL it has a railway. Wow.

Do you prefer the smaller steam narrow gauge railways or the bigger ones (Churnet Valley for example). Pros and cons?

krisdouglas1 karma

I'm more of a narrow gauge person but I am involved at another railway, Chasewater which is primarily standard gauge. Nice to meet a local! You should come and check the railway out!



krisdouglas1 karma

I don't really have one to be quite honest, but I do love the UP Big Boy, that's something else. Would love to get my hands on that one day! In seriousness though, I think I answered this before, everyone's favorite loco is the one they get to spend time on, work on, repair and of course, operate. They all have their own personalities and are like living breathing people sometimes!



krisdouglas1 karma

I haven't no, I haven't operated many non-British locomotives. I've worked on an American Davenport, a Polish Fablok OL-49 a French Corpet and a German Orenstein & Koppel

taylorb9721 karma

Favorite steam powered railroad in the US?

krisdouglas2 karma

The Durango and Silverton narrow gauge in Colorado. My friend has been there, I haven't yet. But they look amazing.

dirtmerchant19801 karma

Obligatory ? People who hold pieces of paper in front of their faces like that always make me think this is /r/roastme. I was about to insult you for no real reason, other than I thought you were asking for it.

krisdouglas2 karma

Haha, you're more than welcome! I have terrible hair in that picture xD

iambestfresh1 karma

when traveling, do you prefer riding on a train, or flying?

krisdouglas1 karma

That depends where I am going, for the most part I'd drive. For example, in the UK train tickets usually cost more than driving, so I would drive to wherever I was going. Long distance I would choose flight, i.e. if I was going to europe or something like that. I love aircraft.

Sadly railways in the UK suck, quite badly. If the prices were more reasonable I would consider using the train to travel within the country more regularly!