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Background Information for Trains

Background Information for Trains

Below you will find some commonly asked questions about steam trains.

What is a steam train?

The TRAIN is the locomotive and all the cars connected to it. The STEAM LOCOMOTIVE and TENDER pull all the rail cars on the train.

Steam Train

The TENDER is smaller than the boxcar. It carries coal and water. The BOXCAR carries boxes of toys, furniture and other materials.

The CABOOSE was usually at the end of a freight train. It carried the men who worked on the train. It had places for them to sleep and eat. Trains no longer use cabooses. The crew stayed in a place in a town where the train stopped.

The caboose
Ken Houghton Rail Images

All the cars in the middle are for carrying cargo - a load of things that people want moved.

The FLATCAR carries big construction equipment, or lumber. The TANKER carries oil to gas stations.

People travel from one place to another in the PASSENGER CAR. If a train does not have any passenger cars, it is a FREIGHT train.

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What part of the train makes it move?

The locomotive is usually at the front of the train - the first car on the train. The locomotive is the part of the train that produces the power to make the train move. Modern locomotives use electricity and diesel fuel for power. Older locomotives used steam for power and were called steam locomotives.

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What is a steam locomotive?

Steam makes the steam locomotive move. Steam comes from water. Have you ever seen steam come out of the kettle when someone is boiling water in the kitchen? It looks like smoke but it is not. It is steam. Smoke comes from a fire.

Inside the steam locomotive there is water and a fire to heat the water to make the steam. When the steam locomotive is moving there is a great amount of steam (and also smoke) coming out of the stack. Steam under pressure provides the power to make the wheels go round. It is like the air in a balloon. Air in a balloon can move something.

Steam locomotive

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What are the parts of a steam locomotive?

Driving wheels - the large steel wheels attached to the engine

Cab - the place where the engineer rides and operates the locomotive

Boiler - where water is turned into steam by hot gases from the firebox

Steam dome - located at the top of the boiler, it holds the steam

Firebox - place for the fire in a steam locomotive

Smokestack - place where steam and smoke leave the steam locomotive

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What makes the locomotive wheels turn?

Valves admit steam alternately to each end of the cylinders. The steam acts on the pistons within the cylinders and forces them back and forth. Each piston has a rod fastened to it. This rod passes through the back of the cylinder, where it is supported by a crosshead and guide. Attached to the crosshead is one end of the main piston rod. The other end of the rod is free to revolve around the crankpin on one of the driving wheels.

Wheels of a locomotive

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What is a railway track?

The track consists of two iron rails and wooden ties between the rails. The rail is held in place with a round spike. A bed of gravel holds the wooden ties.

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Why does a locomotive stay on the rail?

The wheel has a lip so it won't fall off the rail.

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How does a steam locomotive work?

Fire is produced in the firebox which burns wood, coal or oil. Hot gases released by the combustion enter tubes in the boiler. The water in the boiler is heated at the hottest location, on and around the firebox, and produces steam. The steam pressure builds in the boiler as the water expands and is then released into the cylinders to move the pistons. The back-and-forth movement of the pistons moves the rods that turn the wheels. The exhaust steam from the cylinders goes up the blast pipe and joins with the smoke from the fire to go up the smokestack. That is when we see the big puff, and hear the swhooooosh.

What happens inside the steam boiler.


How the locomotive moves.


  1. Steam Chest
  2. Piston Rod
  3. Cylinder
  4. Piston

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Who makes the train go?

The steam locomotive would just sit if it were not for people.

The train is stopped (and nothing is coming out of the smokestack) while some of these tasks are done. Other tasks are done while the locomotive is moving.

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What tasks do the train crew perform?


  • puts coal in the firebox, makes the fire and keeps it going
  • checks and fills boiler with water.


  • operates controls (throttle, lever, whistle).


  • polishes and cleans headlight.
  • oil the wheels (oiler).


  • keeps records, makes sure jobs are done, is the boss of the train.


  • looks for trouble on the track while riding in the caboose.
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