Steam excursions as public relations, and as public service

Posted by Hayley Enoch
on Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The steam preservation industry operates with a cloud over its head, and not just the one created by hard-working engines. Participants and onlookers are reminded daily that every run could potentially be the last, that every day that a fire is dropped might be the last time that an engine in their care holds heat.

Against that background, the idea of bringing two different large engines to the same city within two months of each other would seem like a much too lofty goal to be attainable. Yet, it happened just this year: In mid June the NKP 765 traveled to Chicago to pull the Joliet Rocket excursions, and last week, the Soo Line 1003 came in from Wisconsin to participate in several public relations events.

Knowing that bringing the two engines here was an unusual event (there is overlap between the their crews) created a light-hearted mood when the 1003 arrived at Metra's Western Car Shop. It will not be pulling any passenger trains, but is scheduled to spend several hours performing ambassadorial duties while it is on display for the railroad's Family Days.

Several hundred employees and their families arrived turn out to the engine shop. The space has temporarily transformed into a dining hall and redecorated with murals commemorating Metra's past and present equipment and nodding to the pre-merger fallen flags that had once served the Chicago area. There are several different pieces of railroad equipment on display and plenty of food to go around, but the 1003 is by any measure the event’s focal point. The guests form long lines to get a view into the cab, cluster around to observe the running gear, stand back and admire the size of the thing. Many of them, career railroaders though they were, are unable to reason out how the technology works by sight alone. They can only trust that it does

Participating in Family Days would have been enough of an excuse to take the 1003 on an excursion--who even needs an excuse, really, to start moving if the opportunity presents itself?-- but the 1003 crew has also negotiated a second gig on this same excursion. About half way through the Famly Days the train left the shop and shoved backwards to sit on display on a siding near the Mars Candy plant.  Here, the two organizations have set up a fundraising drive to benefit the Chicago Shriners’ Hospital. Members of the public and the children being cared for by the hospital are invited to come out to view the train and donate to the Shriners and the 1003’s upkeep. When all is said and done, the volunteers have amassed in several thousand dollars to benefit both organizations.

By the time Sunday rolled around and the 1003 departs Chicago and began its return to Wisconsin, there is consensus among the volunteers and the staff of the host railroads that the excursion had been a success. Many of us attribute that to the simple but unusual fact that from the top down, Metra actually enjoys having them there.

“When the Ft. Wayne Society brought 765 to chicago, I was told by our people that we never accomplished so much, in such a short time, with such a competent group of people,” says Norman Carlson, Chairman of the Board at Metra, “It brought a lot of good publicity to Metra, and there was great teamwork between the two groups.”

‘Teamwork,’ it should be said, does not mean that planning a steam excursion becomes any less labor-intensive. No matter how close of a partnership exists between the railroads and their guests, there are still a multitude of details to plan before the engine raises a single pound of pressure. The movements must be planned around the detail of revenue trains, and must be routed around curves and switches that would be difficult for a steam locomotive to navigate. Deliveries of coal and water and other essential supplies must be arranged in advance. All of those forgettable details--does the steam crew know the code to open the yard gate when they arrive at four in the morning, for instance?--must be considered. Miss one of them, and the careful plans for the entire excursion could collapse.

Nor does a good working relationship with the hosts mean that the guest crew can afford to be anything less than professional. On big steam excursions, the need to be professional often amounts to  the single biggest source of stress hanging over the crew's head. The consequences of any lapse in observing the rules or poor train handling have the potential to be much more grave than they are for the railroad's own employees.  Performing some aspect of the job incorrectly, even a tiny thing, may the host railroad reason to question whether the group has the wherewithal to be out among real trains. Enough procedural lapses might quash the possibility of borrowing again the tracks for future excursions. Worse than that, the bad taste left in the host's mouth could sour them against other excursion groups as well.

Still, it makes a huge difference to the mood when the host railroad enjoys having the excursion and is vocal in saying so. It is a mark of solidarity to see Metra employees escorting to the 1003 posting pictures with the same enthusiasm as the crew, and the employees of the WSOR, who hosted the 1003 in and out of Chicago, were so enthusiastic that some of them took their own personal time to participate in the excursion.

Carlson noted that he can remember seeing steam locomotives in general service, and he enjoys seeing the ones that have survived to the present day. He is quick to point out, though, that despite the challenge of bringing them on to Metra’s tracks, the agency reaps  benefits that  go beyond goodwill and payments for use of the track.

“With the Joliet Rocket, we had 2,250 people riding on there that had probably never rode Metra before,” he says, “From marketing perspective, public relations, it was great for just letting people know that we’re here.”

He goes on to say that though the 1003 offered no rides to the public, he saw some anecdotal evidence of the same principle at work: “Yesterday, I ran into some people in Lake Forest that took Metra Rock Island district trains into Chicago and then took the Milwaukee District train to Lake Forest to get photographs.  The most important thing is to draw people’s attention to Metra. We are a benefit  even to people who will never ride because of the traffic we take of the streets.”  
Carlson signaled that Metra is open to considering hosting more excursions in the future,  provided that the guest operators have a good plan in mind and have a resume of professionalism. That’s a goal to strive for, because these last two excursions have brought tangible benefits to all involved.

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