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Southern 4501, Norfolk & Western 611, and now Union Pacific 4014: Can it get any better than this?

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Friday, July 26, 2013

Photo by David Lustig.
These are strange, almost surrealistic times for us steam locomotive fans. We’re on the verge of living in a dream that is beyond-belief good. But we’re still not a happy lot.

The modern age of steam on the main line had diminished to a candle flickering in the night. To the sorrow of many, Norfolk Southern abruptly ended mainline excursions in 1994. Union Pacific decided in the early 2000s that it was easier to run its two locomotives without the hassle of trying to sell tickets to the public. The crew of one of the chief engines that pioneered steam on today’s BNSF Railway, Frisco 1522, walked away exhausted and burned out. Despite a management packed with fans, CSX simply said, “no more.” We steam fans would just have to grow to live with only UP’s two roaming giants, 844 and 3985, and the occasional appearance by Southern Pacific 4449, Spokane Portland & Seattle 700, or Milwaukee Road 261.

Now look at us. In the span of a month, the Fire Up 611! Committee (on which I serve) has declared it’s time to raise $3.5 million to rebuild “the finest steam passenger locomotive ever built” (as the late Bob Claytor, boss of N&W and NS, called her). Union Pacific bought one of its fabled Big Boys, the 4014, from a railroad club in Southern California and plans to take it Cheyenne, Wyo., and restore it to operation. And in Chattanooga, Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum is nearing completion on arguably the most famous preserved steam locomotive of the 1960s and 1970s, Southern 4501.

The Big Boy 4-8-8-4, of course, is the show stealer. It’s bigger, badder, and bossier than anything anyone has put on the main line since the end of steam. Once it’s running again, it’s doubtful that anything will come close to matching its impressiveness. Adding it to the operable roster of 844 and 3985 creates a perfect trio representing the best in steam locomotive development by the UP, among the pinnacle of American railroads.

But the devil is in the nuts and bolts.

In this internet age, when experts are standing by with keyboards at the ready to comment on every facet of the restoration and operation, the barrage of criticism leveled at UP has been up to its expected furor. It doesn’t help that in typical UP fashion, the railroad is saying little about how it will accomplish this monumental project or how it plans to use the engine. UP steam boss Ed Dickens told us when he took over from Steve Lee that he wasn’t a very talkative guy. That’s a pity because a lot of folks would love to hear from him right now.

Two of the biggest areas for debate are oil firing (Big Boys always ate coal, except for an experiment in oil firing that didn’t do well) and where UP can run something this big without straightening out curves or coming to a dead end without benefit of a turning facility.

When it comes to converting a coal burner to oil firing, we’ve seen some awful examples in recent years, most notably Reading T-1 No. 2100 that ended up in Tacoma, Wash. (of all places), with a burner apparatus that apparently was the equivalent of sticking a cigarette lighter on a space shuttle and expecting it to fly. That was amateurish, but the UP is not, and its conversion of the massive 3985 from coal to oil years ago should show that it can be done. Didn’t the Southern Pacific fire its gigantic 4-8-8-2 cab-forwards with oil in regular service? They have big fireboxes too. I don’t know much about oil firing, but I figure that if anyone can figure it out, the UP can, and if what they do the first time doesn’t work, they’ll fix it and come up with something that does.

That brings us to the topic of where Big Boy can run. The original operating territory was Cheyenne to Ogden with side trips to Denver and North Platte. Since then the railroad has been improved and expanded. And again, of the biggest components of today’s UP, the Southern Pacific, had those cab-forwards. Heck, in preservation, Big Boys were even dragged all the way east to display sites in Vermont (Steamtown), north to Wisconsin (National Railroad Museum), and south to Dallas (Museum of the American Railroad, which is about to move its 4018 to a new home in Frisco, Texas, over BNSF track) over some wooden-wheel roads (in comparison to UP at least). Wyes still exist all over the UP system, and thanks to unit grain and coal-loading and -unloading facilities, loops are more prevalent than ever. You’ll recall that NS made modifications to its physical plant to accommodate N&W 611 in 1982 after getting to Norfolk on the inaugural run and being unable to wye the engine. UP can do the same.

My only twinge of anxious curiosity deals with what UP provided the Southern California Chapter of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society in exchange for the 4014. That hasn’t been told yet. I hope the chapter didn’t give away the engine, and I hope the railroad is providing the club with more than a fund-raising trip years in the future when the 4014 is running. There was talk about UP providing a piece of replacement rolling stock, and that’s just fine if there’s something UP has that is on the same “wow factor” level as the Big Boy. The truth is that nothing comes close, so we can only hope that UP offered and the chapter accepted a large contribution to an endowment for the continued upkeep of the fine collection of rolling stock the club maintains at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds.

So, rejoice fellow steam lovers. Get over your angst about oil firing, limited territory, and anything else you can fret over. I’m pretty sure the UP can handle this as their old slogan used to say. There’s a much beloved Mikado in Tennessee that should run in 2014, a streamlined beauty in Roanoke that’s going to live again, and now, a Big Boy is on the horizon. I honestly don’t know how much better it could get. Just save me a seat on Sherman Hill when the 4014 runs. Everyone and his brother will be there, even the critics.

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