Former Trains Editor Kevin P. Keefe is the author of a new book, “Twelve Twenty-Five, the life and times of a steam locomotive,” now available from Michigan State University Press. The book is the history of Pere Marquette 2-8-4 No. 1225, the Berkshire made famous through its mainline excursions and as the model for the steam locomotive in the blockbuster movie, “Polar Express.” The locomotive is the centerpiece of the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, Mich. Kevin retired as vice president-editorial in March from our parent company, Kalmbach Publishing, and he’s been busy ever since. But he took the time to answer 10 questions I pitched to him. Read on to find out more about his book, the locomotive, and what you can expect from one of the great railroad journalists.
1. You have been associated with PM 1225 since your college days at Michigan State University. In doing this book, what did you learn that surprised you?
I continue to be gratified by the way the Steam Railroading Institute manages to keep this big old machine going after all these years. The locomotive is constantly throwing up challenges, mostly of the mechanical kind, and these guys continue to find a way to raise the funds and find the expertise they need to do the job. Think about it: here’s a mainline engine that’s rarely been out of service for any extended period since 1988. That’s 26 years! Way more than the 1225 ever had in regular service.
2. No. 1225 is both famous and obscure: Everybody knows it as the Polar Express engine, but fewer people know it as a preserved, operating artifact. Why is that?
I think the 1225 stays under a lot of people’s radar for three reasons. One is that it’s in Michigan, not to mention a small town in Michigan that’s not on an interstate. I think the state is off the beaten track for a lot of people who aren’t from the upper Midwest. Also, I think 1225 is taken a bit for granted in that it’s been at it for all these years; most years it seems to be running, “so I’ll catch up to it someday.” Finally, the operation on a short line (Great Lakes Central) might have less drama for some people, although they’re missing out, because this is a good-looking railroad with clean track. The locomotive looks right at home, even if it’s doing 40 instead of 60. There are plenty of videos on YouTube to prove it.
3. What is something that steam fans should know about this locomotive?
In the context of other locomotives, I think the engine’s greatest calling card is its Advisory Mechanical Committee pedigree. With all due respect to the other wonderful mainline engines still running, there’s something about an AMC engine. The look, the design, and of course the fantastic regular-service record. I hope the guys working on Chesapeake & Ohio No. 2716 in Kentucky are successful, because having three AMC 2-8-4s running (hats off to Nickel Plate Road 765!) would be a fantastic testimonial to what those guys in Cleveland came up with beginning in 1929.
4. In the book you broadened the story of the 1225 to place it in context of American steam locomotion. How hard was that to do?
I feel like maybe I bit off more than I could chew, covering the whole sweep of steam in one chapter, but I figured a lot of non-railfans might buy this book and ask the simple question, “why should I care about this subject?” The 1225 and similar machines were the capstone on more than a century of progress on locomotive design. In that sense, the 1225 (and the 765, 844, 261, etc.) have something important to say about the relationship of transportation technology to the wider economy and culture. That’s why we should care.
5. What's your earliest recollection of No. 1225?
I transferred to Michigan State in the fall of 1970 and they put me in Holden Hall, a dorm on the extreme west edge of campus. To get to class every day, I had to walk east across an immense field near Spartan Stadium, and standing right in my way was this hulking locomotive behind a wire fence. I was already a Trains reader, schooled in steam by David P. Morgan, so naturally this thing grabbed my attention. I think I felt a bit of melancholy at first. These great machines can look so sad when they’re stuffed and mounted. But then one day I ran into a couple of guys inside the fence, and I wanted to be in there with them.
6. What are your hopes for the locomotive’s future as we get further and further away from industrial America?
The folks in Owosso have done a wonderful job sustaining not only the 1225 but their entire museum for a lot of years. What they’ve already accomplished is pretty incredible. But the wolf is always near the door in railroad preservation, so I’m hopeful that support for the Steam Railroading Institute will continue to grow and that the organization can keep 1225 running. Beyond that, I’d love to see the engine get back out on a Class I railroad, preferably CSX’s old PM mainline. They certainly can’t claim there’s too much traffic. One can always dream.
7. How do you describe the personality of this locomotive, say, compared to other big steam locomotives in the preserved and operating category today?
Its blue-collar pedigree. The PM Berks were freight hogs, pure and simple, although with their speed and horsepower maybe “hogs” is the wrong word. But clearance restrictions kept them out of Detroit’s Fort Street Union Depot and Chicago’s Grand Central, so they never hauled passenger trains. Ever. So they hauled coal and automobile frames and machinery and grain — all the products needed or produced by Michigan’s big industries. And they helped the Pere Marquette thrive. These were basic black workhorses. No white tires on these babies!
8. For readers, what do you hope they'll take away from this volume?
The real heroes of this book aren’t the machines, wonderful as they were. The stars of the show are the incredibly dedicated people who have kept the 1225 dream alive for more than 40 years. Think about how long that is, and how difficult it is to sustain. But they’ve done it, from the early students at MSU to the first volunteers at Owosso to the current SRI crew. I figure the 1225 by now has attracted three generations of devoted preservationists. To me, that’s amazing.
9. What one word describes this locomotive?
Thoroughbred (sorry, New York Central).
10. What can we expect from you in the future?
I’ve got a ton of magazine features and book projects lined up, including for you. The great thing about doing freelance work in retirement is that I get to write about whatever I’m interested in. There’s no “subject matrix” I have to follow, like I did when I edited the magazine. Fred Frailey is my inspiration. He told me once that he only writes about what turns him on, and I’m trying to do the same thing.