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Man enough to admit: I like small engines

Posted by Steve Sweeney
on Wednesday, January 25, 2017

I should have expected it, but went ahead anyway. 

You see, last summer, Trains hosted a group of about 20 8-to-12-year-old boys visiting our offices and library. Just after lunch, they sat down with us editors to discuss railroad topics and eventually what their favorite locomotives were. SD70s and Dash-9s were popular, "Thunder Cabs" were not. No one mentioned a GG1, but at least two belted out "Big Boy."

Then the editors took turns listing their favorite engines. When it was my turn, I rattled off: "Pennsy E6, a two-truck Climax, and something you may not have heard of from the U.K., a Great Western 0-6-0 Pannier Tank ..."

THOMAS! YOU LIKE THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE!

The interrupting roar from these otherwise upstanding railfans was intense. Did it take 10 seconds? No, it was not even that long before I realized there was no use in continuing. It was sharing time, not a time to convince. And my time was over.

But I've wondered, what is it about me? Why do I like small engines? I'm enamored with the things.

It starts, I guess, with the first videos of trains and railroads I remember: sketchy antennae-quality public broadcasting versions of Miles Kington's Steam Days. (If you can find a digitized version, by the way, I'd be grateful.)

Kington highlighted, you guessed it, British locomotives. He even spent an entire episode on yard switching (shunting), industrial, and mining operations.

In video with Brit heritage equipment, Kington painted a vision of yards or a countryside full of small, colorful locomotives, hauling local trains, to equally small places by colorful people.

My fascination localized through high school, when I gravitated toward the Pennsylvania Railroad's collection of diminutive 0-4-0 switchers, the electric B1 novelty, and of course, E6s (switchers rarely haul passengers great distances). Once I discovered logging railroading in my home Allegheny Mountains, I took to learning all I could about early Climaxes and Heislers — and Dunkirks and odd-chain-driven things best described as home-built.

Bobber cabooses are favorite friends as are illusive prototypes of 20-foot passenger cars. On the diesel side, Ingersol-Rand boxcabs appeal to me as do narrow-gauge Plymouths. Imagining railroaders working with them day-in-and-day-out with little love but lots of heart is the stuff of novels, ledger books, and balance-tipping trivia answers.

And I don't know why, but I know they're cool, useful little engines.

D'oh. I guess I do like Thomas.

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