RailNews Review 2022: Silvis Becomes Rail Preservation’s ‘Shop of Dreams’

The plan to turn the former Rock Island Silvis Shops into a restoration facility and home to two of the nation’s largest steam locomotives was the biggest rail preservation story in 2022. Photo by Jeff Terry. 

RailNews Review 2022: Silvis Becomes Rail Preservation’s ‘Shop of Dreams’

By Justin Franz

This week, the editors of Railfan & Railroad Magazine are looking at some of the biggest stories in railroading in 2022. 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

There were many notable news stories and moments in rail preservation in 2022. In Pennsylvania, a former Reading Company T-1 stormed back to the main line leading coal trains and sold out excursions. A narrow gauge railroad in Maine rebuilt a section of track that hadn’t seen trains in 90 years. One of the post-steam era’s biggest stars found a new stomping ground in Indiana. And a long-forgotten SW-1 was rediscovered in a dusty old barn in Montana. 

But no story surprised the rail preservation world quite like the news in January that Railroading Heritage of Midwest America had purchased the former Rock Island shops in Silvis, Ill., with dreams of turning it into the largest historic railroad equipment restoration facility in the country. And if that didn’t get your attention, the story that dropped just three months later did: the newly acquired shop would soon become home to two massive Union Pacific steam locomotives that would be restored to operation

“You know how hard it was to keep all that a secret,” RRHMA Chairman Steve Sandberg told Railfan & Railroad this year. 

An overview of the 400,000-square-foot shop building and surrounding grounds in Silvis, Ill. Photo Courtesy of RRHMA. 

RRHMA’s acquisition of the Silvis shops was the biggest story in rail preservation this year not just because of what it meant for two well-known steam locomotives — UP 4-6-6-4 “Challenger” 3985 and 2-10-2 5511 — but what it represents for the wider rail preservation world. In an era where there are fewer and fewer places to run and maintain main line steam locomotives, Silvis represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

The facility, which most recently was home to National Railway Equipment, includes a 400,000-square-foot main shop building with multiple overhead cranes. The complex also includes a wheel shop, warehouse space, a locomotive wheel drop table, and several other smaller shop buildings. There are 11 miles of track on site as well. It is also strategically located: The Silvis shop complex is served by BNSF Railway, Canadian Pacific Railway and, perhaps most importantly, Iowa Interstate Railroad. Iowa Interstate is owned by Railroad Development Corporation, which has been particularly friendly to main line steam operations in recent years and even owns two Chinese-built 2-10-2 locomotives (and one now calls Silvis home). 

Sandberg is no stranger to rail preservation and has been the primary caretaker of Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 261 up in the Twin Cities for decades. While Sandberg said RRHMA does not plan on moving 261 anytime soon, the group began looking for a newer and larger facility in 2021, when it was approached by Union Pacific about taking on some of its own historic equipment, most notably 3985, 5511 and the last operational DDA40X “Centennial.” Because of the size of all three pieces of equipment, Sandberg and his team knew they needed a big space and Silvis fit the bill. 

Seven months after announcing that Silvis would become the new home for 3985 and 5511, UP sent the two locomotives east on a hospital train, along with other donated pieces of equipment. Upon arrival, both locomotives were rolled into the shop where they will eventually be restored to operating condition. 

Sandberg said that he envisions Silvis as not just a place to restore and house the two UP locomotives but to become an epicenter for rail preservation in the United States. While there are many well-equipped restoration facilities in the U.S., few have the space of Silvis. 

“This is a tremendous opportunity,” said Sandberg, who has likened Silvis to railroading’s version of Field of Dreams. “It’s a great opportunity for railway preservation.”

Perhaps in this instance, however, “shop of dreams” might be the more accurate term.


This article was posted on: December 29, 2022