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"At The Throttle"
by Mark Bassett, Executive Director

A weekly series of columns originally published in the Saturday edition of the Ely Times 
Mark Bassett is the Executive Director of the White Pine Historical Foundation, operator of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. He can be reached at the museum (775) 289-2085 ext. 7 or e-mail:


Steaming into the Internet
10 April 2021


The Nevada Northern depends on volunteers to serve as crewmembers for its trains. This creates a challenge. The volunteers need to work together as a team in a hazardous endeavor. Yet the volunteers are always rotating and may work with one another rarely during the course of a season. To accomplish the safe passage of a train over the line, everyone must understand the ins and outs of train operation.

To insure that the trains roll safely there must be ground rules established. Our rulebook does this for us. The museum developed its rulebook to insure the safe and consistent operation of the trains.

The challenges facing the museum are that the majority of the volunteers live away from Ely and secondly, the majority of volunteers do not have a railroad background. It is this absence of a railroad background that is perhaps our greatest challenge.

Railroading is one of the oldest forms of industry in the United States; it goes back 175 years, and it predates most forms of manufacture and industry. During its long history, railroading developed its own language, traditions, and ways of doing things. These skills were handed down from one generation to the next by observation and doing. Now for a variety of reasons this chain is broken. Yet for the museum to continue its operations it is critical these skills be preserved, explained, and taught.

With our short operating season and the distance that our volunteers travel, this is a challenge. Just handing the rulebook to a new volunteer is not the solution. Railroading over its long history developed its own way of communicating. To the outsider we appear as a secret society, with our own vocabulary, hand signals, and lantern signals. As the new volunteer works a train he or she will observe how things are done, but then they will notice inconsistency in how the different crewmembers do things. This is unacceptable because it is dangerous. Railroading is very unforgiving, a mistake, a miscommunication can kill or maim in an instant.

Railroads were the cutting edge technology in their day; now the museum is turning to the cutting edge technology of today, the Internet. The museum is developing a training program that unlocks the secrets of railroading and will be available to anyone with access to the Internet.

In cooperation with University of Nevada Las Vegas Distance Education and Creative Services, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum rule book is going digital and on to the Internet as streaming video. This program is the innovation of one of the museum's volunteers, Norma Engberg, a professor at UNLV.


Recording engineers response to hand signal from brakeman

Here the UNLV videographer is recording what the engineer does in response to a hand signal received from a brakeman on the ground.

Recording airbrakes setting up for training video

UNLV videographer recording the airbrakes setting up in response to a hand signal given to the engineer. Once the video is edited, the student will be able to see the hand signal, the actions of the engineer to the hand signal and what the results of the signal does to the train.


Norma experienced first hand the challenges facing a new volunteer, the infrequent trips over the line, the need to learn a new language, and the inconsistency of how some procedures are done. Her solution was to develop a web based training program. The museum's rulebook will be available on line. Even better, Norma was able to enlist the assistance of the Distance Education and Creative Services Department at UNLV to video the show. In other words, rather then just reading about the hand signals, the student will be able to see how the hand signals are done. Then the differences between the day and night signals are illustrated. Rather then just reading about whistle signals, the student will be able to hear the whistle signals. The list goes and on.

The rulebook will be divided into sections online. Each section will have an explanation, a demonstration, and then a test. Students will not be allowed to go to the next section until they pass the section they are learning.

The advantages to the museum are twofold. First and foremost the Nevada Northern procedures are documented to show the standard. This will help eliminate confusion on the ground. Secondly, the bookwork can be completed before the annual training. This will allow the instructors to concentrate on the practical aspects of railroading. With the student understanding the theory before they get on the line, the doing aspect will make a lot more sense to them. What this all means is that our over all level of competence will raise; the payoff will be increased awareness and safety. After all the railroad's motto is "Safety First."

As a museum we are preserving not only the equipment but also the human aspect of railroading--the knowledge. We are preserving this knowledge for the next generation to unlock the mysteries of the why it was done and the how it was done. This human aspect will show the locomotives as part of a comprehensive process, rather then just showing the locomotive. This Internet training will show the skills and knowledge necessary to set up a train and move it out over the road. It is exciting to use the newest technology to preserve our oldest.




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