The Turbine Engine
The day after I returned, I got a long report from Speed. The upshot was that, if we tried to carry out our intentions on the N&W, there would be hell to pay. There would be obstructions at all levels from the bottom to the top, and only a very few of the younger men might sense opportunity. The higher management might well quit in a body, and we would be hard put to it to replace them.
Not only would there be the usual problems, but the N&W, through a whole series of cozy arrangements with coal operators, effectively ran the coal industry in southern West Virginia. If we went ahead, we would have to start almost from scratch in an industry in which we had no management expertise.
Most of these things had turned up in response to the rumors Cindy had started on Speed's orders. I reported accordingly to Mac. He wasn't terribly surprised and replied,
"Their whole operation, like ours, is based on a philosophy of circular motion. They essentially have two tracks with loops on the ends, and, while the circle has been squashed almost flat, there's still continuous motion. They won't change, but we still own the N&W and can profit from it. Anyhow, I've got other irons in the fire."
Mac didn't say what the other irons were, but I assumed that they involved the turbine engines that seemed to occupy him so much just then.
It was only a few days later that I discovered that an engine was already under construction in secret in the Huntington shops. The reason for the secrecy was two-fold. Mac wanted no public failures, and, if the turbine principle proved unsuitable for railway locomotives, he wasn't going to be the one to tell the world about it. On the contrary, he hoped that his competitors would try the same thing, wasting as much time and money as possible.
On the other hand, if the turbine engine showed promise, he wanted the announcement to come in the form of a fleet of engines, all ready for service, which would vanquish the competition.
When I was first taken to see the new engine in the erecting shop, I was surprised to see the massive boiler. It was, in fact, the boiler of a USRA standard 2-8-8-2 mallet. These were the biggest engines in ordinary service, and we had at least a hundred of them on the western circle.
Where there had been sixteen 58" driving wheels, there were now only ten 74" drivers under the middle of the boiler. Instead of being coupled together with rods, the axles were geared to a central drive shaft. This would eliminate the imbalance of forces which had always tended to tear locomotive frames apart and destroy track and roadbed. Behind the drivers, the much-enlarged oil burning fire-box extended downwards and backwards, where it was supported by an eight- wheeled truck. This truck was an enlargement of the usual ones, but, like the others, it would swing from side to side on the curves.
A six-wheeled truck was located in front of the drivers, and this had the primary purpose of supporting the weight of the turbines and the associated gearing. In addition, the traditional cab at the rear of the locomotive had been removed, and had been replaced by a new enclosed one at the very front. The engine thus had quite a peculiar look.
On that first visit, in the company of Mac and Glencannon, I knew, without having to ask, that this engine, with its immense boiler and firebox capacity, was designed to develop, and be able to maintain, its maximum power at a good sixty miles an hour. The remaining questions were how it would start its train in the first place and whether it would be able to run for four hundred miles without stopping.
The cab-forward design had been provided primarily for the comfort of the engine crew. Instead of craning their necks out of side windows, they could sit on padded seats, look straight ahead, and enjoy an enclosed heated cab in winter. It might, Glencannon allowed, even be possible to air-condition it in summer. As he said,
"The old position is all right for a hundred miles or so, but we can't ask men to endure it for four hundred miles."
It didn't sound like Glencannon. It occurred to me that he might also envision the crew whiling away the time with one or more bottles of whiskey, but I didn't mention that possibility.
I then had the temerity to ask,
"Do you think the turbines will be able to start a heavy train?"
"Aweel, we're putting boosters on both engine trucks, and on both trucks of the tender. That'll get us some thirty thousand pounds of tractive effort, and the turbine should do the rest."
Boosters were small steam engines, geared to the truck axles and fed by steam hoses from the boiler. They helped start a train, and then disengaged entirely at a low speed, perhaps five or eight miles an hour. Glencannon thought that the engine would be able to start any train it could keep rolling at a steady sixty, but, in ordinary circumstances, the train would be started and gotten up to twenty or so by a conventional engine pushing on the rear.
It took several more weeks to complete the engine, and, even then, the trial was postponed a couple of times because of malfunctions in the hydraulic suspension system. It was finally on May 15, 1932, when I was at dinner with Mac and Vignis that he said,
"It's set for tomorrow night at midnight, son. You'd better take a nap first."
I asked Vignis,
"Are you coming too?"
Mac made some sort of grunt, but she replied,
"I certainly am."
Since secrecy was still to be preserved, the big engine was towed out of the shop after dark and steamed at the edge of one of the endless Huntington yards. Since we had a second track on the line to Chicago on the western circle, the new engine was to steam parallel to the midnight west-bound freight. Its consist was closely matched for number of cars and weight to that of the other train to allow for comparison.
When we arrived at trackside, the new engine towering above us was belching oil smoke, and we could hear its hot breath as it built up pressure. I was told that Glencannon had added boiler stays to allow the pressure to be raised from the standard 240 psi to 270. Since his character was reckless in many ways, my nagging fear of a boiler explosion wasn't entirely irrational.
There was quite a party now gathering beside the engine. Glencannon himself would be in the engineer's seat. John Henry Jamieson would be the fireman, which, in this case, meant regulating the flow of oil and water and keeping track of many other variables measured on a row of guages. Mac, Hanks, Atwater, Vignis, and I would stand behind them. Mac gestured at Vignis and whispered to me,
"I'm not sure it's safe, but ....."
I nodded and said that I understood. I discovered later that Mac had told her that there wouldn't be room for so many standees in the cab. However, Vignis had gone to inspect the engine on her own, and had reported that there was lots of room.
Just before midnight, the ordinary freight, headed by a big 4-8-2 Mountain engine pulled up beside us and stopped. We all climbed aboard the new engine, myself last. I could hear our safety valve popping as we waited.
When the signals came down on both tracks, Glencannon opened the valves on all four boosters. Exhaust steam from the boosters made it hard to see out of the side windows of the cab, but there was no doubt that we were starting our train, even without help from the turbines. In fact, the great mechanical advantage of the geared-down boosters allowed us to edge out in front of the 4-8-2, whose thunderous exhausts made conversation difficult in our cab.
Within a few hundred yards, we were up to eight miles an hour, still ahead of the Mountain, when the boosters cut out. Glencannon fed steam to the turbines and opened the throttle wide. Apart from a great whoosh of steam up the stack behind us, nothing much happened. At first, I wasn't sure that we would even be able to maintain our speed. We did, slowly and agonizingly, gain a mile an hour, but the Mountain, accelerating much more rapidly, passed us going strongly. Indeed, a few minutes later, the caboose of the other train went clicking by us, leaving us only its red light to follow.
Vignis, standing close beside me, whispered in my ear,
"Is it a failure?"
I whispered back,
"We are actually accelerating, but awfully slowly, and we're only making fifteen miles an hour. I don't know."
It didn't, in truth, look like the beginning of a new era.
Standing behind Glencannon, I couldn't see his expression, but the set of his shoulders as he continued to hold the throttle open wasn't reassuring. John Henry, sitting beside him, continued to make adjustments and gave him sidelong glances. They exchanged a few remarks which were hardly more than grunts, and I could see that, in view of the expenditure of steam, John Henry was having trouble keeping the pressure up close to 270. At any rate, we weren't likely to explode the boiler as long as the turbines were running.
The engine began to come to life when we hit twenty and the caboose of the other train was almost out of sight. One could imagine that the turbine blades were now biting into the steam instead of having it flow uselessly past them. For the first time, we standees began to be unbalanced as the engine surged forward. We soon hit forty, and were visibly gaining on the red light of the caboose.
It was an odd feeling to be aboard an engine such as ours. There was none of the stack music of piston beats so familiar to us, and there was instead a smoothness and freedom from vibration that none of us had ever experienced. Mac was grinning broadly, and shouted out,
"I think she may do, boys!"
As it turned out, there were still problems. At about the time that we overtook the caboose of the other train, I became aware of a cyclic surging with the cab moving slowly up and down, as if we were negotiating ocean waves. I also knew the cause.
Glencannon had produced a very big engine which was, so to speak, balanced on only ten drivers in the middle. It thus had a natural tendency to rock at speed, an action that could be controlled only by the two trucks, fore and aft.
Locomotive designers ordinarily worked out what they took to be an appropriate distribution of weight, and then specified springs on the drivers, the pony truck, and the trailing truck which would realize that distribution. However, since some eighty per cent of the weight would be on the drivers, it was no great matter to alter the springing of the pony and trailing trucks to counteract any surging tendencies that the locomotive might display on trials.
In this engine, weight distribution was far more critical. It was as if we were flying low in a large airplane, one which could be controlled only by fine tuning a number of flaps and tabs. Glencannon had realized this in advance, and had known that it would take months or years to keep re-springing the engine until it handled properly.
As much to shorten the testing and development process as for any other reason, he had provided adjustable hydraulic suspension for both the trucks. In particular, by moving levers controlling pumps, it was possible to put more or less weight on either truck, and also to vary the force which tended to return them to the center line of the locomotive on turns.
On this occasion, there was nothing for it but to experiment. For a very brief period, we began rocking more drastically. Glencannon was forced to slow down and drop behind the other caboose, while John Henry continued to make adjustments. Before long, the latter called back over his shoulder,
"I think I've got it right now."
The motion had been alarming, and I certainly hoped so. Glencannon began to accelerate, and, apparently satisfied, he went on accelerating.
The engine remained steady this time as we whipped along beside the other train, passing car after car. As far as I could see, John Henry didn't have to make any more adjustments. Hopefully, having discovered the right balance, it would be possible to set the levers permanently, perhaps building later locomotives with conventional suspensions to reflect that setting.
Just before we caught up with the Mountain, there was a right curve leading to a bridge over a river. It was one of relatively few curves in the prairie, the first one we had encountered, but it was banked for high speed. We had begun to heel and swing into the curve when we caught up to the Mountain on the other track.
Since our cab was up front, it was inevitable that it would hang outside the radius of the curve. I had expected that, but there was a lurch and we almost hit the cab of the Mountain at sixty. I was standing on the left side, only a few feet from the other engineer, and I could see his momentary expression of terror. There was, almost immediately, a scream of steel on steel from beneath us. John Henry was applying force to the leading truck, bringing it back toward the center and forcing its wheels against the outside rail.
There had been no way of judging in advance. Too little force, and the engine would miss the curve altogether. Too much, and the truck would jump the outside rail, almost certainly wrecking both trains. A man other than Glencannon might have tried the first curve at twenty or thirty miles an hour. Whether he had great confidence in John Henry's ability to make almost instant adjustments, or was hopelessly reckless, I wasn't sure.
In the event, John Henry quickly got it right on the horizontal dimension as well as the vertical one. The screaming moderated, and we swept majestically past the Mountain, going sixty and headed for seventy. Glencannon had never touched the brake valve, and he might have been right. There was no telling what effect an application of brake might have had on the trim of the engine at the critical moment.
Back on the straight, the big engine began to act like a high-wheeled racer of a passenger engine. The train, of moderate but by no means trivial weight, was gradually accelerated to seventy five, at which point the bearings in the freight cars would be generating enough friction to risk hot boxes. I was pretty sure that we were rolling the train faster than any of comparable length or weight had ever travelled before.
We stopped and uncoupled at the B point. I think that we all realized that a new era had come, but no one said a great deal. Glencannon remarked that we should, as originally planned, use a pusher to help start the turbine trains. Mac nodded and replied,
"Yes, even with the two extra boosters, we waste too much time and steam getting up to speed. We'll use regular engines to push us up to twenty five or so."
Since there were no facilities for turning the engine, it was necessary to go back in reverse. I was thankful when Glencannon relinquished the throttle to John Henry. With no train, the engine started quickly and easily, but the visibility, going in reverse, was poor. John Henry let the engine drift along at thirty while Hanks and I helped keep a lookout.
During the first part of the return trip, Glencannon talked mostly with Mac and the others, and I discussed matters with Atwater, who was standing beside me. He had no doubt about the success of the trial. I asked what he thought of the safety factor. He replied,
"There's no doubt that we had a close shave on that curve, one that could easily have been avoided. But, as they say, the Lord provides for various categories of people."
As I recalled the maxim, it said that the Lord provided for drunks and fools, but it might have been children and fools, or even children and drunks. Although Atwater was smiling, I had the feeling that he would object strongly to the inclusion of innocent people on any future test runs. However, as he remarked,
"That's water under the bridge now. They've probably already gotten the necessary adjustments figured out. Then, it's just a question of how fast the engines can be produced."
It wasn't long before Vignis came over. I suspected that she relied on Atwater's judgment more than on Mac's, and certainly more than on Glencannon's. When she found that Atwater had almost unlimited confidence in the engine, and thought we would have enough for the A trains on the eastern circle within a year, she was very much buoyed up.
"Then it's high time that we got started with the new towns."
"First, we'll have to find a new route for the eastern circle. There's some talk that we might be able to get hold of the C&O and use it instead of the N&W."
This was the first that I had heard of it. The C&O paralelled the N&W, often at no great distance. Vignis called over to Mac, who told us that he was almost certain of getting the C&O. He added,
"Since the C&O makes it here into Indiana, the eastern circle will be double-tracked all the way around if we can use it. Then, we'll be able to run trains around the circle in both directions."
That, of course, would have profound implications for our whole operation, particularly if we had turbine engines to pull the trains. There was, according to Mac, one problem.
"The C&O main line comes into Cincinnati from the east, and originally ended there. They later got hold of a line from Cincinnati to Chicago, which is now incorporated as the C&O of Indiana, but there was never any proper connection between the two."
Before anyone could reply, Mac addressed me,
"So it looks like another job for you, Jimmy. Get to Cincinnati as soon as you conveniently can and figure out if there's any way we can run our line through there."
Somewhat later, Vignis quietly asked me if I already knew anything about Cincinnati. I replied,
"I've been there a few times, but I don't remember too much. It's notorious for being one of the worst railway bottle- necks in the country."
"I do hope you can get things resolved as quickly as possible so I can get started."
"I should be able to decide one way or another within a few days of getting to Cincinnati."
When we rolled backwards into the Huntington yards, we were all close to euphoria.