A gallop or a crawl: Is there a "right" speed for steam excursions?

Posted by Hayley Enoch
on Wednesday, April 26, 2017

UP 844 approaches Pocatello, Idaho at a steady clip.
I-84 in southern Idaho is typical of American highways. The asphalt fills up a channel first carved out by railroads, and in modern times there are many places where you can still see freight trains right from the highway.

On most days, the intermodal trains that appear to make up the majority of the cargo on the sub offer a good illustration of the symbiotic nature of different modes of transportation. Today, though, the 844 and the Union Pacific’s excursion train are a black-and-yellow gash in the distanced, gliding effortlessly along with barely a cloud of vapor or smoke to evidence the engine’s efforts.

The Union Pacific’s steam trips--to put a spin on a more common phrase--usually haul caboose. They usually move close to the maximum track speed, which means that their average speed is often equal to or more than the legal road speed. I am very grateful for Idaho’s 80 MPH highway speed limit. For once, it’s possible to get ahead of this train and meet it at more than one location.

Don’t get me wrong. It is certainly exhilarating to watch such a powerful engine stomp along at high speeds, with all the power designed into turned into speed and strength, it is just frustrating to photograph it at those speeds. My other attempts to chase the 844’s excursions can’t rightly be called chases at all. They were much more ambushes of the train, single pictures taken from one carefully selected and aggressively guarded location.
There are many long drives through empty terrain involved in chasing the Boise Turn, and at points my mind wanders into more philosophical questions about chases like these. Is it possible, I wonder, to establish a universally agreed upon on “correct” speed for a mainline steam trip?

This question has been tumbling around my mind for a few weeks now, ever since the news that the A1-Tornado in Britain broke 100 mph on the mainline. There are real reasons why we can’t attain that speed in the United States—our railroad network simply isn’t set up for it in the vast majority of corridors— but the vast majority of on that story seemed to think it was something that we should strive for. It is no doubt a technical achievement to reach that speed, but I wonder what there is to gain other than the symbolic victory of reaching triple digits. It’s  hard to take in the scenery from on board at speeds like that, which is often the draw of excursions in the first place. In many cases traveling that rapidly might make the entire excursion feel somewhat rushed and over too quickly, too . As a passenger, the “ideal” speed for me has seemed to be somewhere between forty and sixty miles an hour--fast enough that you can get a good sense of the engine working, but not so fast that you feel like you’re rushing to get somewhere.

The ideal speed for appreciating trains from the ground, on the other hand, calls for a different set of considerations. If the train is going too fast, it is there and then gone almost as soon as your brain has registered that you’re actually seeing them--remember the videos of the 765 blasting through Chicago Metra stations?

For photography, the same slow speeds that tend to earn criticism, like Norfolk Southern's much-maligned 40-mph-cap on the 611's excursions, can work to a chaser's advantage. The slower the train goes, the easier it is to leapfrog ahead of it, and the more chances one has to capture it on film or on video.

The trade-off, of course, is that the slower the train goes, the less energy the engine has to expend moving it, and thus the drama inherent to the machines can be significantly reduced. This was the case when we chased a doubleheader of the 630 and 4501 from Chattanooga to Georgia: We could have sleepwalked to meet the two engines at every crossing, but seldom got a sense of the power that the two engines were capable of producing.
In the end, there’s no way to establish a “right” speed, as it is as much a personal opinion as it is limited by factors beyond the control of the organization hosting the trip. No matter what speeds are attained, though, it is still a worthwhile experience to see one of these machines in action.

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy