A blog from Classic Trains columnist Kevin P. Keefe
3

Five photos that stay with me

Posted 3 days ago by Kevin Keefe
One of the occupational hazards of writing about railroads is that you see so many railroad photographs they risk becoming routine. How many images have I worked with over the last 45 years? Thousands? Certainly. Tens of thousands? More likely. The barrage on Facebook and other social media makes it a veritable blur. But I fight the instinct to become jaded. One thing that helps is to revisit old friends. This week, I tracked down five old favorites, photographs that had an impact on me at vari...
2

If it was early November, it was time for Art Dubin

Posted 10 days ago by Kevin Keefe
Like any organization that’s been around long enough, what they used to call Kalmbach Publishing Co. has its traditions and rituals, most of which I take to heart by virtue of 31 years on the payroll.  One I like in particular is the annual stockholders meeting, usually held the first Thursday in November. That would be today. Although the name of the company has changed — it’s now Kalmbach Media, folks — I’m sure it will be the usual convivial gathering of pe...
5

Catching up with artist Mitch Markovitz

Posted 17 days ago by Kevin Keefe
“Write about what you know” is standard advice for aspiring fiction writers. Maybe the same can be said for artists. “Paint about what you know.” A version of that wisdom seems to have applied more than 40 years ago when Mitch Markovitz embarked on a career that, to my mind, is one of the most successful and satisfying in all of railroad art. Mitch certainly knows his subject, courtesy of years of work in train service on Chicago & North Western, Milwaukee Road, Amt...
5

Two North Western R-1s are better than one

Posted 24 days ago by Kevin Keefe
As I turned the car off four-lane U.S. 12 and onto a county road, I found myself beguiled once again by the beauty of the Wisconsin countryside in October. The windshield revealed a postcard scene of neat-as-a-pin farms and fields, washed green and gold in morning sunlight, ponderous combines raising clouds of dust here and there.  “This doesn’t look like the kind of place you’d build a steam locomotive,” I thought to myself. But it is. Out past Middleton, where th...
4

The 'Southern Belle' fought the good fight

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
One of my favorite railroad books is Fred W. Frailey’s Twilight of the Great Trains (Indiana University Press, 2010), an account so downright readable you can dive into any chapter and feel right at home. Fred’s account of the decline of the passenger train in the 1960s is fun even when it’s overwhelmingly sad.  It’s telling that Fred’s opening chapter is all about a train that seemed to encapsulate all that was going on with passenger service in tho...
5

“It’ll never run,” we told ourselves

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
I wasn’t the best student Michigan State University ever saw. I went in with the best of intentions, but by the time I graduated (and I did graduate), all I could claim was a mediocre grade point and sketchy job prospects. But none of that mattered, thanks to the 400-ton beast that stopped me in my tracks when I was on my way to class on my first day at MSU. I had transferred as a sophomore from a small college in September 1970, and I had no idea that my new university possesse...
7

Musings on old-school piggyback

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
A news item from BNSF last week caught my eye, and not for the intended reason. It was an announcement from BNSF and trucking giant YRC, an agreement to field more than 600 new containers branded for YRC and dedicated to Chicago–Southern California service via the Transcon.  These kinds of partnerships seem to happen frequently and aren’t all that newsworthy. But the story had me searching the web to check on “YRC,” a name unfamiliar to me. I should have recognized ...
12

Strangers in the diner

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
The controversy over Amtrak’s plans for dining cars in the East has been festering for months. The railroad’s move toward pre-packaged hot meals and the closing of on-board fresh food preparation seems inevitable. I’m to the point where I’m simply shrugging my shoulders in acquiescence. I know from experience — eventually the accountants wear you down.  Maybe the new food won’t be so bad. I recall two years ago when I had a packaged chicken entrée...
4

Catching up with Ben Bachman

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
Of all the railroad writers who make me want to toss my laptop into the trash — and there are several — perhaps none blows me away like Ben Bachman. He’s a journalist and essayist of rare perception, capable of digging through layers of detail and implications rarely visible to most of us. But Ben’s powers don’t stop there. He’s also one of our best photographers, blending trains with the landscape as few others can, seeing things few others see.  So it...
4

Lost Chicago: Union Station’s concourse

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Chicago fancies itself the architectural capital of the United States, and it can make a good case. It’s where Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright established their reputations. From the 1920s onward, it was the most fertile ground for the American skyscraper (sorry, New York, but it’s true). Each year, tens of thousands of visitors enjoy the river and walking tours of the Chicago Architecture Center.  But Chicago is always a city on the hustle, a place where...
1

Weekend in Toronto with Phil Hastings and CP 136

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I wouldn’t necessarily want some of the work I’ve done over the years to be described as “nostalgia,” but I was OK with it last week when my friend Kurt Bell, archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives, said some nice things about a publication that takes me back 45 years. In a post on the Facebook page Tourist Railroad Nostalgia, Kurt talked about Trainline, the erstwhile publication of the Tourist Railway Association, Inc., or TRAIN, a predecessor of today&rsqu...
9

Wanted: full credit to photographers

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Just after dawn on a brutal winter day in the waning days of steam on Canadian National, photographer Philip R. Hastings stepped back from the caboose of an eastbound freight at Green River, N.B., and fired off a shot as his host crew inspected the oncoming 4-6-2 of a westbound extra. It’s a photo for the ages. Streaked with thick flying snow, highlighted by Phil’s fill-in flash, the image is dramatic evidence of the harsh realities of railroading in winter, from the near white-out ...
11

Remembering Warren Scholl

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
If you go to railroad events often enough you already know that trains aren’t the real priority — it’s the people. My schedule is fairly full of these kinds of things, and to be honest I don’t always remember the speeches I heard, the PowerPoint presentations I endured, or the images I saw up on the screen. But I definitely recall seeing old friends. One of my favorites has always been Warren Scholl. Alas, I got the terribly sad news a couple of weeks ago while on a two-...
4

Brief encounter in Lancashire

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I felt my pulse quickening as we got off the local train from Liverpool last week and made our way up the long ramp to the opposite station platform. There it was, looming over us like Big Ben itself, a huge J.B. Joyce & Co. clock, the one they call the “second-most famous in all of England,” its Roman numerals pegged at 12:20 p.m. It could only be one place: Carnforth, Lancashire, one of the most charming passenger stations you’ll ever encounter, and one of the three star...
1

Books for a summer afternoon

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I don’t know if I read more books during the summer, but I seem to. Some of that’s because our front porch is such a relaxing place to curl up with something new. Some of it is simply the rite of the “summer reading list,” shared by millions. This summer is no exception, and it’s been a good one, books-wise. Two I especially enjoyed over the past couple of weeks are Reckless Daughter, an unconventional biography of singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, by David Yaf...
2

Big Boy in Brew City

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
It took me long enough, but I finally caught up with Union Pacific Big Boy No. 4014. Or maybe I should say the 4-8-8-4 caught up with me. Various circumstances have until now kept me from witnessing the greatest steam spectacle of the last several years, even when the 4014 was tantalizingly close. Hosting a Trains magazine Promontory tour back in May brought me face to face with the engine in Ogden on May 9, but only for a static ceremony. Two days later, as our bus tour headed east t...
0

Good times on L&N’s ‘Riviera’

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Of all the possible expansions of Amtrak service, perhaps the one that appeals to me most is returning passenger trains to the delightful section of former Louisville & Nashville main line that stretches along the Gulf Coast from New Orleans 160 miles east to Mobile, Ala. I’ve never ridden this piece of railroad. I missed my chance when the triweekly Sunset Limited, which had pushed past New Orleans all the way to Orlando, was suspended after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But I&rsqu...
2

In Michigan, Bluewater says it’s bowing out

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I lived in the Detroit area back in the 1970s when it was still a fairly interesting railroad town. When I left for Milwaukee in 1980 I had some fleeting regrets over things I’d miss — the grand old Michigan Central Station, Grand Trunk Western freights, SEMTA’s commuter trains to Pontiac, and the occasional meeting of the venerable Michigan Railroad Club. Then I lost track for a while. That is, until I began working at Trains and found myself covering railroad news ...
3

Time catches up with Proviso’s hump

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
You might not think closing another classification hump is newsworthy, given the spate of such decommissions in recent years, especially on CSX. The hegemony of Precision Scheduled Railroading has shaken up the whole practice of loose-car railroading. Humps, the gods have decided, are expendable. Recently came news that another one has closed, its squealing retarders suddenly silent: the hump at Union Pacific’s huge Proviso Yard west of Chicago.  Proviso isn’t just any hump ya...
9

The private car I’d buy, if only . . .

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
For most of us, the idea of owning a private railroad car is just a fantasy. That’s doubly true in the current historical moment, as Amtrak ruthlessly pushes the private-car community to the fringes.  Fantasy or not, it never hurts to window shop. That’s what I was thinking earlier this week when I scrolled through the astounding lineup of observation cars now being offered for sale by Missouri-based Ozark Mountain Railcar, one of the leading railroad equipment brokers. If you ...
3

Baldwin 60000: oddball in the spotlight

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
It’s interesting to me how often we shower attention on the oddball, the square peg, the brilliant failure. Think of Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, the gargantuan wood seaplane that in 1947 almost, but didn’t quite, soar into history. Or the Tucker 48, the innovative postwar automobile that, were it not for a 1988 movie, might have remained obscure. I put Baldwin 4-10-2 No. 60000 in the same category. A grand experiment by America’s dominant steam locomotive manufacturer, ...
7

Al Staufer: a belated appreciation

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
My railroad library always gets a pretty good workout, especially when it comes to steam locomotives. If a steam assignment comes my way — and my editor, Rob McGonigal, has me working on a doozy right now — then suddenly my little office floor is littered with books. Right now, scattered around my desk, are a bunch of familiar steam titles. I never start anything without having handy Kalmbach’s North American steam guide, originally compiled by George H. Drury. David P. Morgan...
14

Amtrak’s latest buzzkill

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I suppose they have their reasons — safety has become a zero-sum game — but I was disappointed to hear of Amtrak’s decision this week to uphold its ban on rear-platform and open Dutch-door riding for private cars. Petitioned by the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners, Amtrak reconsidered its earlier ban, then said “no dice.” I don’t think AAPRCO will get much sympathy. A lot of people think of private-car owners as rich people cruising th...
4

Big red signal in Glenview

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Over the past several years, the northwest Chicago suburbs have become Ground Zero for battles between railroads and the local citizenry.  Suburban NIMBYs — the familiar “not in my backyard” crowd — lost a big one several years ago when Canadian National was able to proceed with its acquisition of the EJ&E mainline, giving CN an additional and utterly logical way of moving freight around Chicago, rather than through it. The tony little town of Barrington fought ...
2

Notes from the road to Promontory

Posted 6 months 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...
4

Happy Birthday, L.A. Union Station

Posted 6 months 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...
15

Philadelphia does right by 30th Street

Posted 6 months 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 ...
7

A bright future for Nashville’s “Dixie” 4-8-4

Posted 7 months 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...
2

Financing railroad preservation from within

Posted 7 months 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...
2

Promontory before the crowds

Posted 7 months 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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