On the road with Big Boy No. 4014: When numbers just won't do

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Monday, July 15, 2019

Railroads love to quantify everything. The obsession with the operating ratio is a perfect example. Aim for that magic number under 60 and you’ve got real gold. Steam locomotives on Class I railroads and excursions with them are harder to quantify their value to the numbers people. Yes, you can break down the cost per mile, the fuel consumption, factor of adhesion, you name it. But what you cannot quantify is the value of the emotional connection between spectators and locomotive and crew.

Over the weekend, while Union Pacific Big Boy No. 4014 was on display, engineer and UP steam manager Ed Dickens was pictured with many, many kids. I cannot show it with numbers but somewhere in those kids are future locomotive engineers and conductors, railroad managers, and, I hope, someone who will want to keep steam locomotives around for the future because of how they attract people.

After the train arrived in Boone, Iowa, Monday from Omaha, Neb., a sea of local residents gathered around to see the locomotive. At dinner, at a local Mexican restaurant, I heard several tables of non-enthusiast types playing their cell phone videos and talking favorably about Union Pacific and the Big Boy.

Sometimes you never know how much you change the world, just by your presence. You just cannot quantify the impact a steam locomotive has on the people in the world through which it travels. You just have to believe.


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