A blog from Classic Trains columnist Kevin P. Keefe
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A libertarian shoots the passenger train

Posted an hour 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 9 days 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 14 days 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 22 days 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 29 days 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 one month 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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A golden anniversary for Passenger Train Journal

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
It’s hard to imagine a worse time for the American passenger train than the spring of 1968. Railroads were dropping services with increasing regularity, and train-offs were a staple every month in the news section of Trains. Among the lost that season were Southern Pacific’s Lark, Rock Island’s Golden State, and the joint Milwaukee Road/Soo Copper Country Limited. There would be so many more to come.  None of that deterred a determined young passenger ...
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Return to Crooked Hill

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
Driving along I-75 through eastern Kentucky, you might never know that off to one side of the freeway or the other, out of sight, is one of the great old railroads of Appalachia, the former Louisville & Nashville main line from Cincinnati to Atlanta.  While not as rugged as the coal country to the east, this section of the “CC” Subdivision was a deceptively difficult place to build a railroad when L&N surveyors first punched through these ridges in 1882. The railroad wa...
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J.D.I. has left the building

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
I was a nervous 23-year-old when I walked through the front door at 1027 N. Seventh Street, Milwaukee, on August 12, 1974. It was my first day on the job as the sales promotion manager in Kalmbach’s Sales Department.  What had me apprehensive wasn’t the job so much as it was the prospect of suddenly walking the halls with some very imposing names: David P. Morgan, of course, but also George Gloff, Rosemary Entringer, Harold Edmonson, Bill Akin, and George Drury. Luckily the fir...
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The blue stamp meant great train pictures

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I was in the Classic Trains library recently, thumbing through black-and-white prints, when an old familiar name popped into view on the back of a first-rate action photo of Boston & Albany steam. Seen here, it shows a pair of B&A A-1c “sport model” 2-8-4s, rumbling through West Warren, Mass., with the 5,000 tons of eastbound train BA-6.  The photo is directly credited to Ray E. Tobey, a name unfamiliar to me. What was not unfamiliar was the big blue stamp nex...
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Wanted: more railroad biographies

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
One of the Facebook pages I check regularly is called “Railway Book Collectors and Readers.” Maybe you’ve seen it. The page is a place for railfans to compare notes on their personal libraries — often with photos of jammed, groaning shelves — as well as exchange information, opinions, and quips about what makes a good railroad book. A discussion thread last week caught my eye. One of the page’s regulars, Kurt Bell, asked the group to name a subject or topic t...
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Great expectations: Santa Fe 2926

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Drivers on 8th Street N.W. on the north edge of downtown Albuquerque were likely doing a double take one day last week as they crossed a nondescript industrial siding near Haines Avenue and looked immediately west. There, back among some small buildings, a group of people wearing hard hats and safety vests were clambering all over an immense steam locomotive, like Lilliputians attending to Gulliver. Voices called out commands. Eventually a column of smoke rose steadily from the stack. Occasiona...
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Marion Union Station’s unsung hero

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
If you sat down with pencil and paper and decided you were going to design, from scratch, a nearly perfect place to watch trains in the Midwest, you’d likely come up with something a lot like Marion, Ohio. Want lots of trains? Check — maybe 60 a day on three Norfolk Southern and CSX lines. Perhaps a nice depot? Check — Marion’s handsome Union Station has a 1902 pedigree and a museum inside. A secure place to hang out, close to the action? Check — the spacious platf...
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A reverie at San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Is San Diego’s old Santa Fe Depot the most attractive big-city station in America? I found myself asking that question after a brief visit not long ago. It’s a logical question, and for a lot of reasons. First, there’s the sheer beauty of the station building. With its elegant twin campaniles, finished atop in tile with the Santa Fe “cross” emblem on all four sides, and its spacious promenades outside, it’s a nearly perfect expression of Spanish Mission archi...
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Cotton Belt 819 deserves to run again

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
When the first of Northern Pacific’s Class A 4-8-4s rolled out of Alco’s Schenectady plant in 1926, a new standard for North American locomotives was set. The “Northern,” as it was ultimately dubbed, not only produced unprecedented power at speed in both passenger and freight service, it turned out to be an ideal platform for all the other improvements bubbling up in steam technology, from feedwater heating and combustion chambers to disc drivers and roller bearings. Wit...
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Remembering Kalmbach’s Jim King

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I suspect that many of you reading this were, like me, devoted readers of Trains magazine back in the 1960s. Devoted might be putting it mildly. As a teenager, I got to where I was so enthralled by the magazine that I made a point of trying to read every last word in every last issue. That even meant the editorial masthead on page 3, including the list of Kalmbach’s corporate staff, way down at the bottom in tiny agate type. I knew all the names, including that of the second guy on the li...
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Storybook ending for Morehead & North Fork No. 12

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
A couple of months ago I stood inside what, for me, is a very exciting place: beneath the 30-ton overhead crane in the spacious, gleaming locomotive shop at the Age of Steam Roundhouse (AoSRH) in Sugarcreek, Ohio. Surrounding me were examples of the Age of Steam crew’s handiwork, including former Lake Superior & Ishpeming 2-8-0 No. 33 and Yreka Western 2-8-2 No. 19, the former nearing completion, the other not far behind. And over in the corner, minding its own business, was Morehead ...
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In a Mountain State town, ghosts of the Virginian

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Summer brings road trips and, inevitably, a visit to a railroad town, defunct or otherwise. There’s something irresistible to me about seeing a small place that once depended on a railroad, or still does.   Princeton, W.Va., belongs in the former category, now that its claim to fame, the old Virginian Railway, is mostly gone. Decades of retrenchments brought about by the VGN’s successors, first Norfolk & Western and then Norfolk Southern, have left the town pretty quiet.&nb...
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The survivor: Nickel Plate 587

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
If you follow the world of railroad preservation closely, you know that most of the reports this week coming out of that charnel house known as the Indiana Transportation Museum (ITM) are bad. The scene in Forest Park at Noblesville, Ind., has been almost impossible to believe: traction equipment and locomotives cut up on the spot; workers, trucks, and acetylene torches everywhere; hurried deals thrown together to save as much equipment as possible; outside groups tagging rolling stock, getting...
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The perils of 1968

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Of all the crazy years in American history, 1968 is near the top. Entire books have been written about it. Television documentaries have sanctified it. “The most turbulent twelve months of the postwar period and one of the most disturbing intervals we have lived through since the Civil War,” wrote Charles Kaiser in his 1988 book 1968 in America. It was a year defined by the war in Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Riots in cities and on...
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A miracle for Michigan Central Station

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I usually don’t believe in miracles. But I can’t think of another word for what’s happening in Detroit, where a savior has stepped up to not only rescue but also transform one of America’s greatest and most notoriously derelict train stations. The unlikely savior is Ford Motor Co. The miracle is what Ford promises to do with Michigan Central Station, the towering 1913 monument whose fall from grace became a symbol of Detroit’s historic decline. Ford is scheduled t...
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DPM’s best book, 50 years later

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
The ad on page 2 of the February 1969 issue of Trainsmagazine had an intriguing headline: “The Biography of a 2-8-2.” It was Kalmbach’s way of announcing a new book, a perhaps an unprecedented book, a book about a single locomotive. “We can’t recall a previous book devoted to one engine; but then, there’s never been one engine quite like the 4501,” said the copy. Thus did the world learn of the arrival of David P. Morgan’s Locomotive 45...
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South Shore’s interurban time machine

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
If you’re reading this blog, you probably have a favorite train ride, one that stands out above all others, one you’d take tomorrow and the day after and even the day after that, if you had the chance. A ride you never tire of.  My choice is easy. It’s short. It’s cheap. It’s available any day of the week, all year long. More than anything else, in 2018 America, it’s unique. Meaning, as Merriam-Webster says, “without qualifying modifiers.”&nb...
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Contemplating a K4 1361 comeback

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
With all the exciting news percolating out there these days about new restorations of mainline steam locomotives, I’ve found myself looking back to a similar period, the 1980s and early ’90s.  You had to pinch yourself in those years, there was so much going on. You had the stalwarts — Union Pacific 844 and 3985, Norfolk & Western 611 and 1218, Nickel Plate 765, Southern Pacific 4449 — but also a host of newcomers, including Frisco 1522, Santa Fe 3751, and Pere ...
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New book charts John W. Barriger’s incredible life

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
John W. Barriger III, the legendary president of the Monon Railroad, among others, loved running inspection trains. It was his way of ensuring he knew what made his railroad — or any railroad — really tick. It also fulfilled his lifelong desire to know as many employees as possible, something that drove him throughout his storied, peripatetic career. Thus we have this wonderful, sunny vignette from a lost time in railroading, a photograph of Barriger making a brief stop in the late ...
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When the train stops in the Delta

Posted 6 months ago by Kevin Keefe
With all the current gloom surrounding the prospects for Amtrak’s long-distance service, it might be surprising to see the railroad actually make an improvement to an overnight train. But that’s just what happened, effective a few days ago, as the Chicago–New Orleans City of New Orleansbegan making regular stops at tiny Marks, Miss. With a population of about 1,500, Marks won’t tip the scales much for trains 58 and 59. Still, local government and citizens as well as...
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Stand fast, Berea!

Posted 6 months ago by Kevin Keefe
So often, the search for constancy in railroading seems futile. I guess that’s the natural order. You think some things are immutable — like humps yard in Louisville or Cumberland, or building locomotives in Erie, or having a steak dinner on the Lake Shore Limited— then poof! They can be gone in the time it takes a CEO to hit “send” on an email. That’s why it was reassuring on Sunday morning to drive up over the crest of the Front Street/Ohio 237 viaduct...
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PRR steam: still haughty after all these years

Posted 6 months ago by Kevin Keefe
It’s impossible to keep track of all the steam restoration projects going on these days. Some have the lofty goal of operating under steam again. Others simply want to perform static restorations for the sake of posterity, or even to simply save threatened engines. I can’t think of any that aren’t worthy of support.  One that recently caught my attention strikes me as having special merit: the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania’s effort to complete the restoration...
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A glimpse of the old Tennessee Central

Posted 6 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Bilevel commuter trains and short lines normally don’t have much to do with each other. That is, unless you’re standing on the station platform of the Music City Star on a nice spring afternoon in Lebanon, Tenn. That’s where my friend Dave Busse and I found ourselves earlier this month. We were in Nashville for a few days, attending the annual convention of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. But the lure of Nashville’s unusual commuter train got t...
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Donald Furler: champion of the wedge shot

Posted 7 months ago by Kevin Keefe
For a trailblazer, timing is everything. That’s certainly true in railroad photography, which has seen its share of tectonic shifts over the years. Most of us don’t think of the classic three-quarter “wedge” action photo as trailblazing. That standard and very obvious approach to shooting trains has been around at least since the late 1930s, when consumer cameras finally were capable of effectively stopping motion. We’ve moved way beyond that over the ensuing three...

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