the cab

The controls in the cab of a steam locomotive can be very simple but as sophistication increases, the cab can become a nightmare of pipes, controls and gauges; all of them very hot!

I shall describe the controls of a basic steam locomotive. There is little standardisation of controls, so a 'generic' description is given.

hand brake

Usually, one will find a column in the cab with a red handle mounted on top. By screwing down the handle, the brakes are applied. The brakes can also be applied by steam. There will be a brake lever in the cab. Progressive braking is effected by the degree of movement of the lever.

sight gauges

Locomotives are usually built with two sight gauges to allow for redundancy. These show the level of water in the boiler through a special glass tube. As the water is under high pressure, this tube is protected by very heavy glass in the event of fracture of the sight glass. Above and below the sight glass are cut off valves which can be deployed in the event of failure of the sight glass.

The rear of the sight glass is fitted with a black and white striped metal sheet. The water in the sight glass reverses the direction of the stripes due to refraction, which makes it much easier to see the level. Some sight glasses may have a red line marked on it which shows the minimum permissible level of water over the boiler crown. This will vary due to the use of steam, but also when the locomotive climbs or descends.

manifold (turret)

All steam needed for equipment and controls is obtained from the manifold. It is situated over the top of the firebox. A large valve is provided to shut of all steam should leakage occur in any of the plumbing. The valve is usually placed so any leakage will burn you when you shut this off!

steam gauges

Another essential item is the steam gauge which is always prominently displayed.  In the UK and the USA, they have been traditionally marked in lbs per square inch. Sadly, more gauges have caught the 'continental disease' and show steam pressure in bars. Sadly, a bar is some bizarre form of foreign pressure measurement rather than a place where one can seek sustenance!

Usually a second gauge is provided which shows the steam pressure in the valve chests. This is very helpful in controlling the locomotive smoothly and efficiently.


One valve will open and shut a flow of steam to the blast pipe. This will draw the fire and is usually used when a locomotive is having its fire made up when stationary.


Two injectors are fitted to locomotives, one either side. There is a a gate valve to open the flow of water from the tank and a valve to inject steam into the injector. Once water is dropping from the injector body, the steam is switched on, and hopefully the water is picked up and pushed into the boiler. Sometimes one has to mess about with the valves until the injector picks up. As soon as cold water enters the boiler, the steam pressure begins to drop.

drain cocks

The drain cocks at the bottom of the cylinders are either operated with a mechanical linkage or by steam pressure. Either way, there is either a lever or control valve in the cab.


This is the large lever mounted at the back of the boiler. It will operate either side to side or push/pull. These are quite stiff as the regulator controls a large valve under boiler pressure. Usually one has to tap or nudge them in order to gently open and close them. Below is a photo of a regulator handle on a GWR locomotive.

reversing lever

This is usually a large lever moving in the direction of travel, held in a notched frame. The centre position is 'stop'. When a loco is started, the lever is moved fully forwards or backwards which gives the greatest amount of steam pressure to the cylinders. As the loco speeds up, the lever can be moved back towards the centre. This increases the cut-off and saves on steam. Larger locomotives may have a large screw rather than a lever.

firebox door

Access to the fire is via a door which generally slides open with a linkage that hopefully is not to hot to operate!

Apart from the whistle chain hanging from the underside of the cab roof, these are all the controls of a basic steam locomotive.

Further controls and gauge appear with vacuum or air brake systems, gravity or steam sanding, electrical generation and steam heating. The list of possible 'extras' is rather long!