Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Heritage: 70 mph Behind Steam

The "Western Pacific" heritage diesel sat next to Union Pacific steam locomotive #844 near the Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola, California on 5-May-2009

RENO, NEVADA - Steam locomotives running on "mainline" freight tracks are not common in North America. Thanks to liability concerns and the small number of operational steam locomotives that are large enough to pull a long passenger train, the number of such runs in a given year is often small. At one point earlier this year, it looked like there might be only two the entire year of 2009 in the United States. (The picture looks much rosier now; while one of those anticipated trips was canceled, it appears that the total this year will be similar to last year.)

Union Pacific steam locomotive #844, built in 1944, led the passenger special near Scotts, California on 5-May-2009

Opportunities to ride on such excursions on routes not regularly traversed by Amtrak trains are even rarer. Thanks to an invitation from the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, I was able to ride on just such a trip segment today, as a Union Pacific special ran from Portola, California to Winnemucca, Nevada on the former Western Pacific line which today is normally traversed only by freight trains.

The "Walter Dean" dome car was amongst the rolling stock that we were allowed to enjoy during the trip, seen with the end of the train from the vestibule near Scotts, California on 5-May-2009

Union Pacific excursions are always a joy to ride because of the immaculate passenger equipment the railroad maintains for its business and excursion fleet. Included in the train today were a dome car normally assigned to the business car fleet and a coach that was the first car I had ever car hosted in fourteen years ago, and thanks to the small number of passengers, I spent virtually all my time either in the dome car or a vestibule, enjoying the ability to watch the steam locomotive by sticking my head out the side of the train.

Union Pacific steam locomotive #844 crested the grade at Sand Pass, Nevada without diesel assistance on 5-May-2009

That view was especially rare today not only because the steam locomotive was running unassisted up mountain grades (both Sand Pass and Antelope Hill), but because there were sections of 70 mph running on the line. There was no question that the steam locomotive was handling the train, and there was no question that it could make track speed. I had never ridden behind steam at 70 mph before, and I had never felt the wind in my face at that speed on a train before. It was truly an unforgettable day.

My thanks goes out to the Western Pacific Railroad Museum and the Union Pacific Railroad for making the experience possible.

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