This week, the editors of Railfan & Railroad Magazine are looking at some of the biggest stories in railroading in 2021. Be sure to check Railfan.com every weekday all year long for all your (free) railroad news and if you like what you see, consider subscribing.
By Justin Franz
While 2021 wasn’t the busiest year for steam fans, there were plenty of memorable moments: two Nickel Plate Road Berkshires reuniting in Ohio; the sounds of a 2-6-6-2 echoing off the hills of Appalachia for the first time in decades; a Big Boy steaming across the Huey P. Long Bridge in New Orleans; and a fleet of victorian-era iron horses roaming amongst the sagebrush in New Mexico and Colorado.
But it was the scenes that didn’t happen — but could in the future — that will be what 2021 is remembered for in the world of steam preservation…
A superpowered Santa Fe 4-8-4 roaring through the wilds of northern New Mexico, armed with 21st Century technology ensuring its safe operation.
A Pennsylvania Railroad K4 triumphantly returning to the main line after a long-overdue encore performance.
A Chesapeake & Ohio 2-8-4 rolling along a former New Haven branch line in Connecticut.
A classy Canadian-built Hudson heading south to the sands of Mexico to celebrate the creation of North America’s first tri-nation Class I.
Union Pacific “Big Boy” 4014 leads a short test train at Peckham Colo., on the UP Greeley Sub, July 8, 2021. This summer the locomotive hit the road for the first time since 2019. Photo by Tim Tonge.
After a quiet 2020, steam fans were hopeful for a busy year for America’s preserved steam locomotives and, in some ways, it did not disappoint. Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 4014 returned to the main line for a month-long tour in August and September, venturing as far south New Orleans, where it led its only public excursion of the year. Main line favorites like Milwaukee Road 261, Pere Marquette 1225, Southern Pacific 4449, Norfolk & Western 611, Nickel Plate Road 765 and Iowa Interstate 6988 also were able to stretch their legs this year on regional and tourist railroads they had visited before. In Colorado and New Mexico, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic put on a spectacular show with its first ever Victorian Iron Horse Roundup, featuring five narrow gauge locomotives built in the 19th century, including the first major appearance by Rio Grande Southern 20. And late in the year, Chesapeake & Ohio 2-6-6-2 1309 made its long-awaited public debut on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad.
But aside from the 4014’s trip out of New Orleans, this year lacked any major main line excursions, the type of headlining events were steamers can really strut their stuff. So if 2021 is remembered for anything, it will be for the seeds that were planted this year that will blossom into potentially spectacular events and scenes in the decade ahead.
Atlantic Coast Line 4-6-2 1504 arrives at FMW Solutions’ restoration facility in Tennessee. Photo Courtesy of FMW Solutions.
Down in Florida, U.S. Sugar’s new tourist railroad operation “The Sugar Express” continued to position itself as an operation to watch. This year, ex-Florida East Coast 4-6-2 148 led its first ever public excursion and the railroad announced that it was restoring a second high-flying Pacific-type locomotive, Atlantic Coast Line 1504. With two sharp-looking passenger locomotives and plenty of fast main line to run on, U.S. Sugar could become a premier destination for steam fans.
Two Santa Fe 4-8-4s — one a preservation era veteran and the other a newcomer to the scene — were under steam in 2021, with high hopes for the future. In California, Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway 4-8-4 3751 was fired up for the first time since December 2017, following an extensive rebuild. In New Mexico, sister-locomotive 2926, moved under its own-power for the first time in 68 years, after an exhaustive overhaul. Hopes are high that the 2926 will have plenty of main line to run on thanks to access to state-owned track. Plus, late in the year, it was announced that the big 4-8-4 had been outfitted with Positive Train Control, a technology that will be crucial to main line access in the future.
This year also saw one of America’s longest-running (and delayed) locomotive restorations get back on track. In June, the Railroaders Memorial Museum announced it had hired FMW Solutions to reignite the restoration of Pennsylvania Railroad K4 1361. While the locomotive was first restored in the 1980s, its return was brief and by the 1990s 1361 was again out-of-service. While many have tried to get the locomotive back under steam so far none have succeeded. However, hopes are high that the crew from FMW can finally get the job done.
In September, Canadian Pacific CEO Keith Creel teased that if the U.S. Surface Transportation Board approved his railroad’s merger with Kansas City Southern, they would celebrate by having 4-6-4 2816 lead a trip from Calgary to Mexico City. Sources close to the railroad said that work could begin on the locomotive in the new year. CP first restored 2816 — a 1930-built H1b Hudson and a sister to the more famous “Royal Hudson” class — to operation in 2001, and ran it across the system for more than a decade.
Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum announced that it would restore two more Maine 2-footers, meaning all five surviving steamers (seen here at the Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington Railway Museum) could be under steam in the future. Photo by Steve Barry.
On Christmas day, Kentucky Steam Heritage Corportation announced that C&O 2-8-4 2716 will eventually visit New England following its restoration. Officials said the visit could happen by mid-decade and it would be the first time in more than 30 years that a main line steam locomotive has graced the rails of New England.
But that wasn’t all. Other notable steam stories to look forward to in 2022 and beyond include: Reading Company 2102 returning to the main line for the first time in three decades; the possible operational restoration of NKP 2-8-2 587, which was acquired by a private owner this year; the establishment of a steam program at Pennsylvania’s Colebrookdale Railroad, which acquired Grand Trunk Western 4-6-2 5030 and Lake Superior & Ishpeming 2-8-0 18; Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum restoring two more 2-foot gauge steam locomotives from the Monson Railroad and Bridgton & Harrison; Nevada Northern Railway 2-8-0 81 racking up the miles a year after it returned to service; Santa Maria Valley 2-6-2 205 settling into its new home on Oregon’s Albany & Eastern; the East Broad Top is expected to fire up a 2-8-2; SMS Rail Lines will hopefully put its 0-6-0 in service and much more.
One thing is for sure, the future is bright for steam preservation.