On the road with Big Boy 4014: Safety is in our hands

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, July 24, 2019


I’ve noticed something about the crowds of people who are coming out to view Union Pacific Big Boy No. 4014 on its Midwestern tour. They are excited to see the world’s largest operating steam locomotive, which is great. Having this celebrity come to your part of the world is nothing short of a miracle. But as warm is their reception, it’s also disturbing to see their lack of appreciation for trackside safety. As the train approaches, they’re not afraid to stand close to the tracks – too close in some cases – or wander back and forth in the gauge. I’ve seen people standing inside the gates at grade crossings. My wife has made sure to shoo off people standing on the ballast, and last week in Iowa I asked a gentleman fidgeting on the double track mainline to get out of the right of way.

We had this conversation right here a year ago after UP 4-8-4 No. 844 struck and killed a spectator north of Denver on the return leg of the final Frontier Days excursion (its cancellation, by the way, had nothing to do with the fatality). At the time, I shared how the National Park Service suggested standing back 15 feet from the tracks at Promontory Summit, where the two 4-4-0 replicas creep by. I suggested that we police ourselves and help the non-enthusiast public find safe vantage points. UP has taken the safety aspect seriously with overt notices on its steam website. Special agents and local law enforcement are more visible. Big Boy engineer Ed Dickens has taken to the internet to spread the word, and he's visible at stops with a megaphone to remind the public about safe viewing. But all that is never enough. At grade crossings in particular, there are lots of people near the tracks who aren't familiar with railroading. Once again, the right thing to do is politely but firmly speak to these people when they need to be further away.

We live in a self-absorbed society that is more distracted and less in tune with physical realities than ever before. Earlier this week, a 9-year-old girl was injured when she was tossed in the air by a frustrated buffalo at Yellowstone National Park after she and others got to close to the wild animal. People have fallen off cliffs and been injured or killed taking selfie pictures.

We can all help each other stay safe by taking responsibility for ourselves and those around us.  

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