A visit to the Grand Canyon Railway: Deep ballast, steam, pocket streamliners

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, October 29, 2019

WILLIAMS, Ariz. – Our Trains Magazine photo charter last weekend saw me return to a landmark preservation railroad for the first time after 10 years. The Grand Canyon Railway, I am happy to report, is doing well.


I found the 65-mile railroad’s track to be well surfaced with deep ballast, 115-pound rail, and a contour that some Class I railroads would envy. The motive power and the passenger car fleet were in outstanding shape. It is a model for anyone who wants to see the gold standard for a tourist railroad in the early part of the 21stcentury. Daily pocket streamliners with F40s for power, multiple short domes and a single long dome ahead of a platformed observation car and 40 mph speeds wrap up the whole venture.


I was with videographer Kevin Gilliam who joined the railroad’s Chief Mechanical Officer, Eric Hadder, to put on a show for 50 customers from across the nation. The three of us made a hi-rail trip across the railroad Friday to make final photo location selections. The star of the show was 1906 Alco 2-8-0 No. 29, a former Lake Superior & Ishpeming Consolidation that is probably in the best shape of its career. The engine features a Lempor exhaust and a feedwater heater, which were added at the tourist railroad. The reason for our charter this weekend was that No. 29 is due for a 1,472-day inspection and will be a display piece only after Wednesday until that happens. The railroad hopes to perform the work soon, but it also has former Burlington Route 2-8-2 No. 4960 to rely on for another 7-years to cover fewer than a dozen operating days each year. The Mike provided extra entertainment Sunday morning with side-by-side running in the Williams, Ariz., yard.


Between Williams, Ariz., and South Rim, No. 29 ran off mile after mile at 40 mph with 5 former Southern Pacific commuter coaches, fired easily on recycled vegetable oil (I craved fries all day), and provided everyone with the sight of an engine that seems to really want to keep running.

The locomotive looked fantastic at the underpass that takes the Grand Canyon Railway’s tracks under the BNSF Railway transcon, and on Sunday afternoon, we photographed three freights passing over top of the steam train, including one where both trains were moving. Talk about luck! 


The only glitch on the entire weekend took place on the way back to Williams Sunday evening when we ran out of fuel at milepost 9. The shop crew didn’t fill the tender all the way, and we ran a lot more photo runbys than anyone anticipated. Grand Canyon Railway handled this professionally with a quick response by two fuel trucks and a rescue diesel that ultimate pulled our train in only an hour late. It was a bit of excitement and drama for everyone to put an exclamation point on an outstanding weekend of steam railroading in northern Arizona. As one passenger quipped, it was as if No. 29 was resisting its impending rest. I hope the break is short. 


Our thanks to all of the staff and crew at Grand Canyon for a great event. While we’re visiting, I should point out that if this outing sounds like fun, I’d direct you to two upcoming photo events  

Tickets are available for photo charters at Nevada Northern Railway in March 2020 and Texas State Railroad in May. Details are at trn.trains.com/magazine/trips


 Hope you can join us for great historic railroading action! 



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