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I found an interesting tourist place I'd like to visit that runs half a dozen old steam trains. It is in the USA.

I know from studying history of railroads, that boiler explosions once were a common problem, and could be dangerous, as they threw pieces of the metal engine quite far. Compound upon this most of the trains they are running are now 120 years, it seems the danger would be increased.

Is the danger of a boiler exploding on a steam train still a reality?

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    It's precisely because of the history that boilers of all sizes are now subject to strict regulation and rigorous inspection. Go, enjoy the ride! Apr 29 at 4:35
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    It's a tourist attraction, they will not run it close to maximum pressure; but theoretically, the probability that it will not explode is not zero.
    – Max
    Apr 29 at 12:11
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    Driving with a car to the railroad poses a far higher risk than the train ride itself. Exploding boilers are bad for business so the operators are checking/maintaining them carefully and since it's tourist ride there is no reason to go anywhere near max pressure. In contrast, car accidents are commonplace and ignored by the media.
    – Hilmar
    Apr 29 at 13:11
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    I'd think the bigger danger now would be the coal smoke from the engine. Might not kill you as quickly as an exploding boiler, but it's definitely not the healthiest thing to be breathing in. For tourists on a one-time visit, probably no big deal, but I worry a bit about the people who operate these things full-time... Apr 29 at 15:17
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    @user25730 - well, at least ~10 years ago when I was at Disney World, the 'steam' locomotive I rode behind was powered by a diesel engine.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 30 at 19:21
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I can't really comment on many specifics for the US, but I can comment in general on a few points of concern with heritage trains:

Crashworthiness

I don't know about the specific regulations in the US, and I haven't been able to find anything specific, but certainly globally most heritage/preserved/museum railways would generally be running at reduced speeds for safety. If it's not required by legislation I tend to find it ends up being the case anyway thanks to common sense and/or risk assessments (I've been on a couple of heritage railroads in the US and they're definitely not fast). So this mitigates the generally lower crashworthiness standards of the rolling stock.

Maintenance of carriages

Maintenance of rolling stock can sometimes be a concern, I'm not going to lie. Over here in the UK we had a terrifying incident recently where a toilet was missing its floor, was supposed to have been locked out of use but the door wasn't secured very well, and a kid managed to narrowly avoid falling. But this sort of thing is the exception rather than the rule. In the UK this problem of maintenance has been recognised recently and new standards have been put in place for the most common type of preserved passenger coach. In the US as far as I can make out the same standards are in place for heritage railroads as for major railroads; there appears to be little legal distinction between the two.

Maintenance of infrastructure

This is generally not a problem. Most heritage railways I've visited have well-maintained track, and derailments are made much less likely and their consequences much less severe by the limited speeds.

Method of working

Generally a heritage railway will use a traditional method of working that has many decades of improvement and safety refinement behind it; the sort of thing that would have still been used on many "big" railways 40 or 50 years ago, and might even still be in use on small lines today. These methods of working were generally taken out of use because they're more staff-intensive rather than because they're inherently unsafe. In the UK this often means absolute block or electric token block operation with semaphore signalling; in the US I believe this would generally be track warrants or (for an authentic retro experience) train order operation. While some of the more cutting-edge safety systems like PTC in the US or TPWS in the UK will be lacking, bear in mind that these generally have only come in in the last couple of decades, and that again the low speeds would tend to mitigate their absence.

Boiler maintenance

Boilers are heavily regulated for exactly the reasons you are concerned about. As has been mentioned in Mark's answer, the US requires steam locomotives to undergo extensive inspections every four years (specifically 1472 days). See this information on the subject if you're interested. Briefer more frequent inspections are also required. A similar rule applies in the UK. Thanks to this you really shouldn't have to worry about boiler explosions on steam locomotives as a passenger.

Conclusion

You can see that most areas of concern have been mitigated to a reasonable extent, and it's for this reason that serious incidents (at least involving passengers) on heritage railways are rare. I suspect the old cliché is true, that you're in more danger driving to the heritage railway than you are riding on it.

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  • Heritage railways quite often use token operation. But this can be very safe if done properly, which it should be given the unhurried approach taken by heritage railways (cheating the system led to accidents in the past, nearly always with time pressure as a major factor). Most heritage trains run in conditions of good visibility, (as well as slowly) again reducing risks of antiquated signalling systems. Apr 29 at 12:39
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    @ChrisH Ah yes, not sure why I didn't mention ETB. Fixed!
    – Muzer
    Apr 29 at 12:43
  • @ChrisH Worth pointing out that I believe there has only ever been one serious crash under an ETB system in the UK and this was back in the 1920s, when pretty much all the procedures were ignored and half the staff members were untrained. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abermule_train_collision
    – Muzer
    Apr 29 at 12:49
  • I'd read of a few crashes on pre-electric token systems, and recall a rather theatrical handing over of a baton token at a station, though I can't recall which line (heritage railway drivers are often very enthusiastic after all). Old rail crashes are instructive for those of us who have to think about safety systems and procedures - they're a nice clear mechanical illustration of things that can go wrong, with an element of drama, but historically removed from more modern disasters Apr 29 at 13:10
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    Bear in mind that most (but probably not all) excursion trains in the US are A) run on dedicated lines not used for any other service, and B) are usually run as a single train at a time. It's reasonably rare for excursion train companies to have more than one functional locomotive at a time, so the chances of there being a train-train collision on the dedicated lines are, by definition, zero, no matter what scheduling method they use. Can't run into another train if there isn't one.
    – FreeMan
    Apr 29 at 14:34
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Boiler explosions - even in older devices/industry/locomotives - have dramatically reduced over time, in part due to new safety developments and inspections.

It's been over 25 years since the last one in a locomotive: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_boiler_explosions

Based on that, yes, it can happen, but it's incredibly rare and can be about as objective as you get calling it "Safe".

Enjoy it!

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    Most heritage steam engines are no longer on their original boilers anyway, and their boilers need to be certified. In fact, a locomotive failing a boiler inspection is a common cause for preservation groups starting another funding drive... Apr 29 at 5:36
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    The raw number of explosions would be expected to decrease simply because steam engines are replaced by other technologies. I can believe safety has increased but the mere fact there hasn't been one recently in a locomotive doesn't seem very informative.
    – Relaxed
    Apr 29 at 8:32
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    @Relaxed The asker doesn't mention the place they want to visit. If it has been operational and running 6 trains for at least 25 years without incident, I think this post is highly informative. If it happens to be the place that had an explosion in 1995, then no passengers were injured which would be even more informative as to the safety in regards to the boiler. In the US you have to go back to 1953 to find another locomotive boiler explosion which was a locomotive with 125 cars of cargo. Zero passenger injuries in over 70 years due to boiler explosions is a pretty good safety record. Apr 29 at 14:25
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    Even the 1995 incident wasn't a boiler explosion, in which all of the steam pressure is released at once, endangering anyone and anything in the vicinity. In the 1995 incident, the crown sheet failed which resulted in a large amount of steam being vented to the cab. This was severely injurious to the people therein, but neither injured nor endangered people elsewhere on the train.
    – supercat
    Apr 29 at 17:18
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    @JasonGoemaat Not sure I completely follow what you are saying but 6 trains a day is almost nothing. If they operate four services a day, every day of the year, in 25 years, that would still be fewer services than a month for the NY subway system. Whether passengers die or not, we wouldn't consider a train exploding every month a pretty good safety record. That's why you need to consider the total number of passenger-miles or trains being operated. Zero passenger injuries is not good or bad, it's meaningless if you don't factor in the context and it certainly doesn't show safety is improving.
    – Relaxed
    Apr 29 at 21:09
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+500

SAFE - because of a wave of new Federal regulations

In 1999 the Federal Railroad Administration massively rewrote the steam locomotive rules (49 CFR 230). For instance:

Historically, every time a new boiler was designed, the builder had to file a document called "Form No. 4". This documented every aspect of boiler design, and its safe operating pressures. Many locomotives would use that boiler design, and they all relied on the draftsman's Form No. 4. In heritage service, there was never a need for this form, because all locomotives had valid Form 4's at time of initial construction. After 1999, every steam locomotive required a BRAND NEW "Form No. 4" be developed based on that one locomotive's actual material condition.

This was a deal-killer for many operations, either because of the cost of the survey, or the cost of repairs.

As an example, a survey of Pennsylvania Railroad #1361's material condition found a design defect: a crown sheet inadvertently built near condemning limits the day it rolled out of the factory in 1918. What a piccadillo! The museum could either de-rate the engine, leaving it able to do little more than limp down a branch line dragging a few cars (not financially sustainable)... or engineer a new boiler with the faults corrected, so it could once again run mainline excursions. (the only viable business model for it). Museums prefer to respect historic fabric; most boilers are originals.

The upshot of these regulations is that the number of steam locomotive operators plummeted: from 100 prior to the rulemaking, to a few dozen today. In effect, the rules meant "Get BIG or get out". So you have operators like Steamtown, Strasburg, Cass, Cumbres & Toltec fielding many steam locomotives, because they had a business model that would field the millions of dollars needed to be in the steam game.

Also, the new regs limit number of operating days between major inspections - 1472 days with certain "clock-stops" allowed. This creates "Tube time" - the tubes are in the way of 1472-day inspections, and once they're out, you might as well replace with new). Thus, boilers effectively get an aviation "C-check" every 4-6 years.

Operators must manage their "tube time" very carefully; i.e. stage work so running gear repairs are done before tube time starts ticking, and the engine isn't taken down during peak passenger season.

Operator error is largely off the list

Because of the dramatically smaller number of operators, operator training is far better than it was before. An accident as critical as a boiler explosion is as unlikely as another "iodine pit" or "takeoff confusion" accident - because the failure was so famous that everyone knows not to do that!

The accident that "brought the house down" was with Gettysburg Railroad 1278. The boiler explosion occurred because of a wrong reading of how high the water was in the boiler. (a similar problem occurred at Three Mile Island a few miles away, and a week prior to that, in movieland in the movie The China Syndrome).

In that case, bad practice had been passed down through the generations. The grandfather knew how to clear the "sight glass" of precipitate that might plug up the lines. The father didn't learn the lesson well, and taught the son wrong as well. Between them, they had allowed the sight-glass connecting piping to be entirely plugged, causing the gauge to read high. As you can imagine, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) inspects that closely today.

By the way, the Canadian locomotive involved used an experimental method hoping to arrest boiler explosions. There are two methods to attach a staybolt to a crown sheet; the builder used both of them in alternating rows. A typical boiler explosion tears open a boiler's crown sheet in cascade failure, each row of staybolts failing in turn since they are about the same strength. The alternating rows stopped the cascade after a few rows, saving the crew's lives. Passengers were never endangered.

As discussed, the regulatory blowback from this accident decimated the steam locomotive operations in the US, eliminating smaller operations - and the remaining fraternity of steam locomotive operators are safety-minded. You'll never see another improperly blown sight glass on a US railway.

From here, let me address other aspects of safety, since our UK brethren have raised those issues.

How the government regulates tourist railways

In 1988 FRA was given broad jurisdiction over anything that runs on rails, and their "authority to regulate extends to all areas of railroad safety". 49 CFR 209 Appendix A, "The Extent And Exercise of FRA's Safety Jurisdiction". However Congress also told FRA not to crush heritage railways with excessive regulation. 49 USC 20103(f).

FRA waives its authority in certain areas (e.g. "insular" railroads entirely on private property behind a fence). By doing so, they place the operation in the jurisdiction of that state's department that regulates amusement parks, which can be a "wild ride" for the operator, as the state is not experienced at regulating tourist railways.

However, FRA always has "Emergency Order" authority on any railway, and inspects for that purpose, often simply riding as a passenger. 99% of the time, the mere threat of an E.O. will bring the railway into compliance. As such, they issue very few.

Railroads "on the general system of transport" (freight or commuters ply their rails), face "the full monty" of FRA regulations, because of that. However their historic aspects get certain waivers due to the fact that heritage equipment is simply unable to meet noise, crashworthiness and emergency preparedness rules. 49 CFR 227, 238 and 239.

Many operations are not insular, but are not in the General System. FRA waives the picayune, time-consuming detail requirements (49 CFR 2xx.3), and looks at the broad strokes: Do they have a practice in place? Is it reasonable for them?

FRA also "ratchets up" the regulations based on operating speed. As such, almost all heritage operations willingly stay under 30 mph, and many stay under 15 mph, to ease those regulations.

Coach rolling stock

As said, heritage stock is technically exempt, however the FRA inspector still looks at the "broad strokes": is the car generally fit for passengers?

But other actors also enter the picture. The operation's insurance company has its own standards.

One type of operation, mainline excursions, also requires approval of the freight railroad which is hosting the event. These operate well over 30 mph (typically 40-60 mph) on mainlines owned by freight companies (BNSF, UP, NS). The freights have ratcheted up those requirements: 30 years ago, "Lackawanna coaches" (simple circa-1920 lightweight commuter coaches) would suffice. Today, the freights want to see near-Amtrak-certified cars, and those are invariably postwar stock with good frames and collision posts, but fairly boring for the passenger.

Trackways

The FRA is well aware of which accident speeds cause injuries, and which do not. Its strategy is to limit train speeds as low as 8 MPH, unless the railroad has shown their track is fit for higher speeds. At 8 mph there is so little kinetic energy that even if the train derails, it is unlikely to cause injuries. This was seen several years ago in a sideswipe accident in Texas, where the passengers on both trains were shaken but unhurt.

Derailments at tourist railways simply don't make news in the U.S. Do they happen? Oh, yes - I have been an ordinary passenger on two derailments, actually - but they happened on special VIP runs of equipment not yet tested nor vetted for public operation, and indeed - happened below 5 mph and injured no-one. (partly, the car was being handled lightly due to its uncertain status). These were "non-events", and no paperwork was done, nor needed to be done to the government.

Signaling/interlocking

A side-effect of limiting track speed is that it effectively moots the need for block signaling and other anti-collision practices. Very few tourist railways even have 2 trains moving at once, and speed is limited to where they can stop under the "prepared to stop short of half sight distance" rule. The Texas case was one train not as clear of the other track as they thought. Nonetheless, most heritage railways implement a block-control method - usually a schedule, "staff/token" (possess the staff, possess the track segment) or verbal dispatcher system.

The Illinois Railway Museum has a fully operational block signal system (on an electrified railroad, no less; greatly complicating the electrical aspects of block control). Their operation is dense enough that they actually need it - however there is still manual oversight of train movements.

Electrification

Several tourist railways have (or are) electric operations. The overhead wire plant is usually quite well maintained, nearly or at the standard of the electric railways whose heritage they preserve. Modern techniques like active tensioning are not used. However, many lines use modern "arc-fault detection" on the substations, to detect wire shorts, heavy arcing [turn your volume way down!] within a car, etc.

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    By your "YES" I'm assuming you're specifically answering the question in the title "Are steam train rides safe?" and not the one in the question "Is the danger of a boiler exploding on a steam train still a reality?"
    – Midavalo
    Apr 30 at 0:49
  • @Midavalo Good point, addressed. Apr 30 at 3:16
  • Fantastic response. Glad you were able to build on mine with US specifics :)
    – Muzer
    Apr 30 at 9:29
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    Wow. What brand of bib overalls do you wear?
    – erickson
    Apr 30 at 22:34

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