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By F.H. Howard

Copyright Kalmbach Publishing reprinted with permission.

The section gang has no timetable for washouts. In a roundhouse it's routine - once every 30 days for the occupant of each stall.

WASHOUT, to those who keep the high iron high and dry, means that Nature has decided otherwise: she has withdrawn the support from a piece of track - maybe the track to - by undermining it, and so brutally has created an operating emergency.

To another group manning the roundhouse, washout signifies the monthly treatment of a steam locomotive boiler - ordained by the Government and the railroad jointly, and quite a routine affair. Each engine is attended to in turn, usually according to a roster chalked on a blackboard.

It's the appointed day for 1478. So instead of her fire's being cleaned at the ashpit, it's dumped. She'll have enough steam left to propel herself over the washout pit - with stack under the smokejack but drivers spotted for easy removal of her crosshead pin, since she'll be in for several hours and there'll be a good chance to do some rod work.

Just before the hostler forsakes the cab he opens both injectors and leaves them to suicide: the more water they put in, the more the steam's diluted, until eventually there isn't enough to lift any water and they die. So the boiler is almost full, and the needle rests idle against the pin.

A boilermaker breaks loose the tender hose bag and turns shop water up the feed pipe into the boiler. He cracks the throttle and hangs weights over the steam chest relief valves to keep them open. So a coolant is circulated around the tubes and through the dry pipe and down out the relief valves and cylinder cocks, all over the roundhouse floor. Because it's easier on the staybolts if the temperature changes slowly, the mechanical authorities would like this cooling process to drag out over a whole shift: the operating people would prefer, naturally, to see it accomplished in 20 minutes. A compromise is a couple of hours, after which 1478, betimes a long-stemmed high-drivered beauty, is left crouching over a pit, water streaming out around her front end, like a slumming dowager heaving herself up out of some skid-row gutter. And her smokebox door hangs open, with headlight peering sideways through the fog with a wall-eyed Cyclopean stare.

The washout men begin what they have to do: turn off the water, open all the washout plugs, drain the boiler, all over the roundhouse floor. With the tools of their trade, they hoe out the scale, mud and general corruption. What doesn't get manhandled out gets washed out with whatever purgative their employer prescribes. A mechanic arrives, surveys the swamp surrounding those rods that need rebrassing, and recollects more urgent business elsewhere. Another crew, assigned to white-lead the drawbar, sloshes about the pit, solaced by some Stygian philosophy of their own.

When the work is finished - the last plug tightened, the water glass renewed, the try cock passages certified clear by the foreman, and the I.C.C. card duly hung up - 1948 is lighted up and by the application of heat to her fresh-filled boiler starts to regain her poise. Most of her wet spots dry up over the several hours it takes to raise steam. Her cylinder cocks stay open, and her relief valves too - because water trapped in pipes turns to vapor that can move an engine through a roundhouse wall, even on dead center.

1478 is going to cover her regular assignment, and it's time to put her out. The turntable is lined up, and the hostler appears, the first man today to pay her the kind of attention she craves. But before the evening's festivities begin, she must clear her throat. So with her air pumped up and her brakes applied, she has her throttle cracked by the hostler and he horses her over a few times. With so much water around there may still be a little left behind the piston. So amid blasting clouds of steam this last, potentially fatal fluid is dribbled out. All over the roundhouse floor.

The only notice paid to this washout is a report to the Government and a chalk mark on the blackboard.

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