By Justin Franz
CUMBERLAND, Md. — The world’s largest operating compound Mallet steam locomotive is back on the main line.
On Friday, inspectors with the Federal Railroad Administration gave Western Maryland Scenic Railroad the highball to operate Chesapeake & Ohio 2-6-6-2 1309 on the main line. It is the first time the locomotive has been able to stretch its legs since the completion of a multi-million dollar restoration that was completed on New Year’s Eve 2020 with a dramatic late night return to steam — a sweet conclusion to what was otherwise the toughest year ever in rail preservation thanks to the pandemic.
Since that New Year’s Eve revival and some short test runs around the WMSR yard in Ridgeley, W.V., shop forces have continued to fine-tune the locomotive. While officials had hoped to run the locomotive more in 2021, other tasks have taken precedence like track work and resuming regular excursion service following a quiet 2020. The locomotive will make its debut in excursion service on December 17, 18 and 19, when it will lead the Polar Express.
After getting FRA approval, WMSR crews took the locomotive out for a spin on the former Western Maryland main line on both Friday and Saturday. On Friday, the locomotive led a three-car train and on Saturday it hauled eight cars and a diesel. Executive Director Wesley Heinz said the locomotive performed marvelously and that it’s doing everything they’ve asked of it so far. He said it was particularly emotional when the locomotive approached Helmstetter’s Curve, an iconic photo location on the old Western Maryland west of Cumberland.
“As we approached Helmstetter’s Curve and she started to lean into the curve she looked glorious,” Heinz said. “There wasn’t a dry eye amongst the crew members.”
Heinz said shop crews are now making adjustments to the locomotive, including fine-tuning the system that allows the locomotive to switch between simple operation, where steam is used once, to compound operation, where the steam is used twice. However, he is confident that they will have all the kinks worked out before its excursion debut.
So far they have run the locomotive 30 miles and Heinz said the crew would like to get more than 100 miles on the odometer before December 17. He said it was possible the locomotive would be back out on the main line before Thanksgiving.
The locomotive was built by Baldwin in 1949 and was on display at the B&O Railroad Museum before being purchased by the Western Maryland Scenic. The restoration cost approximately $3.5 million. For more information, visit WMSR.com.