On the road with Big Boy No. 4014: The end of the beginning. What it means

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, November 26, 2019

No. 4014 rolls south near Black Rock, Utah, in early October 2019. Jim Wrinn photo

Union Pacific Big Boy No. 4014 is set to return to the steam shop in Cheyenne, Wyo., today. When fireman Austin Barker shuts off the oil fire, the pressure starts to slowly drift south of 300 psi, and the stack cap goes on for the last time in 2019, it will mark the end to an unexpectedly spectacular year for the first 4-8-8-4 to steam under its own power in 60 years.

UP didn’t just run the engine out and back to Ogden to celebrate 150th anniversary of the first transcontinental railroad, as Big Yellow did last May. They could have done that, and nobody would have complained. Starting 208 days ago, the steam crew and UP management unleashed their public relations juggernaut for the Promontory anniversary and then in the summer and fall scheduled major tours of the Midwest, Southwest, and deep South parts of the system. What they did is a true miracle.

Some 7,500 miles and hundreds of thousands of spectators later, the UP, No. 4014, and its crew can be proud of an inaugural season in celebration of American railroading’s most sacred event on so many levels. Consider these aspects: 

  • People. The crew performed their tasks with the highest degree of professionalism and still took the time to interact with the public on an individual basis that makes a lasting impression. They didn’t just tolerate the public. They did so with a gracious and welcoming attitude. Have you ever seen the engineer of a mainline steam locomotive, waiting at a signal, drop to the ground to take a picture of a father and son beside the cab of his locomotive? (it happened at Morgan, Utah, in September) Have you ever seen the head of a mainline steam program put an elderly couple admiring his locomotive into a golf cart and drive them to their car? (it happened in Las Vegas). Ed Dickens is the epitome of the modest but competent steam boss (the Southern’s Bill Purdie is smiling down), and his crew followed suit. In return, the public turned out to welcome the Big Boy on a scale that hasn’t been seen in decades. They cheered the crew as if they were returning heros (which they are). UP won a lot of friends because of these guys, and they advanced the cause of all railway preservation for every tourist railroad, museum, and other mainline steam operator across the country. (Branson Scenic Railway in Missouri not only sells our Big Boy special issue, they promote it on their excursion train because they know it is popular.)
  • Machinery. Despite the lack of an extended break-in period, No. 4014 functioned like a well- seasoned machine. After removing rod knock and packing blow by that were evident on the May trip to Ogden, the rest of the year, No. 4014 ran quiet. The oil firing conversion was a success. The engine went effortlessly across the UP system, putting the lie to the mantra that an engine that is basically two 4-8-4s under one boiler would be a hopelessly awkward giant albatross, unable to roam far off the Overland Route least it turn over yard tracks or find itself stuck on the wrong side of a tight wye. Far from it, No. 4014 turned out to be a versatile engine.
  • Bucking the times despite a Wall Street head wind. Despite the proliferation of Precision Scheduled Railroading to the UP, No. 4014 kept the company’s attention and put on a show. In other words, folks, and this doesn’t happen often in America any more, the railroaders beat the bean counters. The company’s true culture showed up. Good for UP for realizing what it has and not losing sight of its potential benefits. CEO Lance Fritz at the inaugural event in Cheyenne and again at the UP’s ceremony in Ogden, seemed genuinely pleased that his company has not one but two public relations machines that no other railroad in North America fields. Mr. Fritz, don’t forget in the difficult days ahead, you cannot buy the good will that No. 4014 and its crew radiate with every rotation of those 68-inch drivers.  

No. 4014 is dragged backwards through the Fairplex parking lot at Pomona on Nov. 14, 2013. Jim Wrinn photo

How incredible is it that this project has come this far this fast. A little more than six years ago, in November 2013, I was in Pomona, Calif., where the UP steam crew had attached a cable to the tender coupler of a dead locomotive parked about as far inside the Rail Giants museum as you could get. An empty parking lot and thousands of feet of track separated them from a mainline for which there was no switch. They tied the other end to a front-end loader and gently tugged. The 600-ton hulk began to move. I took up a position on top of the tender of a stuffed-and-mounted 0-6-0 on an adjacent track for two reasons: 1. It was a unique vantage point that I concluded would yield compelling images and 2. If something went wrong, I was out of the way and had some serious tonnage between Big Boy and me. Of course, nothing did go wrong. The crew was incredibly thoughtful, amazingly careful, and instead of an air of arrogance, they were friendly and humble to everyone who came. I personally saw them spend time with one person after another to share its store. They did all that while moving a locomotive that they believed could run again. They believed in its power, in its promise. With every visit I made to the steam shop in Cheyenne, as they struggled through every detail that a major restoration entails, I saw them keep their gaze on the end result. Their dedication to that vision resulted in success.

That leads us to today, and the end of the beginning. This is indisputable: For almost six months in 2019, a Big Boy locomotive roamed its home territory and then a goodly part of its expanded mother railroad. That’s no fantasy. It did happen, and the big engine didn’t wreck the house. Far from it. It lit up hundreds of thousands of people who came to see it. That is a major accomplishment in a country distracted by celebrity, social media, and passing fads. Welcome home No. 4014 and crew. Tonight, when Ed Dickens turns off the lights and locks the door to the steam shop, he can go home with the satisfaction of knowing that his company, his crew, and his engine did what we’d been told was impossible. UP kept the faith with its history, the steam team fulfilled a dream for many, and No. 4014 wrote a new chapter in the uniquely American saga of the biggest and best that is the Big Boy locomotive.

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