Toy Trains or Real-Life Locomotives Power-Up for the Holidays

OMAHA, Neb. — As the holiday season begins to rev up, so do millions of toy train sets circling just as many Christmas trees. Whether they’re cherished hand-me-downs or just-opened gifts, the miniature trains take make-believe freight and passengers for rides extending as far as their engineers’ imaginations.

As the "engineer" on your toy railroad, have you ever wondered what it would be like sitting in the cab of a 200-ton real-life locomotive? What it would be like to push the throttle forward and hear the powerful engine strain to pull a hundred rail cars down the track? Have you ever wondered how that locomotive works?

Toy trains and modern locomotives both need electricity to operate. For a toy train, it is as simple as plugging a transformer into an electric outlet and moving the "throttle" to supply electricity to the motor.

Powering a diesel-electric locomotive motor is a bit more complicated. Behind the engineer’s cab is a 16-cylinder engine, as big as a mini-van, which burns diesel fuel. The locomotive engine produces up to 6,000 horsepower, enough to pull up to 6,000 tons of freight.

A shaft connects the engine to an electric generator, the size of a compact car. When the engine is running, the shaft turns the inner workings of the generator, creating electricity. The electricity moves through wires to electric motors driving the locomotive’s axles and wheels.

Smaller locomotives that switch rail cars from one track to another in rail yards have four electric motors, while larger, high-speed locomotives used to pull freight trains from one city to the next have six.

Like the transformer connected to the track on a toy train set, the engineer’s throttle has positions — eight of them, with the last being "wide open," or top speed. Each position runs the diesel engine faster, which turns the electric generator more quickly and provides additional electricity to the motors. The more electricity fed to the motors, the faster the locomotive goes.

Also like a toy train transformer, a lever, or switch, determines the locomotive’s direction. Located in the engineer’s cab, the lever’s three positions are forward, neutral and reverse.

Union Pacific Railroad’s fleet of 7,800 locomotives, daily moves thousands of freight cars in rail yards and more than 2,500 trains across the company’s 33,000-mile rail network. Just a couple of locomotives can pull more than 100 rail cars, filled with clothing, computers, lumber for homes, parts for automobiles and grain for bread.

Union Pacific has ordered 315 diesel-electric locomotives for 2005 delivery that are designed to significantly decrease air emissions and meet tougher emission standards. Currently, about 35 percent of UP’s fleet is certified under existing regulations which govern air emissions. That gives Union Pacific the most environmentally friendly locomotive fleet in the nation.

So, whether it is several 200-ton locomotives pulling thousands of tons of consumer goods or a toy train locomotive pulling several toy railcars under a Christmas tree — the locomotives are powered by electricity feeding electric motors.

— PRNewswire-First Call