By Railfan & Railroad Staff
CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The railroad preservation world is watching this month’s outing of Union Pacific “Big Boy” 4014 with particular interest because for the first time ever, a main line steam locomotive has been outfitted with Positive Train Control.
UP 4014, the world’s largest operating steam locomotive, is currently on a multi-state tour of the south and this weekend it will lead an excursion out of New Orleans.
In 2019, when the locomotive first premiered following an extensive restoration, UP had asked the Federal Railroad Administration for a waiver from PTC. The technology was mandated by Congress in 2008 following a deadly head-on wreck in California and is supposed to prevent train-to-train collisions. This time around UP has created a system where PTC can work on the 4014 in conjunction with a diesel locomotive behind it. The system uses the onboard computer system from the diesel, SD70M 4015, and interconnects the brake systems on it and the steam locomotive. The engineer on the Big Boy has a PTC display unit similar to what is on a modern diesel locomotive.
“It provides a lot of good information for train crews and is a real improvement for safety,” said Ed Dickens, manager of UP’s steam program. “We have a PTC monitor, so the system is fully compliant and works very well. We have a map that is constantly upgrading, showing us any speed restrictions, signal indications, any type of work zones and other impacts.”
Eventually, UP would like to install PTC directly on 4014, so it doesn’t need the diesel for it, but for now, this interconnected system will work. The railroad plans on using the same system on its other steam locomotive, 4-8-4 844.
Kelly Lynch, vice president of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, caretaker of Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 765, said the use of PTC on a main line steam locomotive was a big step forward for railroad preservation and that he and others would be watching it closely. Along with insurance and main line access, PTC has long been considered one of the big challenges for main line steam operators.
“It’s a viable path forward that wasn’t as clear just a few months ago, but many steam operators without dedicated mainlines will still need to develop their own important partnerships with host railroads and be able to cover not just the technology and integration costs, but insurance and software costs,” he said. “It’s still a challenge, but like anything in the history of mainline steam, a surmountable one if the right elements align.”