V&T Railway maintenance workers prepare trains for upcoming season
The historic V&T Railroad won’t be running again until spring, so it’s natural most folks would think everything is pretty quiet at Tom Gray’s train yard in Virginia City.
They would be wrong because the off season is when all the maintenance and other work has to get done.
And there’s a lot to do to keep equipment that ranges from 60 years old to more than 100 years old in running condition.
This year, one of their two prized steam locomotives, No. 18, is getting a complete rebuild — everything from the wheels, running gear and the cab to the tubes inside the boiler.
Gray said a federal inspector is coming next week to take a look at what they’ve found so far. He’ll see a boiler that has been stripped of its insides including all the tubes that carry the water as it’s turned into steam. New tubes, more than 100 of them, are on the way and will be installed later.
In the meantime, the boiler and all its parts will get an ultrasound checkup to ensure there are no cracks or other flaws that could cause problems.
“The good news is we haven’t found a lot of surprises in here,” Gray said.
That’s good because, No. 18 is the V&T Railroad Commission’s biggest capital asset.
“It’s a great engine,” he said of the Baldwin 90-ton logging engine, called a Mikado, that was purchased in 2004.
The reason for the overhaul, he said, is that it has to be done by law every 15 years.
The cost: about a quarter-million dollars from the V&T Railroad Commission — generated by passenger fares including from the popular Polar Express program that runs every Christmas season.
When they start putting the steam tubes in the boiler after its next inspection, Gray said he and his crew “will spend weeks inside there.”
“The whole goal is to make it safe and suitable for another 15 years,” he said.
Gray said the other steam locomotive, the No. 29, which his family owns, got the overhaul treatment in 2008. This year, it just needs its annual maintenance and inspection.
Gray and his family have been involved in trying to bring back the V&T for 41 years now.
“Dad came up here in 1938,” he said.
Dad is now 94 and, according to Gray, still going strong.
Over the years, he said, he and his father have purchased a lot of equipment made famous by the motion picture industry including cars used in “Gone With The Wind,” “Red Badge of Courage” and “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” starring Paul Newman and Ava Gardner.
Although it seems outmoded now, when it was built in 1914, the locomotive was state-of-the-art technology. But these days, it’s technology unfamiliar to all but a few experts. Not a problem in this area, he said, since between his people and Chris DeWitt’s crew at the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City, western Nevada is home to the nation’s most knowledgeable steam locomotive technicians.
The steam locomotive isn’t the only piece of equipment in the shop right now. One of their diesel engines is getting a rebuild right next to No. 18. When it’s done, a second of the three diesels will get a going over as well.
Winter, he said, is a very busy time at the Gray’s train yard.
One key part of the train, he said, is made by an enthusiast who sells copies of what he gives to the V&T all over the world.
“The whistle is an important part of the train,” Gray said explaining that the whistle they pick gives the locomotive its character.
He said they used the whistle on No. 29 to get a couple of people off the track but, horses and livestock, he said, “you just come up on slow.”
“They get out of the way but they do it on their own time,” Gray said.
The best engineers to drive the train, he said, aren’t usually engineers per se.
“The best engineers are musicians,” he said. “They’ve got the feel.”