Getting up to steam

Group planning new boiler for K4

Joe DeFrancesco listens as Mike Reindl (right) explains how the K4’s outgoing power unit works as they stand in front of the K4 locomotive’s boiler. Mirror photos by Gary M. Baranec and Patrick Waksmunski

Altoona’s century-old K4 locomotive 1361 evokes images of fire, steam and plunging drive shafts, but it’s been 30 years since those kinetics have been a reality.

The great machine remains in pieces at the Railroaders Memorial Museum, 22 years after the launch of a restoration effort that stalled, following a succession of errors, supervisory dismissals, work that needed to be redone, predicted completion dates that were revised repeatedly and talk of settling for a static display.

The biggest obstacle to renewal of combustion and thunder has been something seemingly innocuous: the potential that cautious lawyers and insurance underwriters would flag the old boiler as a liability risk, no matter how carefully it was restored.

A group of railroad aficionados intends to bypass that obstacle, however, by contracting for the design and fabrication of a new boiler, as part of a restoration plan that could have the locomotive traveling the tracks in the foreseeable future, according to group leader Bennett Levin, a retired industrial engineer from Washington Crossing.

The group is awaiting word on the cost of design from a consulting firm that specializes in steam locomotive boilers, after which it could award a contract, following the fulfillment of which would come fabrication bids, fabrication, then reassembly of the locomotive — whose other components are being refurbished by volunteers at the museum’s quarter-roundhouse.

The Levin group considered hiring a firm both to design and build the boiler but decided to separate the functions so as not to forfeit the intellectual property rights for the design, Levin said.

The Levin group did extensive research to get the best engineering talent, while avoiding anyone involved previously with the K4, according to Levin.

Seeking fresh perspective

“We want to start with a fresh piece of paper,” Levin said last week.

The design firm’s principals are three engineers from three U.S. regions — the Midwest, the West and the South, according to Levin.

Those principals were in Altoona on Jan. 25, examining the K4 components and discussing the project, Levin said.

“I drove home (that) Friday night with a singular sense of satisfaction that these people have basically the right qualifications and talent and that they understood exactly what we want to do,” Levin said. “I’m comfortable.”

The firm will design a boiler to meet the standards of both the Federal Railroad Administration and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, although there are areas where the agencies’ regulations contradict, according to Levin.

FRA officials have agreed to be flexible in those areas and to help the firm work out the differences, according to Levin.

“We want to ensure that wherever the locomotive runs, nobody will raise the issue of noncompliance,” Levin said. “So no insurance liability lawyer will be saying, ‘Oh my God, there’s an inherent risk.'”

The old boiler has already been refurbished to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s original standards of a century ago, project officials have said.

But those standards do not meet current safety guidelines.

Federal approval lacking

The FRA has never approved the old boiler for service.

Levin’s group was concerned that no amount of further work on the boiler would set to rest potential liability concerns, given its “old metallurgy.”

Those concerns centered on “fatigue” and other “antique flaw(s),” he said.

He recalled a discussion with a local man who has worked on the K4 in the late 1980s, during an earlier project that involved enough renovation to get the locomotive running to pull excursions — during one of which a main bearing failed, ultimately leading to the current unfinished project.

Checked by ultrasound, the restored boiler was found to be “thin” in places, the man said, according to Levin.

Officials considered the possibility that the FRA would approve it for operation at lower pressure.

But that would mean lower speeds and reduced pulling power.

It would also have provided an opening for liability objections, Bennett said.

It seemed unlikely that workers could “bring the old thing up to snuff to where you could get an insurance company to write you a policy under commercially acceptable terms,” Levin said.

It seemed unwise to spend yet more time, effort and money on something that would be so vulnerable to coming undone, according to Levin.

“Then what did you do it for?” he asked rhetorically.

“There’s good sense” in the plan to build a new one, said Mike Reindl, former pipefitter at Norfolk Southern Railway’s Juniata Locomotive Shop, now gang foreman for the test and emissions building there. He is one of the three volunteers who have been working on the locomotive components at the quarter-roundhouse.

Documentation difficult

There are papers and

X-rays to document what has been done, but there have been so many different workers involved — “so many hands” — that the documentation is “almost too hard to follow,” Reindl said.

Moreover, the old boiler was not the original one installed on the K4 when it was built in Altoona in 1918, Reindl said.

Stamps on the steel indicate that it was actually manufactured in 1923, he said.

Further, there are sections that were replaced even later, he said.

Asked whether it offends his sense of authenticity to install a new boiler on the old machine, Reindl said, “You can’t jeopardize personal safety.”

Levin hopes that once his group gives the go-ahead to the design firm, the engineering drawings would be available in six to nine months.

Fabrication then would be straightforward, although he doesn’t know how long that would take, he said.

By the time fabrication is done, the other components should be ready, he indicated.

Reassembly should also be straight forward, he said.

“Physical work,” he said, “a no-brainer.”

Other work praised

The work that has been done by the volunteers is of “superior quality,” according to the principals of the design firm, who checked out the work when they visited, Levin said.

All three volunteers work at the Juniata shops, including machinists Andy Charlesworth and Tom McKelvey.

They’re professionals — “not railfans,” Levin said.

The volunteers have refurbished or rebuilt the power reverser, the steam generator, the front headlight, the injector brackets, the tender side bearing clearance plates, pickup bars, a distribution valve and the smokebox door, according to Reindl.

“A lot of big ticket items, parts and accessories are already reconditioned” or refabricated, Reindl said.

“We’re in the process of refurbishing both injector starter valves,” he said.

Remaining items to refurbish or fabricate include bracketry, he said.

Group to fund work

Levin declined to estimate the remaining cost of the project.

The members of his group have the wherewithal to write the checks or attract the money for it, he said.

“We’re not going back to the government,” he said. “We’re not going to have that kind of embarrassment (again).” About $3.8 million in government money has been spent in the restoration effort.

When the locomotive is ready to run, the plan is to use it as “an educational tool,” Levin said, declining to elaborate further on that “vision.”

Like Levin, Blair County Historical Society CEO Joe DeFrancesco declined to estimate how long it will take to get the locomotive — the ownership of which will remain with the museum — running again.

“We don’t want to give anybody false hopes,” DeFrancesco said.

But things now aren’t like they were over the past two decades, DeFrancesco said.

“This is a whole different situation,” he said.

Ultimately, restoring the K4 means more than just getting a steam engine operating again, said Reindl, a fifth-generation railroad worker.

“To me, it’s about the people, the time and the place,” he said. “The railroad is Altoona, and Altoona is the railroad.”

The K4 story is a long saga, said Jared Frederick, local historian and former Historical Society board president.

But he’ll be pleased to see it running again, old boiler or new, he said.

“It’s really a gem,” he stated.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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