Both Locomotives

Tech specialist has secret train life


Fee, fie, fiddly-i-o, our district-wide information technology specialist has been workin’ on the old railroad. Mr. Rick Zorko has a mix of the best of both worlds, by day he works for PLC Schools, and by weekend and summer, a volunteer train engineer.

RickWEBWhen people hear ‘train engineer’ they probably are not sure what to think. With steam engines being a less-than-mainstream form of transportation, not many people are very familiar with trains.

The engineer ensures there is enough oil and water to create plenty of steam for the train to operate, but at the same time make sure there is not too much. Zorko describes running a steam engine as “a balancing act between fire, water, and oil. You don’t want to have any extremes.”

The train engineer works in the ‘engine room’ of the train, referred to as the “cab”. When asked to describe it, Zorko boiled it down to “hot, greasy and dirty.” The cab is small and contains the back of the firebox (which is exactly as it sounds, there is a door which, if opened, would show the fire).

Serving as an engineer is no small feat. “In the morning, we put oil on at least 50 different places as a number of devices require oil. We check for loose bolts, and we have to refill the sand dome. We use sand for traction, if it is slippery, we put sand on the tracks. If anything needs to be fixed, it needs to be fixed right then,” Zorko said. “We fill fuel, refill the water tank so there’s enough water for steam, which we refill three to four times a day, we will also oil those 50 spots again. Everything you do on a steam engine uses stuff up, refilling is a huge part of the job. We have to listen to the engine and ensure all runs smoothly.”

A smooth ride can be difficult to achieve. Zorko affectionately refers to the engine he most commonly works with as “a cantankerous old beast.” This particular engine is called “No. 395-104” and was built in 1890. No. 395-104 was acquired in 1974 when the zoo increased the size of the railroad in response to rising attendance.

Zorko pinpoints his interest in trains as having started when he was young and visiting his grandmother’s farm. “There was one train on the north and one west. My brother and I would watch trains go by and were always just trying to learn more about them,” Zorko said. “For me I was fascinated by the noises, the whistle, the chuff-chuff noises. I wanted to know how it worked. What still interests me is the noises, I just like them.”

According to Zorko, every day is pretty much a good day to ride the train. Things run especially well “when weather is good and we have no problems, we run the passengers, every trip goes well, and the engine runs smoothly.”

Bad days running the train include “when it is god-awful hot and the engine is not running quite well. There isn’t enough steam when you need it,” Zorko said. He adds that “the people are always fine, they are just happy to ride the train.”