Jason Sobczynski is quick to forget names.
But model numbers? Well, those are easy to remember.
“I’m horrible with names. If everyone had a number I would be so golden, but I don’t know why names escape me,” he said.
Dressed in denim and seasoned with grease, Sobczynski stood in the firebox of the 1916 Baldwin Locomotive Engine No. 15 at the Chehalis-Centralia Railroad and Museum (CCRM) on Thursday. He’d just spent the better part of the day pressing a fraction of 220 metal rivets that will need to go into the striped fuel receptacle.
“We’re effectively repairing the arteries and the heart of the locomotive,” said Sobczynski, president of Kentucky-based Next Generation Rail Solutions.
Sobczynski last week began the five-month process of repairing No. 15’s firebox, which is the part of the train where fuel is burned to boil water, in turn generating steam that powers the century-old locomotive.
The steam engine has been out of commission for two years following an in-depth inspection five years ago that showed there was deferred and much-needed maintenance required on its structural integrity, said Chehalis City Councilor Daryl Lund.
Stathi Pappas, project manager of the No. 15 project and operations manager at Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, conducted another in-depth inspection in late January on the locomotive when he found additional repairs that warranted time and money.
No. 15 is expected to be back on the tracks in six to 12 months, he said. Pappas said CCRM has a finalized internal cost for the work, but he noted he wasn’t at liberty to comment on that.
“We have a final scope of work, we have a number we’re working to, and we’re in good shape to achieve that. I’m not worried if we’re able to get there or not,” he said. “We have a lot of braintrust looking at the issues so that there are no mysteries as to what needs to be done or what it takes to do it.”
Repairs to the train’s boiler were originally expected to cost about $150,000, according to previous reports in The Chronicle. CCRM was able to secure $154,000 in funding through the state’s 2020 supplemental budget in April 2020.
An extra $123,000 is being proposed for the museum’s restoration efforts in the Legislature’s 2021 supplemental capital budget that would be funded through the 2022 Local and Community Projects Fund.
Sobczynski said the scope of his work is to replace portions of the inner and outer side plates and finish the installation of a new door plate at the rear of the firebox. By the time they fire it up, the train will practically have a new boiler.
“Basically, we’re eliminating all portions of the boiler that have any sort of engineered deficiencies as a result of deterioration. I mean, the thing is over 100 years old, after all. So, we are replacing all portions of the boiler that result in a structural deficiency, and it’s something you have to do periodically on any boiler,” said Sobczynski, 42, of Irvine, Kentucky.
Once completed, the boiler won’t need more structural work for another 45 years, he said.
His work is on full display. Over on his Facebook page “That Steam Guy,” Sobczynski chronicles his contracting work on steam locomotives while also taking in a historical appreciation for the industrial-era machinery.
His page has garnered more than 85,000 follows and Facebook users have viewed his videos millions of times. He’s well known to locomotive enthusiasts.
“We have one of the best guys in the country working on it, that’s what’s really cool. And it’s going to be done right,” Lund said.
Sobczynski’s deeply-held appreciation for locomotives came at a young age: Kid meets trains — trains are cool. But that shallow infatuation deepened.
“Even by my late teens, and definitely into my early 20s, it became more of a deep-rooted appreciation for history because these machines, at the end of the day, represent so much that’s just gone from America … Just the raw nature in which we used to get around. These machines are so different than anything we have in our country or really the world today,” he said.
At the age of 13, Sobczynski started volunteering at the Southeastern Railway Museum, located in Duluth, Georgia. He eventually undertook an informal apprenticeship from Bill Purdie, a mechanical lead at the museum.
Sobczynski recounts a love for learning what was underneath the hood of each locomotive — what made them tick, their intricacies.
The first book on locomotives that got him hooked was “Basic Steam Locomotive Maintenance” by D.C. Buell — a book published in 1980 still widely circulated today, Sobczynski said. After reading that cover to cover, he was hooked.
“They are very intricate. They’re definitely not aerospace, but they’re closer to being a Swiss watch than they are to being crude,” he said.
Naming the most complex system of No. 15? That one was hard to point out. Sobczynski said that’s mostly because he’s worked on them for many years so every part seems simple to him.
Projects such as the No. 15 restoration have helped to keep the work of locomotive restorationists alive. Sobczynski notes he’s worked on steam locomotives and trains all across the country, though perhaps he prefers taking the commercial airliner than the sluggish-yet-stylish steam engine.
“Part of what these things allow us to do is keep industry trade skills alive,” he said. “There’s literally no place you can go to learn this stuff.”
Sobczynski has taken on dozens of apprentices over the years, including nine currently under the age of 30. The youngest is 19.
“To teach is the most rewarding thing. To excite someone with knowledge is just a wonderful thing,” he said.