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Why old locomotives had cabs in the back, where visibility was quite poor?

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Posted March 28, 2019

We’ve all seen those old steam locomotives. They look extremely cool, make loud noises and leave a huge cloud of black smoke behind. But one thing is quite strange. Why their cabs are at the rear of the locomotive? No one was concerned about visibility? And what about that smoke coming inside?

The last question is easy to answer. Exhaust systems were always quite tall and blew smoke away from the train. However, smoke was a problem when trains were passing through tunnels – in these occasions smoke would will the cab and send the engineers and firemen to the floor coughing. And you know what they did about that? Well, pretty much nothing. Health and safety in the workplace was still not a thing so these people were just suffering in silence.

Most steam locomotives looked like that, having cab in the back. Image credit: GPS 56 via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Visibility was quite a big problem too. Boiler of the steam locomotive was very long and had many accessories and lives surrounding it. This meant that forward visibility was quite poor. This was a big problem back in the day, because railways were not as well maintained as they are today. Debris, trees and even animals would be frequently on the railroad, only to be pushed away by the pilot, also known as a cowcatcher. So why in the world cab was always in the rear?

Well, the main reason was that the tender (a cargo car full of coal or other fuel) had to be pulled behind the locomotive. This meant that firemen had to work in this gap between the steam engine and the tender. And since this place was prepared for them, drivers were also working from there. However, early in the 20th century cab-forward locomotives began to appear.

Cab-forward locomotive provided better visibility and saved part of the crew from that attack of toxic smoke every time the locomotive passed through a tunnel. However, in a coal-fired locomotive fireman’s station remained on the footplate behind the firebox. Meanwhile on an oil-fired locomotive the entire crew was moved to the front of the locomotive. This provided other advantages as well as better visibility and cleaner air.

Cab-forward locomotives did exist, even though they were quite rare. Image credit: Wikimedia)

Moving the cab forward pushed the boiler back on the platform. This meant that more weight was lying on the driven wheels. This improved traction. Also, because of improved visibility, the locomotive could be controlled a little more precisely. On the other hand, there were some negatives as well.

First of all, in an even of an accident, crews chances of avoiding injuries were slimmer. Secondly, if the driver and the firemen were working separately, their communication was difficult. Finally, this construction was a bit more expensive and was considered to be less attractive. That is why in the beginning of the 20th century this cab-forward configuration was still not quite common.

Nowadays pretty much all locomotives feature cab-forward design. There are no fireboxes anymore and railroads are quite safe. Cab-forward design is superior, because of the improved visibility, which helps avoiding accidents.

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