wikiHow to Drive a Steam Locomotive

Driving a steam engine requires years of practice and apprenticeship. For those who might sit in the engineer's seat of a museum steam engine, and wonder what they actually did to run it, here's what you'd have had to do. In fact, sometimes you can still try this for fun on an engine simulator in railroad/railway museums. Grab the whistle cord, and read on to get her rolling, keep her on the track, and stop when the trip is over.


  1. Image titled Drive a Steam Locomotive Step 1
    Push the reverser/Johnson bar forward - grip the very large lever that rises from near the floor in front or beside you, squeeze the release handle and shove it all the way forward, and let go of the release handle to lock it into place.
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    Open the cylinder cocks - find a medium size valve in front of you on the boiler, or a thin lever on the floor in front of you. Turn the valve all the way clockwise, or pull the lever back.
  3. Image titled Drive a Steam Locomotive Step 3
    Turn the front headlight on - above you on the ceiling, there will be a large, flat, half-round box or on the side of the cab wall . Slide the knob on the round side of the box all the way to front.
  4. Image titled Drive a Steam Locomotive Step 4
    Blow the about-to-move-forward whistle - there will be either a cable, cables or whistle handles, above your head or in front of you on the boiler. Pull down on the cable (or turn the lever) twice to make the steam whistle sound out two short blasts.
  5. Image titled Drive a Steam Locomotive Step 5
    Release the engine brakes - two brass horizontal levers will be near your left hand. The top one must be moved from right to left to release the brakes on the engine.
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    Open the throttle to start the engine moving - the very long lever in front of your face is the throttle. Grip it firmly and give it a yank toward you. As you feel the engine move slightly, shove it back in most of the way, so that it does not gather speed too fast. Gradually open throttle as the locomotive approaches track speed. Observe cylinder cock exhaust and close them when only steam is emitted. Move the Johnson bar slowly back toward vertical, but never too close to vertical. This is like the gear shift of your car and admits less steam per cylinder stroke. In turn, this increases the efficiency of steam usage so you don't over work the poor guy throwing coal into the fire (and to conserve fuel and water!) If the locomotive's wheels slip, close throttle most of the way immediately. Allowing the wheels to slip will not render any tractive effort and will damage the locomotive if done continuously (also "tears" holes in a coal fired locomotive, or in an oil burning locomotive, can cause hollow booms much like an explosion). Blow the whistle and ring bell at all crossings of all types and DO NOT EXCEED TRACK SPEED. That is very dangerous.


  • Visit a railway museum to try this on a simulator. It doesn't go anywhere but you'll probably experience the sounds, you'll get to pull the levers and you might even get vibrations depending on how far the display goes!
  • Try the Nevada Northern Railway for a real experience. You can take a real driving experience of a standard-gauge, live steam locomotive for several hours on a standard-gauge mainline track.
  • Some preservation railways, especially in the United Kingdom, provide special supervised courses during which enthusiasts may learn how to and actually operate a live steam locomotive. Be warned though - these are potentially expensive. This can be quite fun. It's just like real life.
  • These are very basic instructions. You will not be able to run a steam engine without damaging it with only this knowledge. Search for "Engineer Experience" for museums that allow you to run a locomotive under supervision. There are two or three in the US.


  • Severe injury, death and litigation may result in attempting to operate an actual steam locomotive without certification. It is a violation of federal law to operate a locomotive without proper certification on public tracks, and probably a large theft of property, and trespass. Please use these instructions for your imagination, or train simulators.

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Categories: Driving Techniques