A blog from Classic Trains columnist Kevin P. Keefe
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Notes from the road to Promontory

Posted 2 days ago by Kevin Keefe
Was last week the most extraordinary in the recent history of American railroading? You can’t convince me otherwise, not after seeing thousands gather in Ogden on May 9 to see the ceremonial pairing of Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 No. 4014 and 4-8-4 No. 844. Not after joining perhaps 20,000 people on May 10 at Promontory Summit for the formal celebration of the driving of the last spike in 1869. And not after seeing hundreds of photos and videos from the thousands of people who jammed Interstate...
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Happy Birthday, L.A. Union Station

Posted 16 days ago by Kevin Keefe
In the classic neo-noir movie Chinatown, the two main protagonists, femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and private eye J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), confront each other in a scene that sets up the film’s dark reckoning. A desperate Mulwray, eager to get out of town, tells Gittes to meet her at the home of her butler, Khan.  “He lives at 1712 Alameda . . . do you know where that is?” she asks. Gittes’ face freezes as the camera moves in. “Sure, i...
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Philadelphia does right by 30th Street

Posted 23 days ago by Kevin Keefe
Here’s an opinion I’ve shared before: Amtrak’s 30th Street Station in Philadelphia is America’s finest railway terminal. It’s nearly unique in offering a rich combination of history, architecture, commuter service, and long-distance trains, all in a downtown building that remains substantially unchanged from the day it opened its doors.  When I say “nearly unique,” I’m hedging a bit because Los Angeles Union Station might make the same claim ...
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A bright future for Nashville’s “Dixie” 4-8-4

Posted 29 days ago by Kevin Keefe
There are so many large steam locomotives being restored today, it’s enough to make your head spin. Maybe that’s why I felt a bit light-headed this week as I veered off I-26 in Nashville and took the exit for Hermitage Avenue. I was on my way to see what, for my money, is one of the more promising such projects: the revival of Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis 4-8-4 No. 576. It didn’t take long to find the engine, safely ensconced inside an open-sided shelter on the groun...
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Financing railroad preservation from within

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
There’s never enough money for railroad museums and excursion locomotives. Running a railroad is expensive enough as it is, and that reality is doubly true for non-profit organizations trying to keep alive the practices and traditions of classic-era railroading. I’m sure the leaders of most of these organizations lose sleep at night wondering how they’ll keep the dollars coming in. I perceive a fortunate trend happening out there, though: the growth of preservation philanthrop...
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Promontory before the crowds

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
On the sunny, breezy last day of March, it was hard to believe the tranquil scene in front of me will be filled soon with cars, SUVs, Harleys, motor coaches, vendors, porta potties, and anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 people. But that’s just what the experts predict will occur in just six weeks.  The occasion hardly needs an explanation. For more than a year, the railroad world has been buzzing about the sesquicentennial of the driving of the last spike of the transcontinental railroa...
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Bill Withuhn writes the essential steam book

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
Of all the railroad books that have been plopped on my desk over the past couple of years — and there have been a lot of them — none has come close to exciting me as much as the one that arrived last week from Indiana University Press. I pretty much attacked the box it was in, tearing at the cardboard until I got a glimpse of Nickel Plate Berkshires. There it was, William L. Withuhn’s masterpiece: American Steam Locomotives: Design and Development, 1880-1960, published by IUP ...
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The 611 will look fine on the Strasburg

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
Two themes have been running through my mind since last week’s news that Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 No. 611 will be visiting the Strasburg Rail Road for weekend trips in September and October.  The obvious one is the David and Goliath angle, sort of in reverse. What’s a big stud racehorse like the 611 going to look like on that most bucolic of tourist lines, the 4.5-mile Road to Paradise? Actually, the disconnect might be a lot less than you think.  The other theme must ...
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These fantrip buttons tell stories

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
The collection stares down at me from a bulletin board in my little home office. I probably glance at it every day, a bunch of metal lapel buttons, stuck into the cork, representing more than 50 years of riding railfan excursions. Most are from steam trips, but not all.  I’m sure there are lots of Classic Trains readers with their own collections of trip buttons, probably much better than mine. For whatever reason, I often missed the chance to get more. I probably forgot am...
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It’s back to Ohio for NKP 765

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Is this the most promising year yet for restored mainline steam locomotives? You could make a good case. Obviously the revival of Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 No. 4014 is 2019’s big deal, a prospect that, given the Big Boy’s long legend, will be impossible to eclipse. But there is also exciting work going on in shops other than Cheyenne: Santa Fe 4-8-4 No. 2926 in Albuquerque; C&O 2-6-6-2 No. 1309 in Ridgeley, W.Va.; NC&StL 4-8-4 No. 576 in Nashville; C&O 2-8-4 No. 2716 in Rave...
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Recalling UP’s idyllic Idaho Northern

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
With winter clinging to the upper Midwest in recent days, I’ve been noticing more than the usual number of trains-in-snow images on my Facebook feed. It seems like half the photographers I know are out in this deep freeze, depicting the time-honored battle between railroads and the brutal weather. All those snow shots sent me to the Classic Trains library, looking for my all-time favorite winter photograph, the one you see here, showing Union Pacific’s train 386, a mixed t...
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Paul Schneider always stirred the pot

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Most groups of friends have a hangout. Maybe it’s a friendly bar, or a comfortable coffee shop, or someone’s front porch.  For our motley little crew, it was the rickety old Milwaukee Road depot in Sturtevant, Wis., a village 23 rail miles south of Milwaukee. It was a fine place to watch trains at night. There was an old bench out on the brick platform, there for Amtrak passengers waiting to ride the Milwaukee–Chicago trains. The signals just north of the depot would tell...
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Searching in Georgia for DPM

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Fans of David P. Morgan know the Louisville & Nashville was his favorite railroad. As a teenager growing up in the Louisville neighborhood of Crescent Hill in the late 1930s, he swore allegiance to the Old Reliable and its passenger trains and steam locomotives. As if to bear witness to that faith, DPM gave Trains readers a regular dose of the L&N throughout his 33 years as editor. Who could forget the magazine’s issue-length tribute to the railroad’s M-1 “Bi...
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A sequel: a new station for Charleston

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
It’s not every day you encounter a brand-new passenger station — especially a substantial one — in America these days. But there I was this week, walking along a spotless concrete covered platform, hard by a busy double-track main line. Inside the main building, passengers were ensconced in a spacious, sparkling interior, enjoying comfortable new seats, soothed by indirect lighting. Outside, the building was surrounded by the raw material for what soon will be handsome (and sem...
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30th Street won’t be the same without Solari

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
In an article in the March 2011 issue of Trains, I made a claim that ruffled some feathers, namely that Philadelphia’s 30th Street is America’s finest railroad station. The story engendered a few howls, mostly from devotees of Grand Central Terminal and Los Angeles Union Station. I thought I was pretty careful in my criteria: the best station has to be busy; it has to be downtown; it has to offer both commuter and intercity service; it has to have classic architecture on a gran...
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Amfleet is headed for the history books

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I can’t recall the train or the location, but I distinctly remember my reaction the first time I boarded an Amfleet car in 1975. I probably said “wow.” That might surprise some who recall being underwhelmed by the new equipment. There was plenty to criticize, I suppose. They were austere in appearance, especially with those inside-bearing Pioneer trucks adapted from commuter service. The traditional Dutch doors in the vestibule were gone, replaced by automatic sliding doors th...
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A boxcar pitted us against DPM

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Among the handful of mementos that stare down at me each morning in my office, one grabs my attention most. It’s an HO-scale boxcar, bright yellow with a bright red Trains magazine logo on its flanks, sitting atop a section of track mounted on a small wooden base. I look at it frequently, occasionally dust it off, and treat it like a fragile and treasured work of art. A work of art? A bit of an exaggeration, you say? Not to me, not given the memories it conjures up — memor...
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Putting the ‘South Bend’ back in CSS&SB

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
They don’t call the South Shore Line “America’s last interurban” for nothing. There’s really nothing else in the U.S. that compares. Where else can you find an electric line occupying much of the exact footprint it did in 1908, wearing the same colors it has for perhaps a century (orange and maroon), running past steel mills and through cornfields, and still operating for a substantial distance in the street? Those are credentials of historic proportion. So when bi...
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Setting the bar for 2019

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions. There are too many I should make, so I quickly run away and hide. But now that I have this very public blog, maybe listing a few will get me off the dime. Embarrassment is a great motivator. Of course, they all have to have that classic railroad flavor. Now that we’re already three days into 2019, here are a few I came up with: • Organize my slides. I can hear some friends laughing. “Keefe, you’re not a photograp...
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If the 'Texas' could talk

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
The locomotive is mostly black now, but it sparkles as its brass fittings reflect the spotlights shining down from above and the sunlight streaming in from giant windows along West Paces Ferry Road. As you sit there on a bench, contemplating the machine filling the vast room in the Atlanta History Center, it’s possible to feel you’re in the company of royalty. That’s the reaction I had last week during an afternoon spent with Western & Atlantic 4-4-0 No. 12, famo...
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The gifts under the tree were stamped ‘NYC’

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Anyone reading this blog probably does the same thing I do every year when it comes to the holiday season: associate it with trains. The festivities go hand in red glove with train travel, maybe some new railroad books, and probably most often an O-gauge train under the tree. I watch the movie A Christmas Story every year at least once, and my favorite moment is when we see Ralphie and his little brother falling asleep to the sounds of steam whistles in the wintry night. Writer Jean S...
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Amtrak fire sale is a tribute to Budd

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
The car, Amtrak 8502, sits forlornly behind the old erecting halls at the Beech Grove Maintenance Facility outside Indianapolis. It’s a proud old diner, with a royal lineage. Once upon a time, it was part of a mighty fleet that momentarily transformed the fortunes of the American passenger train. The car carries its original name: Silver Cuisine. That word, silver! It conjures images of the original California Zephyr of 1949, the ultimate cruise train, a gleaming visio...
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Riding the rails with President Bush 41

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Like millions of others, I plan to spend at least part of today watching the historic passage of the Bush Funeral Train, scheduled to run this afternoon from Spring, Texas, to College Station, where George H.W. Bush will be buried alongside his wife, Barbara. As they have so many times over the past 150 years, Americans will gather trackside to pay their last respects to a president.  That flag-waving railroad, Union Pacific, will do the honors as its specially decorated SD70ACe No. 4141, ...
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CUT shines again, for the moment without Tower A

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
It’s been an unusually good year for grand old big-city railway terminals. Chicago Union Station has nearly completed the restoration of its “Great Hall”, a.k.a. the waiting room. In Detroit, Ford announced it would sink a billion or more into crumbling old Michigan Central Station. In Los Angeles, Union Station even got back its old Fred Harvey restaurant — with a microbrewery to boot. But top bragging rights should rightly go to the Queen City. After a $228 million res...
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A libertarian shoots the passenger train

Posted 6 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I have some sympathy for Randal O’Toole. The economist, author, and Cato Institute senior fellow has written a book that must have sparked some inner conflicts, even for someone with a prodigious talent for the sober analysis of statistics. The book is called “Romance of the Rails,” published by Cato. In it, O’Toole posits a simple philosophy: almost all rail transit is inherently cost ineffective, scandalously so, therefore it should receive no government support. That ...
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Back to the future in Milwaukee

Posted 6 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I felt giddy when I stepped out of the car on an uncharacteristically warm, sunny day last weekend in Milwaukee. There, a hundred feet or so ahead, a crowd was gathering on the platform of a small transit station, everyone looking expectantly down Ogden Avenue to the west.  Soon the object of all the excitement came into view: a gleaming new articulated white-black-and-gold streetcar, ambling down the street over a pristine stretch of double track, its digital bell chiming as it rumbled &m...
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For PM 1225, the right man at the right time

Posted 6 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Every time you see a steam locomotive operate in 2018, you can be sure there are legions of dedicated volunteers who made it happen. There’s no way an engine runs without a core group of people who are knowledgeable, organized, and dedicated (some would say crazy) enough to make it happen. Within that group, there are always a handful you could call indispensable — people who went the proverbial extra mile, people who stuck their necks out, people without whom the engine would never...
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Last Sox-Dodgers series was good for the New Haven

Posted 6 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Out here in Milwaukee, some of us are still nursing our wounds over the Brewers’ loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers last weekend in the National League Championship Series. To come within one game of going to the World Series in 36 years, is, well . . . painful. Now it will be the Dodgers going up against the Red Sox starting tonight at Fenway Park. Certainly the powers that be at Major League Baseball like this matchup of major media markets. If you’re a baseball fan, you probably lik...
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The John Gruber I knew

Posted 7 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I never knew when the phone would ring, but it did, with some regularity. “Hello, this is John Gruber. You free for lunch this week?” It was a ritual John and I shared frequently in recent years. He was always the instigator, and I don’t think I ever turned him down. We’d meet somewhere in the Milwaukee area — he liked a variety of restaurants, not necessarily the meat-and-potatoes railfan spots — and the agenda generally was his. Sometimes it was the busine...
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In praise of Joliet Union Station

Posted 7 months ago by Kevin Keefe
A recent afternoon of enjoying nonstop train action at Joliet, Ill. — my first visit back in perhaps 20 years — left me with this question: from the viewpoint of the fan, is Joliet Union Station the finest suburban hot spot in the U.S.? If the criterion is train frequency, great railroad architecture, a variety of railroads, no-hassle access to platforms, nearby amenities, and an intriguing history, then I think the answer is “yes.” That’s certainly the feeling I c...

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