The Safety of Steam Locomotives

While they weren’t nearly as dangerous as some of the first steam engines, steam locomotives had problems that offered safety concerns of their own. Steam is incredibly dangerous when put under extreme pressures, and this is a fact that is commonly not realized nowadays. This is because, while people frequently boil water, water is not pressurized very much anymore. While steam locomotives eventually progressed to have safer features, there were definitely mistakes along the way that caused these features to be implemented.

As a steam engine works by essentially heating water to extreme temperatures in order to bring it to high pressures, there are multiple dangers involved. One of the most pressing concerns is that the boiler will explode if the pressure rises too high, so systems had to be put into place to prevent this. On many locomotives, valves were put into place to release steam automatically if the pressure reached a certain level, which prevented explosions because of user negligence. However, boilers could also explode from becoming weak due to the extreme heat. To combat this, water constantly covered the top of the firebox. However, if the water level fell too low, the fire would directly hit the boiler, causing stress. Therefore, water gauges were developed to be put inside the cabin of the locomotive, which would be monitored by the crew. Without these safety mechanisms, boilers would have surely exploded much more frequently, causing harm both to the locomotive itself as well as the people on board.

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