On the road with Big Boy No. 4014: Where to park it

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Union Pacific Big Boy No. 4014 is on the last lap of its 1,500-mile Midwestern tour. It’s on display all day in North Platte, Neb., before the last two days that will take it to Sidney, Neb., tomorrow and home to Cheyenne, Wyo., on Thursday. Due to North Platte’s importance to the UP system and its role as the world’s largest rail yard, you’d think it would be easy to find a track on which to display the world’s largest operating steam locomotive. But I wouldn’t count on it. 


One of the toughest tasks of developing a tour for a steam locomotive like this isn’t finding track on which the Big Boy can run. The main lines of the UP are laid with heavy rail and generous curves that will tax neither the 600 ton locomotive or its ability to articulate. No, one of the biggest problems is about finding a place to pull over for the night. 


Over the decades since deregulation, American railroads have ripped out thousands of miles of industrial tracks and sidings. Over the years, little used tracks in yards have been declared surplus. If it’s used, it stays. If it’s idle, it goes. Yard tracks with heavy rail and good timber are a must for an engine this big. 


Then, think about how sharp the switches into the remaining sidings are. Big Boy likes switches of No. 10 and above. That puts a limit on the available tracks. 


Add in the need to reach a supply of thousands of gallons of water and the need to let a fuel tanker reach the tender for another complication.


And finally, remember that it needs to be somewhere that it can be seen without the public wandering around an active rail yard or crossing busy main tracks.  The UP training center at West Chicago was almost ideal — away from the busy main line and on a siding. 


Given all of that, UP does a good job of finding a way to make this happen. Such details are worked out well in advance of the train’s arrival. In some cases, yard tracks get a quick overhaul before its arrival.


But it doesn’t always work out.  


We got lots of ribbing from friends because there was no formal public display in Trains’ hometown of Milwaukee when Big Boy passed through last month. But it’s not because UP folks didn’t try. They wanted to show the engine in the Milwaukee area. They looked at plenty of locations. There was just no good spot. The location they settled on at Butler Yard was as good as it could get: People were able to see the engine across the main line and several tracks from the rear parking lot of a Noodles fast food restaurant. Someone smartly put up yellow line tape to keep people from walking into the yard. (And the Noodles manager was happy; he told me business was great, thanks to the Big Boy.) 


So, as Big Boy makes its way home, remember, the engine can go a lot of places as it demonstrated on this swing that took it to the likes of Duluth, Minn., Chicago, and Des Moines, Iowa. But just like the rest of us, wherever it goes, No. 4014 has a tough time finding a parking place.  



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