Of politics, education and main line steam

on Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The recent announcement that Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261 would return to the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wis., after 15 years of pulling excursions got me thinking about the politics behind mainline steam. Politics, you say? You bet. To successfully navigate the treacherous waters of organizing a main line steam excursion in the 21st century, you’d better be a darn good politician. Consider what you're up against:
First, unless you have a good relationship with a Class I railroad, you have to go to Amtrak to run your trip. Now one would think that Amtrak, which is in the business of running passenger trains, would embrace your idea. They might — after you’ve satisfied them by jumping through dozens of hoops. You have to convince the folks who work in special moves to deal with you, and that you have a good idea. Then it’s time to have to have your engine and equipment inspected — better be good to that inspector or bad things could happen. You’d better talk to the host railroad too — even though Amtrak may be convinced it’s a good idea, you’d better persuade the railroad it is too. Now make sure you’ve talked with the local railroaders as well — trainmasters, mechanical folks, even ticket agents if you’re going to use an Amtrak station. I can remember one 261 trip where a station agent was bound and determined to prevent a 261 excursion from using “his” station — because he hadn’t been consulted first.
Then, as the Friends of the 261 learned, if you don’t own the engine outright, you’d better keep the owners happy too. Even if they are absentee owners, they can exert pressure on an operator. In 2008, when 261 had a chance to appear in the film Public Enemies the Friends of the 261 scrambled to make it happen. Things came together at the last minute, and the locomotive and train left Minneapolis for Chicago just a few days before filming began. After the train returned, the Friends discovered that the National Railroad Museum was incensed that they had not been notified of 261’s participation in the film, felt that 261’s appearance was a violation of the lease agreement, and demanded a “piece of the action.” It doesn’t help that whenever a movie company is involved, people see dollar signs. Museum folks have said that the Friends “got a million dollars for the movie.” The truth is the Friends got less than $150,000, of which about $50,000 went to pay the railroads involved in the move. On top of that were other expenses, such as coal, housing the crew in Chicago, meals, and transportation.  
You can argue for hours about who was right about this situation, but it’s just another demonstration about how large a role politics can play in running a steam locomotive. It isn’t a new phenomenon. Recently steam entrepreneur Ross Rowland, who was responsible for bringing Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 No. 759 back to life in 1968, commented on the Railway Preservation News web site how he ran the engine for several years with no problems. Then management changed at Steamtown USA, 759’s owner. The new team at Steamtown saw “their” engine running and presumably making boatloads of cash for Rowland. Steamtown asked for significantly more money, and before you could say “Berkshire” the 759 was headed back to Vermont and its second retirement.
An eerily similar situation befell the 261 in 2009. The museum argued that the Friends never had an increase in their annual lease payments in the 15 years 261 operated — which is true. Seeing how 261 was such a smashing success thanks to the Friends' efforts, who could blame them if they wanted a bigger piece of the pie for their engine? So they asked for more money — but they asked for a lot more money at the beginning of negotiations to extend the 261 lease. However, like the Steamtown folks in the early 1970s, they didn’t understand that steam engines are a money pit and, if the operator is savvy, barely cover expenses — and usually don’t even do that. Steam operators aren’t in the business for the money — they just love to see these machines run.
This is where the politics end and education takes over. Professional museum executive directors and their boards are often ignorant of the costs of running steam locomotives and excursion trains. Some have professional railroaders on their boards that can try to educate them (and one of the museum board members who was a railroader tried to do just that) but it’s an uphill climb. Often boards are made up of businessmen who just can’t seem get their minds around the idea that people would work untold hours for no pay just to see a locomotive run. I’m sure they think there must be a financial windfall when all is said and done, so why shouldn’t they be entitled to their cut? What needs to be made clear is the labor of love aspect of steam operations. Ask any of the people who restore and fly vintage World War II aircraft. While a restored warbird today can fetch a handsome sum, that’s not the reason people rebuild them. They just love seeing them fly again. Often the restoration costs them a fortune, for which they will see no monetary reward — they do it for the love of the machine.
So, if you want to run a main line steam engine today, you’d better be a pretty good politician — and a teacher. And while you’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to be a professional salesman too, because you’re going to be have to do some pretty hard selling if you want to see your engine get past the shop doors and onto the main line. 


Steve Glischinski is a familiar author to Trains readers. His first magazine articles on railroading were published in 1982, and his by-line has appeared dozens of times, mainly in Trains, for whom he serves as a correspondent. He is the author of six books on railroading, including such topics as the history of the Burlington Northern Railroad, Wisconsin Central, Milwaukee Road steam locomotive 261, the Santa Fe, and regional railroads. He lives in suburban St. Paul, Minn.

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