A blog from Classic Trains columnist Kevin P. Keefe
5

10 very special steam fantrips

Posted yesterday by Kevin Keefe
It’s been a good spring for mainline steam, what with early performances already by Norfolk & Western 611, Union Pacific 844, and Milwaukee Road 261. There’s much more to come this summer. The staff over at Trains is marking the season with Big Steam is Back, a new special-edition magazine and companion video. All this excitement has got me in a nostalgic mood, thinking about a lot of trips I took over the last 40 years when “big steam was back” the first or second o...
10

PRR 4935, the first true heritage unit

Posted 7 days ago by Kevin Keefe
Everybody started pinching themselves several years ago when “heritage units,” resplendent in long-retired paint schemes, began arriving from the shops of Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, and Amtrak. Nothing draws photographers to trackside like word that the NS “Wabash” unit or the UP “Katy” diesel is in town. It’s been an amazing gesture by all three railroads. UP fielded six Commemorative Locomotives, of them all SD70ACe units, painted in liveries ho...
2

St. Paul Union Depot: a big-city station done right

Posted 15 days ago by Kevin Keefe
It’s an understatement to say that big American cities have a mixed record when it comes to finding new uses for their grand train stations. If anything good happens, the emphasis usually is on mere preservation and not transportation. Some of our best historic terminals have found new life as commercial or cultural institutions. Three of the best examples are Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati, all of which have found new missions as commercial properties and museums, even as they...
5

Reboot for a classic ‘California Zephyr’ book

Posted 21 days ago by Kevin Keefe
You know a train is great when it gets the spotlight in a single-subject, hardcover book. Not many name trains from the classic era have such status. New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited earned it, of course, twice. Santa Fe’s Super Chief comes to mind. There are a few others. Then there’s the California Zephyr, that svelte, stainless-steel domeliner that made a glittering splash in the postwar streamliner era. The CZ got its first full-dress book in 1975 with Karl Zim...
1

When a new locomotive comes to town

Posted 29 days ago by Kevin Keefe
Last week I found myself driving down Milwaukee’s lakefront to participate in a rite that goes back at least 80 years: the introduction of a new passenger locomotive at the downtown depot. The city was oblivious, however. There were no news reporters at the station, no politicians, no high-ranking railroad officials. Just me, my friend Craig Willett (a retired Amtrak engineer), a few current Amtrak employees, and a sparkling new example of the latest in motive power, gleaming in the soft ...
11

'Tornado' and the magic of high-speed steam

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
Last week the steam preservation world was abuzz with the news that Britain’s ultimate steam star — A1-class 4-6-2 Tornado — had reached 100 mph on April 12 in a special trial run between Doncaster and Newcastle on the East Coast Main Line. The news was sensational on both sides of the Atlantic, where hitting the “century mark” is seen as an almost magical feat for a steam locomotive. That fascination goes back to the late 19th century, and judging from the reactio...
0

Getting wistful about Atlanta & West Point 290

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
It’s shaping up to be a good year for mainline steam locomotives. This month, Union Pacific 4-8-4 No. 844 is back in action. Just this past weekend, Norfolk Southern drew crowds again with Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 No. 611. Nickel Plate 2-8-4 No. 765 and Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261 both have trips scheduled for summer. Perhaps best of all, Western Maryland Scenic plans to unveil fully restored Chesapeake & Ohio 2-6-6-2 No. 1309 later in the summer. Are we back to the go-go 1990s? I...
4

Fifty years of the NTSB

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
In a season when everyone, it seems, has a problem with some aspect of the U.S. government, it might seem foolhardy to hold up a federal agency as an object of near-unanimous respect, even admiration. But I’m going to do that anyway, because this week marks the 50th anniversary of the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB opened for business on April 1, 1967, after years of preparation by legions of politicians, bureaucrats, and transportation professionals, all with a goal of cr...
9

With the Boomer, talk turns to Pullmans

Posted one month ago by Kevin Keefe
I’m enjoying my perennial (and wandering) conversation with Ed “The Boomer” King, retired railroader and man of letters, now enjoying the good life in Largo, Fla. Most of the time when I bring Ed into this space, we gravitate to our favorite subject: steam locomotives. But that’s a favorite only by degree. There are so many other worthy topics! Take sleeping cars, for instance, or more specifically, specific cars on specific trains in the heyday of the Pullman Company. I...
8

Searching for the King’s Dinner

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Of all the great trains I never rode, I think I’d put Illinois Central’s streamlined Panama Limited at the top. What? Not the Century? The Super Chief? What kind of heresy is this? Please hear me out. Of course I would have loved to ride those other two trains. They probably were the best by conventional definition. Lord knows there are enough books, photographs, posters, Broadway musicals, and movie appearances about the Century and the Super to make the argument. But the Panama ...
6

Consider the Irish-American railroader

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Until recently, I never made much of my ethnic background, which is three-quarters Irish. I grew up in a small Midwestern industrial town where ethnicity didn’t seem to matter much, at least outwardly. In the Keefe house, being Irish was an afterthought, a footnote. Perhaps that was because, at some point lost in our history, the Keefes stopped being Catholic, which they almost certainly were in Ireland. Instead, I grew up in the Presbyterian Church, hardly a Gaelic institution. Things c...
3

Boston keeps the faith with PCC cars

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I’ve always loved PCC streetcars. The way they look, the way they sound — to me they’re the very essence of big-city street transit. Though their basic design dates to 1936, I don’t think they look old-fashioned at all. They’re timeless, like an F unit. That’s why I was heartened by the news last week that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has decided to spend some money to keep its small fleet of PCCs rolling on the historic Mattapan High Spee...
8

CP remembers Nicholas Morant

Posted 2 months ago by Kevin Keefe
In May 1989, I traveled to Revelstoke, B.C., to cover the dedication of Canadian Pacific’s massive renovation of its main line through Rogers Pass, 262 miles west of Calgary in the rugged heart of the Rockies. The event was what you’d expect from CP, several days of bagpipes and speeches, press trips through 9.1-mile Mount Macdonald Tunnel, and other forms of pomp and circumstance. Magnificent as all that was, the best part for me was the solitary drive back to Calgary along the Tra...
5

Wandering 2-8-2 deserves a new home

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Wanted: New home for a clean, smooth-running 2-8-2. Great pulling power. Equipped with 44-inch drivers, one pair without flanges. Perfect for tight curves and light track. Not a classified ad you’d expect to ever see these days, but one that’s theoretically possible after last week’s surprising news that an arbitrator has ruled for the owner of just such a steam locomotive and against a venerable railroad museum, to the tune of $200,000 in damages. That’s the situation ...
10

Memo to railroad authors: honor the index

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
In my nearly 30 years working in the Kalmbach offices, my colleagues Rob McGonigal and Dave Ingles got used to my various rants. Trust me, there were a million of them. Judging by the reaction I got from Rob and Dave, most of them were promptly and wisely dismissed. But if there was one thing that consistently got me worked up — and often got them to nod in agreement — was the frequent exclusion of indexes in many railroad books. That might seem trivial, but when your job includes ...
7

The way to Indianapolis

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I love riding steam excursions as much as the next person, not to mention tourist lines and private cars. And I wouldn’t mind joining one of those high-end “photo-freight” charters one of these days, as soon as I save enough money. But I also have a hang-up about authenticity, probably a lingering malady from journalism school, or just plain obstinance. None of these operations, it seems to me, is authentic in the strictest sense of the word. All of them are replications of so...
8

Dispatches from the Boomer, Part II

Posted 3 months ago by Kevin Keefe
A few weeks ago in this space I caught up with my friend E.W. “Ed” King Jr., after a visit to his home in Largo, Fla. The story, posted on January 3, in part described how he came to be known as the Boomer. It was great to see my old colleague again, and not only because his home seems like a tropical paradise compared with Milwaukee in winter. With Ed, it’s all about the conversation, which is always engaging. Now retired after a fulfilling career on Norfolk & Western, Ro...
5

Hunter Harrison harkens back to Bill Deramus III

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
For this news junkie, last week was a roller coaster, and not for the reasons you might think. Instead of getting sucked into all the drama in Washington, D.C., I found myself more mesmerized by a sideshow of another kind, the latest turn in the career of railroading’s bad boy, E. Hunter Harrison. The story is complicated, as reported by the staff over at Trains magazine, but to boil it down to its essence, Harrison was suddenly released from his obligations as chairman of Canadian Pacifi...
4

Ringling Bros. news would sadden Chappie Fox

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
The news that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus plans to call it quits comes as a shock not only to the world of the circus and the entertainment industry, but also to those of us who love the circus’s railroad connections. Florida-based Feld Entertainment, longtime owners of the Ringling operation, announced last week that the circus would be shut down after performances in May. The news throws the lives of hundreds of circus performers and workers into limbo, as well as ...
3

Sad outcome in Chicago, but R&LHS remains strong

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Chicago has been on my mind lately. One reason is what arrived in my mail last week, the new Trains special edition called Chicago: America’s Railroad Capital. It’s really terrific, 98 pages of reporting, analysis, photographs, and wonderful maps, all showing why Chicago always will be what poet Carl Sandburg called “Player with Railroads, and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” Kudos to the publication’s editor, David Lassen, and the entire staff for doing the W...
20

Dispatches from the Boomer

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
One of my favorite railroad writers is the great E. W. “Ed” King Jr., better known as the Boomer. A lot of railroaders call themselves boomers, but I like to think we sanctified it for Ed when he became the bimonthly columnist in Trains under the rubric “The Boomer.” For a little over five years, from the January 1996 issue through November 2001, Ed regaled readers with trainloads of anecdotes from a long career, not to mention plenty of pithy and sometimes provocative op...
14

Ron Ziel: An appreciation

Posted 4 months ago by Kevin Keefe
For legions of baby boomers, the steam locomotive was a tantalizing but ultimately frustrating presence. If you were born in the early 1950s like me, you grew up feeling like you knew the steam locomotive, but it’s more likely you didn’t. By the time a lot of us were 8 or 9, steam was gone. I think back to my parents and their uncanny ability to move to two different places before I was 6, each about a year after the last steam locomotive rolled through town. That didn’t kee...
8

Great (railroad) things under the tree

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
Tony Jaroch was a railroader right out of central casting. Outwardly gruff, he had enough of a twinkle in his eye that you knew it’d be OK to talk to him, especially if you were just a high school kid with innocent questions. I got to know Tony around 1968, on long summer afternoons when I wasn’t stocking grocery-store shelves. To this day I don’t know what his job title was — superintendent? trainmaster? agent? — but he ruled the roost from a tiny office across the...
12

Railroad books you can curl up with

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
I suppose the first impulse in picking up a railroad book is to look at the pictures. For most of us, I’m guessing, the fundamental appeal of railroading is visual, and so I frequently find myself passing the time with yet another glance through a Richard Steinheimer book or a favorite title from Morning Sun. What can be more fun than that? But some books transcend the visual. Too often, railroad writing is merely loaded with facts and figures, research and analysis. Yet there are some wr...
8

Forward-thinking Jim McClellan always looked back

Posted 5 months ago by Kevin Keefe
The encomiums that have poured from various quarters since the death of Jim McClellan are proof that we lost someone extraordinary on October 14. We’ve seen a lot of railroading’s giants pass in recent years, but I can’t recall anyone who triggered the kind of deep, emotional response accorded Jim. The basic facts of Jim’s incredible life are impressive enough. One of railroading’s great true believers, he managed to have a critical role in most of the sweeping cha...

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