Are there really just seven mainline steam locomotives left?

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Thursday, June 04, 2009
Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 No. 765 at La Crosse, Ind., May 24, 2009.Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 No. 765's recent outings at the Hoosier Valley Railroad in Indiana and its planned appearance at Train Festival 2009 in Michigan in July got me onto a subject that was disturbing to one who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s halcyon days of mainline steam excursion: How many mainline steam locomotives are really out there in the United States today? The best answer I could come up with is, sad to say, seven. First off, some criteria. When I say "mainline" I mean a locomotive capable of pulling a good sized train -- 10 or more cars -- at track speed (think 40 mph plus) for several hundred miles in a day's time. That puts us at least into the category of a big eight-coupled locomotive minimum. Secondly, the engines have to be roadworthy and not just "stored serviceable" so that leaves a lot of horses in the barn for this count: Alas, Milwaukee Road 261, if you were not in the midst of lease negotiations between the Friends of the 261 and the owner, the Nation Railway Museum in Green Bay, Wis., and the indignity of being stripped down naked for a 15-year inspection, you'd swell this number by one. Third, they have to have some place to stretch their legs: lots of welded rail, CTC, and true mainline running with meets, passing sidings, and such. So, who's "in”? The quick list is lopsided toward the Western part of the United States. Union Pacific 4-8-4 No. 844 and 4-6-6-4 No. 3985 roll on based out of the shop in Cheyenne, Wyo., to the delight of all whose territory they grace. Southern Pacific Daylight 4-8-4 No. 4449 continues to roam the Pacific Northwest (and will be at Train Festival as well) with regularity from her home in Portland, Ore. Her stable mate, Spokane, Portland & Seattle 4-8-4 No. 700, likewise polishes the rails on host BNSF and short lines, too. Staying out west is Santa Fe 4-8-4 No. 3751, based out of Los Angeles and again through the good offices of Amtrak, Metrolink, and BNSF. Back east, the count stops in the Midwest, where 765 calls suburban Fort Wayne, Ind. home, and nearby in Owosso, Mich., the Steam Railroading Institute's Pere Marquette 2-8-4 No. 1225, is the star of the show. You'll find 765, 1225, and 4449 at Train Festival July 23-26. That's thee of the magnificent seven, folks, so be sure to mark it on your calendar as it is on mine. Maybe seven is a sustainable number in the age when railroads are out of the public's minds. It seems small to me, having known what once ran on Southern, Chessie, Chicago & North Western, Southern Pacific, and so many other railroads that once played host to mainline steam excursions. So, let's welcome back No. 765 and hope its second excursion career is filled with miles of track and plenty of smiles back in the coaches.
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