Here’s a treat for steam train enthusiasts

Reader M. J. sent me the link to this video, showing a very old steam locomotive on the Devil’s Nose route to Alausi in Equador.

I found it particularly interesting because the rail line uses the old technique of switchback construction.  The line ascends in one direction across a slope, ending in a set of points, followed by a siding and a buffer.  The line then continues up the slope in the other direction, again ending in points, a siding and a buffer, repeating the process as often as is necessary to climb the slope.  The train goes up one arm, stops on the siding while the points are switched, then goes up the next arm, and so on.   This avoids the necessity to incorporate turns on a slope that has no space (or is too steep) to accommodate them.  It’s no longer much used, because modern railway constructors prefer to use tunnels to get through such obstacles.  There are very few places in the world where it can still be seen;  the Devil’s Nose is one of them.

There’s also an amusing encounter with an even older form of transportation at about the 6 minute mark.  Watch the video in full-screen mode for best results.

I understand this railway line was rebuilt after the video was taken in 2007, and has been modernized.  In some ways, I’m sorry to hear that.  I’ve covered many thousands of miles on African railways not unlike the one shown above, on less steep slopes, to be sure, but just as rattletrap.  It’s something fewer and fewer people will experience as the old steam engines are phased out, and diesels take their place.  I’m glad I had the opportunity to enjoy it – and I did enjoy it.  It was like riding a piece of history.  I can still smell the steam and smoke in my nostrils, swirling into the passenger compartment in choking clouds through the open windows as the train entered a tunnel, and the feel of bits of cinder and ash settling on my face and in my hair.  When you took a bath after getting to your destination, you left a tidemark of ash and grit around the edge of the tub.  Your clothes reeked of smoke for days afterwards, no matter how carefully you washed them.



  1. If you ever make it to West Virginia, Cass Scenic Railroad uses both switch back and steam engines, even better, they're Shays.

  2. Pennsylvania and Colorado also offer great opportunities for steam enthusiasts. In PA, the Strasburg Railroad offers short excursions and Steamtown NHS is amazing, though you may have to schedule carefully to catch a longer steam excursion; there used to be steam on the East Broad Top, when that was functional. In CO, there are at least 3 (three!) steam operators: Cumbres & Toltec, Durango & Silverton, and the Georgetown Loop. Also, in Illinois, the Illinois Railway Museum offers the occasional steam train on their demonstration railroad. The Colorado lines all offer amazing scenery, though I've only personally ridden on the Georgetown Loop; IRM and the PA lines were good.

  3. There is a model steam engine that operates in Eau Claire, WI. I never got the chance to ride the train, but I got to see the engine being readied for a trip and I got a lecture from the engineer about how the engine actually works.

    I like steam engines, and I often wish that I was born in another era. Thanks for posting this excellent video.

  4. I (and thousands of others) had the 'privilege' of being hauled to various training areas in Germany behind steam locomotives in the 1970's. We'd ride behind electrics until we got away from the main lines, then they'd hitch us up to steam engines.

    quite the experience, added to all the other 'experiences' that Uncle Sam let me enjoy while string down the Commie Hordes.


  5. Most enjoyable. That was certainly the "little engine that could".

    For you train buffs, visit my website for a bit of Rocky Mountain Railroading, old RR postcards, Autocad prints of quite a few old D&RG locomotives and rolling stock, old English steamers, old-time stations, and lots of other stuff. nothing to buy or decide, just my long-time hobby put on the net.

  6. I was on that train shortly after Christmas Day, 2008. The only "modernization" I note between the video and what I remember is that they had put seating on top of the car where you can see the tourists – the seats were legless, so you still sat with your legs extended, but there was a line of seats facing outward both ways from the centerline.

    We actually started from Alausi and rode down, and off to the left of the Sibambe station (as you come down the Nose) is a three-point turnaround. We were stuck there for a while as the men in our tour group had to help clear a rock fall from the tracks. After that, we could return to Alausi.

    I remember buying a very bright tablecloth from a young woman in the Alaousi station.

  7. I read somewhen that diesel engines needed to be doubled up to pull the same load as a steam engine in some of the lumpier parts of South America.

  8. Amusing note – I was watching this video last night on my iPad.

    My wife came into the room, listened for a moment, and asked me why I was listening to Chinese Opera. (She likes it, but to my non-Chinese-speaking ear, it's random noise)

    I showed her the video and she laughed. But I'm going to remind her of this the next time she criticizes my taste in music.

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