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Bertan > Bertan 10 Gipuzkoako trenak > Ingeles bertsioa: The steam engine

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The steam engine

72. An Echeverria switch engine.
72. An Echeverria switch engine.

Since its appearance in 1830, until half-way through the 20 th century, the steam engine was the unquestionable king of railway traction. During its long reign, its technical evolution was limited, since, although machines were increasingly more powerful, fast and heavy, the basic principles established by George Stephenson on his Rocket had not changed. In 1830, the Rocket had won the competition organised by the Liverpool to Manchester line, the first in the world to be exclusively served by steam engines.

The heart of the steam engine is its boiler, which, by burning coal, although other material can also be used such as wood and petrol (in Brazil, for example, they even burned coffe and in Cuba they still use sugar cane), heats the water until it turns into steam. The expansive strength of the steam activates the cylinders which, in turn, propel the wheels by means of connecting rods and handles. The steam engine is completed with the corresponding water and coal tanks, known as tenders, and all the accessories necessary for their service.

73. The Aurrera engine coal bunker.
73. The Aurrera engine coal bunker.

The energetic output of the steam engine was extremely small, benefitting from barely 8% of the calorific strength produced by the consumed fuel, meaning that more than one authority was led to qualifying them as extravagant consumers of coal. Their diesel or electric sisters are much more efficient, although steam engines were much easier to maintain, given their great simplicity, a factor which ensured their survival in Europe until the seventies. In 1983 a few steam engines of this kind were still running in the installations of Altos Hornos de Vizaya in Sestao. Today we can still find several cases of working trains in countries like China, India or South Africa, where coal is abundant and labour is cheap.

Inseparable from the steam engine was the so-called "couple" formed by the engine driver and the stoker, whose lives were closely linked to the machine, since each couple had its own engine. When they were both resting, the train was removed from the shed, and, when they were both on holiday, the train was given a rejuvenation treatment in the main workshops. It was therefore normal for many engine drivers, together with their families, to spend their holidays in Valladolid; not because the Castilian capital offers touristic attractions, but because it is where the General workshops of the Northern Railway Company were located.

74. An engine in Amara station.
74. An engine in Amara station.
76. The Placido Allende engine, from the Vascongados Railways.
76. The Placido Allende engine, from the Vascongados Railways.

The work of the engine driver, and especially of the stoker, was hard and laborious. The working day could last for twelve, fourteen, or more hours, depending on the service. During this time, the stoker had to constantly feed the insatiable furnace of the machine, which could consume more then ten tons of coal in one day, provided the fuel was of good quality since, to the contrary, the work became more complicated as the fire had to be poked constantly. Nor did they get the chance to rest, since at each stop they had to take on water, oil the wheels and connecting rods and polish the metal on the engine.

75. A railway clock decorated with an engine.
75. A railway clock decorated with an engine.

It can be said that the "couple" lived with its engine. They were often obliged to eat en route , and soon the inventiveness of the railwaymen discovered new ways of cooking. After cleaning the stoker's shovel, they would make it into a makeshift frying pan on which they would fry eggs and spicy sausage over the heat of the furnace. More sophisticated were the so-called railway "stewpots", double-sided metal pots which they would heat with the steam of the boiler. This system was ideal for preparing all kinds of stews and, according to the engine drivers, the jolting of the engine is the best system for thickening any sauce. This "stewpot" tradition can still be found in places with deep railway roots such as Balmaseda, Mataporquera or Cistierna, ancient neuralgic centres for the La Robla railway, where amusing gastronomic competitions are organised each year with the recipes used by the ancient railwaymen.

78. A stoker.
78. A stoker.

Steam engines were never good climbers, and the tendency of their wheels to slip at the slightest difficulty was notorious. Stretches such as the ramp between Beasain and Otzaurte obliged them to use double traction (two engines at the head of the train), and add a third engine at the back. Sometimes the engines would slip inside one of the long tunnels along the way, making the engine drivers lose their sense of direction in the dark and thick smoke. When this happened, they would touch the walls of the tunnel with the shovel or a brush to make sure that the train was still making its difficult way forward or, to the contrary, that it was slipping backwars. More than once, engine drivers and stokers suffered symptoms of asphyxia in this closed and unbreathable, and mainly those responsible for the engine at the tail, who were affected by the smoke from three engines.

The electrification of this line in 1929, meant a greater revolution for the engine drivers than that brought about today with High-Speed trains. It did away not only with smoke and dirtiness, but also with the hard living conditions of working with steam. In 1956, with the disappearance of the Bidassoa Railway, Gipuzkoa saw the disappearance of the last railway line served by steam engines, although some were still kept running until the seventies in order to carry out manoeuvres in the stations of Irún, Donostia and Zumárraga.

77. The Irún engine shed.
77. The Irún engine shed.
79. Engines from the Vasco-Navarro Railway.
79. Engines from the Vasco-Navarro Railway.

But the steam era has not disappeared forever. Today it is still possible to relive this period in the Museum of Basque Railways in Azpeitia, where hundred-year-old steam engines are kept in perfect running condition.

80. The identification of an engine.
80. The identification of an engine.
81. The Zugastieta steam engine, the oldest still working in the state. 108 years of history now housed in the Basque Railway Museum.
81. The Zugastieta steam engine, the oldest still working in the state. 108 years of history now housed in the Basque Railway Museum.
82. A steam engine during manoeuvres in Pasajes.
82. A steam engine during manoeuvres in Pasajes.
84. A freight car belonging to the Northern Railway Company.
84. A freight car belonging to the Northern Railway Company.
83. The identification plaques of steam engines.
83. The identification plaques of steam engines.
85. The Zorroza steam engine, constructed in 1896.
85. The Zorroza steam engine, constructed in 1896.
86. An engine for the switching service in Irún station.
86. An engine for the switching service in Irún station.
87. A stoker's shovel.
87. A stoker's shovel.
88. A railway cooking pot.
88. A railway cooking pot.
89. The Zugastieta steam engine, constructed in Manchester in 1889.
89. The Zugastieta steam engine, constructed in Manchester in 1889.
90. Lights from steam engines.
90. Lights from steam engines.
91. The Mikado steam engine changing directions on the revolving bridge.
91. The Mikado steam engine changing directions on the revolving bridge.
92. A poorly preserved engine kept as a monument in Oñati.
92. A poorly preserved engine kept as a monument in Oñati.
93. A water tower for steam engines, now housed in working condition at the Basque Railway Museum.
93. A water tower for steam engines, now housed in working condition at the Basque Railway Museum.
94. A special steam engine. Voyage in commemoration of the centenary of the Euskotrenbideak line running from Zarautz to Donostia.
94. A special steam engine. Voyage in commemoration of the centenary of the Euskotrenbideak line running from Zarautz to Donostia.
95. Many steam engines were baptised for different reasons.
95. Many steam engines were baptised for different reasons.
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