'Name that Biodiesel Train' contest

The historic Cog Railway is holding a new "name that train" contest for its latest biodiesel-powered locomotive
By Ron Kotrba | May 29, 2013

The first mountain-climbing cog railway in the world was conceptualized by Sylvester Marsh, a businessman and inventor from Campton, N.H. The concept of the mountain-climbing cog railway was such a radical invention, when Marsh approached the New Hampshire legislature for a charter to build the Cog in 1858, he was mocked with a suggestion that a provision to build a “railroad to the moon” should be included.

The Cog Railway was built by hand in the rough and rural region of the White Mountains in Northern New Hampshire, U.S.  Marsh’s design for a cog-wheel based locomotive was built to go 2.8 miles up Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeastern U.S.

Mount Washington is famous for being the home of the world’s worst weather with an average summit wind of 37 mph and the highest recorded wind speed observed by man at 231 mph.

Mount Washington has claimed at least 135 lives over the years. Its weather is compared to that of Labrador, a Northern region of Canada with mountains four times the size of ominous Mount Washington.

Oxen and wagons hauled 230 tons of track from Littleton, N.H., the nearest rail town, to the Base Station Road, a distance of 30 miles. The wooden ties and trestles were cut from the forest land the railway lies on and hauled up the mountain. At the time, and to this day, there are no other railroads that have an average climbing ascent of 25 degrees with a peak vertical climb of 37.4 degrees.

Now that the train could ascend the mountain safely, the problem of getting back down was addressed. Because of the intense grade, in 1864 Sylvester Marsh designed and patented possibly his most important invention, the “atmospheric brake.” With this invention, braking was achieved by the compression of air in the cylinders of the descending locomotive, which is still used today on many cog railways.

The very first locomotives were steam powered and wood fired. Over the years the use of coal to produce steam led to many concerns from individuals over the visual pollution (black smoke) emitted by the engines as they ascended Mount Washington. The steam locomotives use approximately one ton of coal on every trip and consume more than 1,000 gallons of water. Several attempts have been made over the past 50 years to convert the existing locomotives from coal firing to oil firing. Although the conversion to oil was unsuccessful, an attempt of another type was successful.

Today, the Cog still utilizes the steam trains of the Marsh era to pay tribute to its historical roots, but also has a new fleet of ecofriendly biodiesel locomotives, which run in part off the recycled oil from the Cog kitchen as well as businesses and institutions statewide. The biodiesels are conceptualized and built entirely on-site by chief engineer Al LaPrade, manager Charles Kenison and the railway crew.

This year, the Cog will be introducing its 5th biodiesel locomotive to its fleet of steam and biodiesel engines. Since the inauguration of the first Cog biodiesel, M1, Wajo Nanatasis, in 2007, three more biodiesel locomotives have been built. The Cog held a “Name That Train” contest for the first biodiesel locomotive built, “Wajo Nanatasis,” and would once again like to enlist the public’s assistance in naming the new biodiesel locomotive, slated for completion this August.

Construction of the first biodiesel locomotive began in late 2006 and was not completed until June of 2008. It was fabricated and assembled completely in New Hampshire, in the shop of the Cog Railway by employees, steel components too large to be handled by the Cog Railway were produced by Issacson Steel (now Presby Steel) in Berlin, N.H.  The machining of some of the larger components has been done by Alpine Machine, also in Berlin. The locomotive was tested and operated extensively during the summer of 2008 and worked flawlessly. Since the introduction of the first biodiesel in 2008, three more biodiesels have been added to the Cog Railway fleet and another is in production for 2013.

Prior to the first Cog Railway biodiesel locomotive, the owners decided to pursue the building of a diesel locomotive, to be used primarily for maintenance, then, if successful, for riders as well. Kenison, manager of the Cog Railway, and chief engineer LaPrade envisioned from the start of the diesel locomotive project that it would be operated on biodiesel. Today, the oil from the kitchen at the Cog is processed by White Mountain Biodiesel and used to operate the biodiesel trains. The new biodiesel engines use less than one tenth of the fuel that the old locomotives require, about 18 gallons per trip, and because it is biodiesel, it is more environmentally friendly than coal. Another benefit is that there is no water usage with biodiesels compared to 1,000 gallons per trip on a steam train. So, on a busy day at the Cog, as much as 15 tons of coal and 15,000 gallons of water are saved.

Historically, Cog Railway locomotives names reflect and honor the Mountain region’s Native American heritage and personality. Wajo Nanatasis is Abenaki for “Mountain Hummingbird,” and Agiocochook refers to Mount Washington and means “Home of the Great White Spirit.” Those interested in participating in the “Name That Train” contest for M5, can visit to fill out the contest form. Prizes will be awarded in addition to the official name selection.

LaPrade, a mechanical engineer who took an early retirement from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in 1993, has been at the Cog for 12 years now and considers himself to be the “luckiest man in New Hampshire.”  Al started at the Cog as a brakeman, but was quickly recruited to working on bigger and bigger projects as his expertise became known. Al sums up his return from retirement. “There are many aspects to what I do, both historical and technical,” he says. “It’s definitely an enjoyable challenge.”

The biodiesel locomotives are fabricated from many local parts at the Cog Base train shop. The engine is a John Deere 600 HP 12.5 liter, 6125 H, from Bell Power systems, of Essex, Conn. Other local and U.S. manufacturers are Presby Steel of Berlin, N.H., White Mountain Biodiesel in Haverhill, N.H., Leen Company of Portland, Maine, and Rockport Steel of Rockport, Maine, make the cabs to specifications, and the bearings are delivered from Moline Bearing of Illinois.

Since the first biodiesel build, there have been only minor accessibility updates and one major inclusion, the IQUAN (pronounced I -can) onboard computer package made by Parker. This system serves to govern and communicate between the hydraulics and the diesel engine to enhance maintenance and performance functions, including auto lubrication on the rack and push-button controls on the joystick. The Inclinometer, another computer controlled device, measures the roll of the engine and records variations along the track bed to perfect updated maintenance and repairs.

“In building the first biodiesel engine, the limit was at 5 percent (B5) fuel blend,” LaPrade said. “In late 2007, the blend was increased to 20 percent, which is used throughout the summer on all four biodiesel engines with no negative effect.” As mentioned earlier, 18 gallons of fuel is spent per round trip of six miles; the trains together make about 1,600 trips a year. That is about 800 hours per year on each train.  

The Mount Washington Cog Railway has stayed in private ownership and in operation consistently for more than 144 years. It has adapted to and overcome adverse opinion, the Great Depression, the Hurricane of ‘38, and the changing times to be one of New Hampshire’s most successful historical attractions. It was designated as a National Historic Engineering Landmark in 1976. The Boston Transcript called the Mount Washington Cog Railway at its inauguration in 1868, “One of the greatest wonders of all time.” It can certainly be argued that this is still true today.

The Mount Washington  Cog Railway, located at Base Station Road, Marshfield Station, N.H., on the western slopes of Mount Washington, operates  from the end of April to early January each year with two to 15 trains per day to the summit. Riders are able to explore the Cog Railway Museum at the base station, 1853 TipTop House, and the Shermin Adams State Park Building, which houses the Mount Washington Observatory Museum. Additional information and tickets can be found at or by calling 800-922-8825.

Editor’s Note: This story was provided to Biodiesel Magazine by Rebecca Metcalf of Mount Washington Cog Railway in several different documents. Biodiesel Magazine Editor Ron Kotrba edited and compiled the documents provided by Metcalf to produce the article. One of the documents Metcalf provided included the following works cited:

Dick Joslin. (1998). Sylvestor Marsh and the Cog Railway.
David R. Starbuck (2006).Exploring 10,000 years in the State of New Hampshire
Website:  The Story of the World Record Wind