How will you remember 2019?

Posted by Justin Franz
on Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Union Pacific Big Boy No. 4014 at Ogden, Utah. Photo by Justin Franz.
Years from now, how will we look back at railroading in 2019? 

Will it be remembered as the year that Precision Scheduled Railroading took hold on Class I railroads across America? Or the year when railroads finally got their act together on Positive Train Control? Or the year when railroading took its first significant steps toward automation? Looking back at the last 12 months, it could very well be any of those things and, honestly, it might be hard to know for sure right now. 

When I look back at 2019, though, I see something very different: I see a year when the general public, if only for a moment, took notice and appreciated railroading the way so many of us do. There are of course few ways to actually measure that statement — although Union Pacific tried earlier this month when it announced that more than 1.1 million people came out to see the recently-restored “Big Boy” No. 4014 — but over the last year, I’ve gathered a number of examples to lend credibility to my hypothesis. 

On Mother’s Day, I drove through Echo Canyon, Utah, completely blown away by the size of the crowds that had gathered to see the world’s largest steam locomotive. Cars were parked in every nook and cranny and people were all over the right-of-way, much to the dismay of freight crews and one stressed-out dispatcher in Omaha. And it wasn’t just rabid railfans who had made the pilgrimage to see this fire-breathing monster from the past, it was regular citizens who on any other day probably wouldn’t even bat an eye toward a passing train. At Castle Rock, just shy of the Utah-Wyoming border, I pulled off the interstate and somehow found a place to park on the side of a dirt road. While waiting for Nos. 4014 and 844 to roar up the Wasatch Grade, I talked with Wes and Roni Hickey of Bridger Valley, Wyo., who were heading to Ogden for Mother’s Day when they saw the hundreds of parked cars. Like so many others, they stopped and decided to see what the commotion was all about. When they heard the world’s largest steam locomotive was coming they decided to stay. 

Wes and Roni Hickey of Bridger Valley, Wyo. watch Big Boy pass. Photo by Justin Franz.
“There are so many people out,” Wes said, in awe of not just the massive locomotive but the massive crowds following it on its inaugural journey. 

A few months later, I sat in my office in Montana and watched a live helicopter feed from a Chicago TV station following the Big Boy into the Windy City. The world’s largest steam locomotive was getting news coverage usually reserved for high-speed car chases. At about the same time, I got an email from an editor at a travel and history publication that I occasionally write for and had published a story about Big Boy back in May. The message was simple: Hey, we want another Big Boy story. People love it! 

And it wasn’t just the world’s largest steam locomotive that piqued the public’s interest in the railroad. In November, I went to the Architectural Heritage Center in Portland, Ore. to give a presentation about the Great Northern Railway and Glacier National Park as part of the Center for Railroad Photography and Art’s new traveling exhibit “After Promontory.” I didn’t expect a history lecture on a Saturday morning to draw a big crowd but when I started the presentation just about every seat was taken (and trust me, I know it wasn’t because of the speaker). Only a few people in attendance would probably consider themselves “railfans.”

The CP Holiday Train at Fernie, British Columbia. Photo by Justin Franz
Lastly, a few weeks ago, I ventured north to see and photograph the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train as it ran through Alberta and British Columbia. While I had seen photos of the crowds the Holiday Train draws in bigger towns, I wasn’t expecting to find a traffic jam in hamlets like Coleman, Alberta and Sparwood, British Columbia. In every little town, hundreds of people lined the right-of-way to see the train. Sure, the lure of a live concert helped nudge a lot of folks down to the tracks, but I’m sure the train had a lot to do with it to. 

Anyone reading this publication has at least a passing interest in railroads and it’s easy to understand why. Railroads and their history are infinitely fascinating and touch so many parts of our culture. If the general public gets a taste of that story, I’m confident that they’ll agree and that bodes well for railroading’s past, present and future. 

Happy New Year. 

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