A blog from Classic Trains columnist Kevin P. Keefe
5

The 'Badger' still feels like the C&O

Posted 3 days ago by Kevin Keefe
Some idle time online earlier this week (aren’t a lot of us doing that these days?) led me to a historical tidbit that caught my attention, thanks to the Wisconsin Marine Historical Society. Last Saturday, March 21, was the 67th anniversary of the day the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway put the carferry Badger into cross-Lake Michigan service. The boat began its career with a departure from Manitowoc, Wis., carrying 32 boxcars loaded with paper from Fox Valley mills.  Si...
7

Mike Yuhas is a great teammate

Posted 10 days ago by Kevin Keefe
One of the great things about working in Kalmbach’s old headquarters in downtown Milwaukee was the tendency for visitors to show up, unannounced, at any time. Most companies would discourage that, but not Al Kalmbach’s. When a Trains reader showed up at 1027 N. Seventh Street, someone on the staff would be expected to drop everything and — with a smile on their face — show the visitor around. Thus it was on a hot, humid weekday in August 1987 when the phone ran...
4

Hanging out with the "Best Friend of Charleston"

Posted 18 days ago by Kevin Keefe
Over the years I’ve tried to visit as many famous sites in American railroading as possible, not merely just to say I’ve been there, but to see if maybe witnessing them somehow deepens my appreciation of the entire sweep of the industry’s history. Sounds a bit pretentious, perhaps, but that’s been my motivation. I’ve gotten a quiet thrill out of walking the tracks at Promontory when no one was there. I’ve stood where Casey Jones met his fate in lonely Vaughan...
5

The day Burlington Northern showed the way

Posted 23 days ago by Kevin Keefe
March 2, 1970, was a foggy morning at the former Burlington yard in Cicero, just west of Chicago. Pete Briggs, a former public relations manager with the Q and suddenly doing the same work for brand-new Burlington Northern, stood in the yard with Hedrich-Blessing photographer Bob Harr to get shots of BN’s first Seattle-bound train featuring all BN power, a sextet of brand new GP38s in Cascade green. “Alas,” says Pete, “that morning was totally foggy and the diesels disap...
4

NS can’t take the glory out of Roanoke

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
Some cities and machines belong together. Imagine Renton without 707s, or Dearborn without Mustangs, or Groton without submarines. Unthinkable. Maybe that puts Norfolk Southern’s announcement of last week in perspective. The company has decided to shift what remains of its locomotive maintenance and repair in Roanoke, Va., to its Juniata Shop in Altoona, Pa. The company is giving 85 mechanical staff an opportunity to transfer to Altoona, but 19 clerical people will lose their jobs. To NS...
1

Where the Central of Georgia lives on

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
The South is home to several notable railroad museums, including two — the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer and the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga — that are among the nation’s best. But there are others worth visiting, including one of my newest favorites, the Georgia State Railroad Museum in Savannah. Although it’s home to a modest collection of locomotives and cars, GSRM can boast of something very special: a campus of buildin...
6

Saving East Broad Top is a really big deal

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
Over the past few years I thought I’d seen about as many miracles as one lifetime permits. How else would you describe the return of Union Pacific Big Boy 4014? Or the creation, out of whole cloth, of Jerry Joe Jacobson’s Age of Steam Roundhouse? Or the breathtaking resurrection of Detroit’s Michigan Central Station? We never dared dream of such things. Now comes another, maybe the best of all. As reported today on the Trains News Wire, the East Broad Top Railroad, Pennsy...
0

GM’s domed “Astra Liner” pointed the way

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
“If you go by a school and the kids don’t whistle, then it’s back to the drawing board.” With that, the great General Motors stylist Harley Earl pretty much summed up his design philosophy, one that manifested itself in two generations of Chevys, Pontiacs, Buicks, and Cadillacs adorned with chrome, fins, and bulging taillights. Writing of Earl for Motor Trend, K. Scott Teeters described him as a “visionary with corporate clout and the resources to get anything...
4

Echoes of the Seaboard on Amtrak’s 'Silver Star'

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
I went looking for traces of the Seaboard Air Line this week. So why was I standing under the skylight in the waiting room of an Atlantic Coast Line station? Back in the streamliner era, when the two railroads were sworn rivals, you wouldn’t find SAL’s Silver Star on the turf of ACL’s Champion. Unthinkable. They fought each other like crazy for the lucrative New York–Miami trade, with dueling trainsets of gleaming stainless steel.  But now we’r...
6

Photographer Ed Wojtas seized the moment

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
It’s not a train picture, but it’s a photograph that speaks eloquent volumes about what it means to travel by train.  A man sits on a ponderous wooden bench inside the cavernous waiting room of Kansas City Union Station. He looks like a traveling salesman who’s been on the road too long, although his dark suit, short-brim Trilby hat, and pocket square convey a whiff of elegance. He’s bent over a magazine, backlit in a shaft of afternoon light as smoke from his cigar...
8

The Challenger at high tide

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
A couple of weeks ago, Union Pacific steam boss Ed Dickens clarified what many of us had expected to hear for quite some time, that 4-6-6-4 Challenger No. 3985 won’t be back in service anytime soon, or perhaps ever.  The reasons are pretty obvious: UP’s heritage operations team already has its hands full running and maintaining 4-8-8-4 Big Boy No. 4014 and 4-8-4 No. 844, and bringing back 3985 would require another expensive overhaul. Such are the consequences of running the wh...
17

Losing DPM, thirty years on

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
It still feels like it just happened. Thirty years ago, on a Wednesday afternoon, I was sitting in my office next to my boss, Trains Editor J. David Ingles, and proofing something for the March 1990 issue of the magazine. On the other side of me an impatient Nancy Bartol, our production editor, was probably getting close to rapping both Ingles and me on the knuckles. We were right on top of a deadline. Suddenly JDI called us into his office. He had an ashen look on his face. Our art d...
7

What if Bing and Danny really took the train?

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
There are several things I can’t do without this season. One of them is the movie White Christmas. I like it despite its mawkishness, its sentimentality, its total improbability. I fall into this film every year the way you fall into gingerbread cookies and eggnog. It’s predictable and comfortable, as Christmas should be. I’m especially fond of the train scene near the beginning, in which old Army buddies Bob Wallace and Phil Davis (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) head north ...
2

The New Haven in its salad days

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
There are plenty of railroads from the classic era I wish I’d known, but near the top of my list would be the New York, New Haven & Hartford. What a wonderful contradiction, a small Class I outfit in terms of route miles (1,547 in 1967) but major league when it came to its high-speed main line, its electrification, its 4-6-4s and electrics, its society page clientele, and its terminals in Manhattan and Boston. The New Haven packed an impressive punch. My regrets over not witnessing th...
7

D.C. museum’s RPO is an old friend

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Sometimes you encounter old friends in the strangest of places. That happened to me a couple of weeks ago during a brief visit to Washington, D.C. Our trip included a stop at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum at 2 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E., across the street from Union Station. Housed in the old main post office, a neo-classical monument constructed in 1914, the museum has an engaging lineup of exhibits, including an old Star Route horse-drawn wagon, some cool mail delivery trucks...
4

Ma & Pa roundhouse is a tarnished gem

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
A family trip to Baltimore last weekend afforded me a chance to take a brief detour and check up on the most prominent relic of one of the East’s most famous fairy tale railroads, the Maryland & Pennsylvania. I never saw the “Ma & Pa,” as everyone referred to it, but years ago I stumbled upon its sturdy old roundhouse, which still exists on the northeast side of town, tucked into a hillside on Falls Road just north of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. I vowed to go back....
5

Five photos that stay with me

Posted 4 months 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...
3

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

Posted 4 months 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 5 months 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 5 months 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 5 months 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 5 months 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 5 months 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 6 months 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...
5

Catching up with Ben Bachman

Posted 6 months 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 6 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 6 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 7 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 7 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 7 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...

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