A look at steam in 2018: What to anticipate, what to appreciate, where to go

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, February 28, 2018

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, this is the time of year when I anticipate mainline steam schedules, plan trips to see newly restored and notable locomotives, and find time to make calls and send emails to my steam friends to see who is planning to go where and where we might cross paths, or tracks in our case. We’ll see who is willing to break the bank and stretch vacation time to make one more trip. It’s an optimistic time, when we all look forward to what will excite and inspire us all with stack talk, whistles, and flailing rods.

Right now, there’s not much that’s set. Union Pacific has said it plans to run 4-8-4 No. 844 on only one occasion in 2018. That will be on the Cheyenne Frontier Days trip between Denver and Cheyenne, Wyo., on July 21, plus the deadhead trip the week before and the deadhead trip back home to Cheyenne on July 22. Otherwise, the UP steam team will stick to the shop and keep working on Big Boy No. 4014 with the aim of completing and steaming the 4-8-8-4 in 2019 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike. More on how the Big Boy is a potential game changer in a moment.

The other mainline locomotives – Milwaukee Road No. 261, Norfolk & Western No. 611, Nickel Plate Road No. 765, and Southern Pacific No. 4449 -- are no doubt developing excursion plans and negotiating with Amtrak and host railroads. They're doing their time in the shop: No. 765 is finishing a 1,472-day inspection, and No. 611 is getting staybolt work at Spencer, N.C. Given that most operators like to have a few months to market and sell their trips, I’d say it is a safe bet that the spring of 2018 will be quiet: By this time last year, we’d already heard from 611 and 4449 about spring excursion plans, and it wasn’t long after that 261 and 765 announced their Midwestern trips that took place in June. I would say that if everything works out, this spring silence bodes well for a fall excursion season as vibrant as autumn colors. My recommendation: Stick around to see how it all plays out. Save those scarce vacation days for later in the year.

I would think that every engine capable of a mainline trip will try for at least one excursion this year for two reasons: 1. Just in case Congress doesn’t extend the Dec. 31 deadline for Positive Train Control implementation, expensive and time-consuming modifications will be necessary after this year to stay operational. And 2. When UP unleashes No. 4014, whether it is a short 2019 tour or a long one, the most anticipated locomotive restoration of our time will be the focus of every steam locomotive aficionado in 2019; trying to compete against Big Boy for an audience will be almost impossible.   

So, once again, my advice, as always, is to get out there and enjoy these big locomotives on the main line. Don’t put off an excursion. You never know what the future will hold for big steam on the main line.

Elsewhere, I suggest you pay attention to two areas of the country: the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest. Arizona’s Grand Canyon Railway has said it will run 2-8-2 No. 4960 and 2-8-0 No. 29 this year. The plan is to run one or both of the locomotives on the first Saturday of every month starting in March plus three additional days, including April 21, Earth Day; and Sept. 15, the railroad’s anniversary.

 Meanwhile, Scott Wickert’s humble tourist railroad on the Pacific shore, the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad, could well become the new hub for steam in the region with Skip Lichter’s Polson 2-8-2 No. 2 joining McCloud 2-6-2 No. 25 this year plus a two-truck Heisler. If the crew at Oregon Coast completes legendary 2-4-4-2 Skookum this year, and the boiler tubes have been loaded, that will cement Garibaldi, Ore., as one of the top bucket list destinations for the steam-starved steam devotee.

Get out there and enjoy our American steam this year. To learn more, be sure to subscribe to Trains and read Newswire at www.TrainsMag.com for exclusive stories about the most recent restoration and excursion news. And join us for our photo charter commemorating the last steam freights on Cumbres Pass in 1968 at Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Aug. 25-26.  Details:  http://trn.trains.com/magazine/trips/2018/01/cumbres-pass-photo-charter



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