Taking Water on the Fly

Steam locomotives had a great thrust for water. In the early days of the railroading when schedules were more casual and division points were smaller, frequent stops for water posed no great problem. But when speed became paramount and runs became longer, frequent stops for water became problematic, especially when intense competition existed between two railroads. The solution was to devise a method for moving trains to take water at speed.

In 1860 the London  & North Western Railway developed the first water trough (British terminology), or track pan – sometimes called track tanks – (American terminology), a device to enable a steam locomotive to replenish its water supply while in motion. It was a long trough filled with water, lying between the rails. When a steam locomotive passed over the trough, a water scoop was lowered, and the speed of forward motion forced water into the scoop, up the scoop pipe and into the tanks, cistern or locomotive tender.

The first US railroad to embrace that technology was the New York Central (NYC) at Montrose, NY in 1870. The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) followed in 1872. The track pans were about a quarter of a mile long and 6 or 7 inches deep, from which water was taken at a speed of about 35 to 45 M.P.H. To prevent the water from freezing in the winter steam was piped in at 40- or 50-foot Intervals. The reason for their development and use was the saving of time as described by the PRR in 1875:

“Heretofore, much time has been lost by frequent stoppage necessary to fill the water tank; and, in consequence, express trains had to acquire an extremely high rate of speed between stations to make up for the logs. As now arranged, but two stoppages are necessary between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, at Harrisburg, after a run of after a run of 105 miles and Altoona after a run of 132 miles leaving a run of 117 miles to Pittsburgh. Through passenger trains are made up of weight suited to the capacity of the locomotive with nearly constant speed enroute”.

By 1919 PRR installed track pans on following divisions: New York, Trenton, Philadelphia, Middle, Maryland, Pittsburgh and Atlantic but oddly, not system-wide.

Despite the stated benefits, most US railroads did not follow the NYC or PRR examples and only the New Haven (briefly) and the B&O-Reading-New Jersey Central “Royal Blue Line” were so equipped. NYC, the prime competitor of the PRR, utilized tracks more consistently and intelligently covering the mainline between Harmon, NY and Chicago. The “Royal Blue Line” trains competed with the PRR between Washington and New York and accordingly the fastest service was required. The Milwaukee Road had one short-lived experiment with track tanks but elected not to embrace the concept.

It took skill for the locomotive fireman to “take water on the fly”. The fireman would watch for a disk and a marker light and that was the signal to lower the scoop. In the early days, the scoop itself was activated by a gear and chain. Later, air was used to power the scoop. At the end of the track tank another disk and marker light were installed as well as an inclined plane to make certain the scoop would raise by the end of the tank. A safety lock on the tender prevented the scoop from dropping and getting caught on crossing planks or cattle guards.

Expense and the need to cost justify track pans was the drawback that prevented wide spread applications. In addition to the pans other requirements included: traditional standpipes (for freight trains that did not scoop water), Belgian block beneath the roadbed for drainage (as opposed to traditional ballast), one or two water towers were needed to ensure an adequate reservoir of water and those were in turn refilled by tapping a nearby stream. A stationery boiler and pumphouse were also required to maintain water pressure and to prevent the pipes from freezing in winter.   Finally, an operator was needed 24/7 at each installation. In addition to maintaining the boiler pressure and the pump, the operator also was required to remove debris from the track pan to prevent such material from being scooped up into the tender cistern where it could eventually clog the water line between the locomotive and tender.

The Cyclopedia of Civil Engineering, published in 1917, states that “track pans must be constructed on tangent, level track” but the PRR designed several on curves with super elevation. Of those, the curved track pan at Radnor, PA was most frequently photographed. Track pans were comparatively expensive to build and operate compared to simple water towers and standpipes.  A World War I estimate was $10,000 to $12,000 to construct those facilities and annual operating expenses of $1,500 to $2,000, excluding salaries.

NYC is credited with scooping water at the highest speeds, in the range of 45 to 50 MPH due to advanced piping-pressure release drains that were on each side of the large. PT tender designs of the 1940s that also featured a larger coal compartment (since water could be scooped as needed).

Dieselization spelled the end of the track pans. B&O-Reading-New Jersey Central were the first to deactivate those facilities in 1953 and the NYC followed in 1955. PRR deactivated their last installation by 1957 thus closing a unique part of the age of steam.

Seldom modeled (at least in appearance if not functionally), track pans offer challenge and could elevate the accuracy of modeling a prototype operation in either the steam era or transition era of 1945-1955. To support such a model, we offer several water towers, standpipes and utility buildings that could represent a pumphouse. No matter, please review our current inventory of locomotives, rolling stock and supporting structures, all made viable with our Rewards Program and for a Limited Time, flat-rate shipping.

FAW, MBK, Inc.