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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gathering Steam

Marina Lebedinskaya stops by the black L-series engine, also known by the nickname "Lebedyanka" and inhales. "I love the way engines smell. This is my favorite. I think it's gorgeous. Look at how the boiler is very high."

Working at the often overlooked Museum of Steam Engines and the functioning retro-train at the Rizhsky Station, she is the only one of the guides who doesn't have an engineering background: "At first it was hard to learn the train jargon, but now I love trains and all my friends are train lovers. It's like a sickness that only gets worse with time."

The old steam engines at the museum were collected by train enthusiasts of the Russian Association of Railroad Lovers, who went as far north as the infamous Transpolar Track. Built by gulag prisoners through the Siberian towns Chum, Salekhard and Igarka, the line was abandoned after Stalin's death in 1953. Many engines and cars were left to rust in the woods. Some of the museum's engines were rescued from this "dead railroad" and one came from Mosfilm studios. The museum often serves as a backdrop for period films, most recently "Admiral Kolchak" and "The Island." On a recent visit there was a cameraman following a man in a beige suit and a bowler hat, who traipsed about pretending to be a Chekhov character.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
A steam engine warming up for the retro ride to an old depot two stations away.
The age of steam engines ended in 1956 at the 20th Communist Party Congress, when the decision was made to switch to diesel locomotives, as they were considered more convenient because they don't depend on water. Steam engines require water intake every 50 to 70 kilometers. Factories were redesigned to produce tanks and metal doors, while the imposing engines were frequently melted down to make nails.

The retro train arrives shortly after 1 p.m., puffing up clouds of vapor and smoke. The whistle is loud and piercing: It's vaguely familiar, but also extremely foreign in today's Moscow of tall buildings and traffic jams. The engine pulls two cars built in the 1960s and moved to Moscow from the Kursk region. Amazingly, the cars have attendants who come from a town called Lgov for two-week periods. "We live here in the porter compartment," said Zinaida, an attendant. "To wash, we heat up two buckets of water on the coals and use the train bathroom. In the evening, we play cards in the train car."

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Olga Skovorodkina shows daily groups around the museum's engines, such as this O-series, nicknamed "Ovechka" or "sheep."
Besides the attendants, the retro train is operated by an engine driver, an assistant engine driver and a stoker. Back in the day, men could become steam train driver only after about 20 years of training. On long journeys, drivers had to remember every turn and incline of the track in order to control coal intake and speed. Engine driver Mikhail Demidov came to the retro train two years ago after having worked on diesel locomotives. A school for steam engine operators may soon open because retro trains have become so popular, Lebedinskaya said.

The piercing whistle of the retro train brings back memories to many Rizhsky visitors. One man came on the tour after seeing an ad on the trolley bus. At 94, he went up and down icy stairways, bummed cigarettes from railroad workers and wondered why the Rizhsky Station no longer had a station bell, although they have been dismantled for many decades.

The excursion ends at the old depot on the station Krasny Baltiyets, between Sokol and Timiryazevsky Park, two railway stations away from Rizhsky Station. There, Demidov directs the steam engine onto a turning circle used to reverse the direction of the engine on the track, and makes a 360-degree turn while periodically blowing the whistle. The last stop is by a giant faucet to watch water pouring into the engine.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Steam engines are operated by a machinist, assistant machinist and stoker, pictured.
Lebedyanka is then taken to the depot, where it's under constant watch to keep the furnace burning: Once it's out, it takes six hours to start it up again.

"In Sweden, there are 74 retro-train museums, while Russia only has five," said Olga Skovorodkina, who became a museum guide after working in an engineering library for many years.

To function properly, steam engines regularly have to go long distances, so about three times a year they are taken for a spin to such places as Karelia.

"In one small town there was an elderly lady who ran to us with tears in her eyes, asking if the steam train is going to circulate once again," she said.

Retro train tours begin at Rizhsky train station, M. Rizhskaya, at noon every day except Monday. Tickets cost 300 rubles for children and 350 rubles for adults. The tour ends around 2:30 p.m. at the Krasny Baltiyets station. 661-28-26, 221-45-82,