How Long Does It Take to Start a Steam Locomotive?

As relics of the past, steam locomotives no longer carry goods and passengers across the country, However, many of them still run the rails pulling tourist trains through historical sites and museums. As such, locomotive engineers must still know how to start and operate them.

While nowhere as fast as modern diesel or electric engines, the average steam locomotive can start and get going in under 8 hours. Depending on the style of the locomotive, most engineers can even fire up these machines in less than 3 hours. It all depends on the type of boiler and level of maintenance.

However, all of this means nothing if you do not properly start these locomotives. They are finicky at best, and will not start, cease up, or blow up if you do not handle them with care. By reading further, you will learn the right way to start a steam locomotive so you can avoid any potential disasters.

up fef northern
Roger Puta

The Time It Takes to Fire Up a Steam Locomotive

The invention of the steam locomotive brought the world closer than anything else before it. Overnight, goods and people could travel across continents in days and weeks instead of months. Those old workhorses determined the outcome of wars while creating new industries, many of which we still have today.

While the world moved on from the age of steam, you may still see steam engines ride the rails around the world. No longer used for cross-country travel, these relics of the past hold strong pulling tourists to historic destinations where other modes of transport would be out of place or impossible. As such, knowing how to start a steam locomotive still has value.

Because these engines only run during tourist season, their operators must fire them up from their dead cold storage at least once or more every year. Unfortunately, starting a steam locomotive is a time-intensive process that can take up to 8 hours to complete.

Factors That Determine Steam Locomotive Start Times

Luckily, you can get most locomotives going much faster than 8 hours depending on the ambient temperature and other factors. As such, there is no set start-up time for a steam engine. You have to know the characteristics of the locomotive before you can gauge how much lead time you would need.

Some of these characteristics include:

  • Size of the boiler
  • Age of the boiler
  • Initial water Temperature
  • Ambient air temperature
  • The metal construction
  • Fuel
  • Quality of the heat exchangers
  • The overall condition of the pipes, bolts, etc.

Beyond the above firebox properties, the start-up time often depends on how quickly it can heat the firebox. You can take a slow and steady approach, which will take a lot of time but keeps everything under control. Otherwise, you can speed things up by pre-heating the firebox. Though, you would be putting a lot of stress on the metal.

In practice, most engineers use a combination of various fuels to speed up the process. Some use space heaters to keep their engines warm overnight. Others place torches of oil on the coals.

Though the most popular and safest method is to start the fire with wood before switching to coal once the fire reaches the right temperature and pressure. This method can drop the start time down to 3-4 hours. It can even lower the time to just an hour if you fire up the locomotive every day.

steam locomotive work
Jeff Hampton

How to Start a Steam Locomotive

It takes so long to start a steam locomotive because the process has several time-consuming steps. Each step is also important to the operation of the train and cannot be skipped. While you can do some of them simultaneously, most of them require prerequisites and therefore must do completed in the right sequence.

These steps are also mostly universal to all steam locomotives. While the various parts might be different, they all serve the same functions to bring these majestic machines to life.

Pre-Start Safety Inspection Check

Before you can light up the firebox, you must inspect the entire locomotive. Be on the lookout for any obstructions that might block the wheels including in front, behind, and under the train. You also want to ensure the sandboxes are full and the sand flows freely. Other things to check include cracks in the hull, pipes, and anything that moves.

If you notice any potential problems, you must repair them before moving on to the next step. If you cannot complete the repairs right away, then the locomotive is unusable. Never operate a compromised steam locomotive for any reason.

Check and Fill the Water Tank

If the locomotive looks good, then it is time to check and fill the water storage tank. This tank stores and cools the water that will flow through the system. As such, it must be full at all times. Luckily, you can check the water level by looking at the water gauge glasses located in the cabin near the footplate.

These gauges should read full. If they do not, you must prepare the tank for additional water and then fill it. You do that by plugging the overflow pipes located outside the cab. You can then attach a feeder hose to the water input pipe and turn on the injectors.

milw 261
Jeff Hampton

Check the Brakes, Cylinders, and Coal Bunker

You must wait until the water tanks are at least half full, but your next start-up task is to check the breaks and cylinders. The brakes should be active with the regulator shut. This will prevent the locomotive from moving before you are ready to operate it.

This time is also a good place to open the cylinder drains are open and that you have enough coal in the bunker to start a fire. You cannot do anything else until you have a full water storage tank. Luckily, these tasks help you spend time while you wait.

Check and Clean the Smoke Box

When the water gauges are full, it is time to open and check the smokebox on the locomotive’s running plate. You want to clean out any residual ask and trash from the box, blower, and regulator. You should then check the tube plate for leaks before closing and locking the smokebox.

Please use your locomotive’s specific instructions for opening the smokebox as each box is different.

Start the Fire!

If you made it this far, it is finally time to fire up the locomotive! The firebox is located in the middle of the cab. So, hop into the cab and open it up. From there, you should layer the fire grate with a bed of coal. Toss a piece of wood into the middle of the grate and then kindle the fire using a rag and a lighting fluid.

You can use either gasoline, paraffin, or charcoal lighter for this fluid. Once you soak the rag with the fluid, you can light it carefully until it burns well. You can then place the burning rag on the wood and immediately close the firebox.

The fire will take a half-hour or so to reach the right temperature. But you should check it every several minutes to see if it still burns brightly. If the fire starts to cool off or burns out, you must repeat the process with another rag. You can also add larger pieces of wood to stoke the flames. Carefully let the fire grow.

While maintaining a safe distance from the toxic fire smoke, continue adding wood to the fire until it starts boiling the water. You can also open the blower a little to maintain pressure.

locomotive firebox
Jonathan Lee

Switch the Fire from Wood to Coal

Once the water starts boiling, you can start replacing the wood with coal. Place some coal on top of the already wood. Then, add more coal as the water pressure begins building up. When the pressure reaches one-third of the maximum, you can stop tossing in more coal outside what you need to maintain a constant temperature. You can also open the blow-down valve to clear the pit of ash.

Fill the Water Boiler

With the fire going strong and the pressure rising, your next task is to keep the boiler filled with water. You must keep the boiler filled to around three-quarters full to maintain pressure at half maximum.

After filling the boiler, you should check the injectors for irregularities. This is the final safety check before the train starts moving. So, you want to catch any problems now when you can easily shut things off.

Open the Overflow Drains and Disengage External Brakes

Finally, it is time to move your locomotive. The steam is ready to move the wheels. So, it is time to remove all external braking mechanisms. You should also open the drains for about 5 to 10 minutes to evaporate any moisture that is collected inside overnight. The rest is just maintaining the working gauge pressure and water levels.

locomotive driver
Jonathan Lee

How to Drive a Steam Locomotive

With your steam locomotive rearing to go, it is time to roll down the track. But driving the locomotive will require more skill and practice than firing it up. As such, engineers can expect to spend years as apprentices before they can do it on their own. While modern tools can speed up the process, it is still a time-consuming task.

Even still, it might be a good idea to know how to run a steam locomotive if you work for a museum, play train simulators, or are just curious. As such, we will describe the steps required to drive these majestic machines below.

Release the Johnson Bar

Your first step in driving the train is to release the reverse bar. Also called the Johnson bar, this very large lever puts the train into reverse. It prevents the engine from moving forward and lets you apply the brakes when parking it.

You release it by squeezing the lever and moving it all the way forward. The reverse lever is the large level that rises from the floor in the front or side of the cab. Letting go of the release handle will lock the lever in place.

Open the Cylinders

The next step is to release the cylinders. The pistons in the cylinders transfer the steam power into the motion of the wheels similar to how a car works. However, you must first open the valves and then let the steam pass through them.

You control these valves through a control valve or thin lever that sits on the boiler. If your locomotive uses a control valve, turn it clockwise all the way to open it. Otherwise, you must pull the level back.

Turn on the Headlight

The headlight in front of the locomotive shows you what is coming up on the track, especially at night. It also warns everyone to get out of the way to let you pass. As the light must shine day or night, you should do as soon as you are ready to go.

You will find the headlight switch above you on the ceiling of the cab, though some engine cabins have it on a sidewall. It appears as a large, flat, half-round box in either case. Just slide the knob that is situated on the round side all the way forward to turn on the headlight.

sp daylight train
Drew Jacksich

Use the Whistle to Signal Forward Movement

It is time to put the steam engine in gear and move it down the track, but first, you must warn everyone nearby that you are about to move it. You do this by using the whistle to send out the forward movement code, which is two short bursts of sound in quick succession.

The whistle controls are located on the cabin ceiling either above the boiler or in the middle of the roof. These controls take the form of either a cable, a bunch of cables, or white handles. Pull the control down to activate the steam whistle sound.

Release the Brakes

Next up is releasing the brakes. The brake control is to your left side where you will see two horizontal brass levers. The brake control is the top one, and it moves left to right. Moving the level to the right sets the brakes. Moving the level to the left releases them.

Open the Throttle to Roll Out

Now, it is time to move the locomotive. Luckily, the engine will mostly move if the tracks ahead are appropriately set. You just have to open the throttle to let the steam pass through the cylinders. There is no steering to do.

The throttle control is the very long lever that hangs off the front center cab roof near your face. You open the throttle by moving this lever towards you but do not open it all the way. As soon as you feel the locomotive move, shove the lever back the other way. You want the throttle open, but not too much. It should be just enough to keep the train moving slowly and manageable.

Gradually Speed Up the Train

With the engine finally moving at a slow but reasonable pace, you can start speeding it up. You want to reach the track speed, but you must keep it slow so you can quickly shut things down if there is a problem.

Therefore, you should only gradually open the throttle, stopping once the locomotive reaches the desired speed. As you do this, you must continuously check the cylinder exhaust. At the moment when only steam leaves the cylinders, close the valves to maintain the internal pressures.

Reset the Johnson Bar to Vertical

Your next step is to move the Johnson bar into neutral. As mentioned before, this large bar sets the locomotive in reverse, acting as a gear control shift. Moving it to a near-upright position will put the train into neutral, letting the cylinders move freely. This position also improves steam efficiency as the engine needs less steam per cylinder stroke. You will also conserve your coal reserves.

Strasburg steam
Roger Puta

Continuously Check for Wheel Slippage

As the locomotive moves down the track, you never want the wheels to slip. Slipping wheels reduces traction while damaging the driving or powered wheels. It can also wear down the pipes, leading to small explosions. It may even damage the firebox if left unchecked.

To prevent this “wheel slip”, you must work the throttle. If you see any of the wheels slipping, close the throttle most of the way. You can then bring the train back to full speed once the slipping stops.

Blow the Whistle Before Entering a Crossing or Tunnel

You must signal your approach as you near potential hazardous locations. For instance, you must blow the whistle as you draw bear any tunnels or level crossings along the track. You must also give a signal if you see a whistle post sign or approach a work zone.

The correct approach signal is two long pulses followed by a short one with bell rings between them. Generally, you want to start ringing the bell as soon as you release the first whistle bast. The shorter blast should also be delayed by a few seconds.

Once you arrive at the crossing, you must continuously blow the whistle until the locomotive pass to the other side.

Never Exceed the Speed Limit

Finally, as you drive the locomotive, you should never exceed the speed limit. Trains are finicky machines. Anything out of specification can lead to a disaster. You cannot take your steam locomotive up steep hills or go faster than gravity can keep it on the track.

As such, you must obey any posted speed limits. Going too fast for a length of rail can lead to derailments, even on straight tracks. Derailments ruin your day and schedule as you will require assistance to bring your train back on the rails. To matters worse, if the derailment jolts the locomotive, it can damage the boiler and firebox, leading to explosions and loss of life.

Santa Fe steam locomotive
Drew Jacksich Photo

Other Common Steam Locomotive Questions and Advice

Train enthusiasts and historians often wonder how old steam locomotives operated. This is especially true when riding a history museum train and seeing these majestic machines in action. If you are among these inquiring minds, search no further. We placed the most commonly asked questions below.

Are Steam Locomotives More Expensive than Electric Engines?

A small, live steam locomotive costs well under $500, which is comparable to other types of train engines. As they serve niche routes, you can expect to pay much more for more complicated locomotives. This is because they are made to order with high-precision, machined metal

Are Steam Locomotives Difficult to Operate?

Steam engines require more skill than other types of train locomotives, but they are not difficult to operate. If you already know how to run a gas-fired locomotive, you can easily transfer those skills to a coal-fire one. Train experts often describe the as running an electric train while operating a barbeque pit.

Does Steam Power Offer the Same Performance as Electricity

On a level track, electric and steam locomotives are comparable in size, weight, and performance. They can pull similar loads, but a steam train is more sensitive to grades. As such, it cannot pull as much weight up a hill as an electric or a diesel engine could.

How Long Can a Steam Locomotive Run?

An average steam locomotive will run about 20 minutes on a single filling of water, fuel, and oil. Although, you are likely to run out of fuel before the boiler runs out of water. This prevents overheating. Generally, you top off the water tank and boiler every time stop for more coal.

Some steam engines also carry additional water tanks that will fill the boiler while the train runs. These locomotives can run much longer.

railroad growth up challenger
UP Challenger 3985 charges through Colton, Ca in 1994
Craig Walker photo

Are Steam Locomotives Safe?

Steam engines from reputable manufacturers come with high safety standards. However, they do contain steam under pressure that is heated by coal with an open flame. You should take every precaution possible when near them. Luckily, all the required tools and equipment come with the locomotive or are easily suppliable.


A typical steam locomotive requires about 3 to 8 hours to fully start and begin rolling. You can reduce this time by pre-heating the firebox to prevent it from fully cooling off overnight. You can also speed up the start time by using a specific multi-fuel process.


Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

Recent Posts