Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 Berkshire 765 at North Judson, Indiana, 6/20/09

Big Steam Locomotives Are Hard To Find! (And How Can So Many Things Happen On a Weekend Trip Trying to See One?)

Part 1 of 3

For those who like big American steam locomotives like the ones that powered trains in the United States until the late 1950s, there are few opportunities these days to see one operate. In fact there are only about six large steam engines running in 2009: two 2-8-4 Berkshire locomotives (Nickel Plate Road 765 and Pere Marquette 1225, which was the model used in the movie "Polar Express"): three 4-8-4 Northern locos (Union Pacific 844, Southern Pacific 4449, and Milwaukee Road 261); and one 4-6-6-4 Challenger (Union Pacific 3985).

There are a number of smaller steam engines kept operating by tourist railroads around the nation, and you can probably name some of them if you think for a moment, but the massive steam power that once ran on the main lines of our country's biggest railroads have dwindled to just those six.

The Union Pacific is the only major railroad that maintains a corporate Steam Program. The program is based in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and they keep up two beautiful examples of steam's greatest days, the UP 3985 4-6-6-4 Challenger and the UP 844 FEF-3 4-8-4. Both engines are used across the UP system in the west in public relations runs aimed at keeping the railway in the public eye.

The other four locomotives are kept up by various nonprofit groups, like the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society ( operates the Nickel Plate Road 765 pictured above. It costs millions of dollars to rebuild and operate a steam engine, and the money comes from running short steam excursion trains for the public, usually on weekends, during good weather months.

My ten year old son and I purchased tickets on one such trip, a ten-mile ride behind the 765 between North Judson and La Crosse, Indiana on a recent Saturday. I didn't want to drive 800 miles one way to Indiana from Raleigh, so I found reasonably cheap seats on nonstops American Airlines flights to and from O'Hare, and I booked a good weekend rate room at the Hilton O'Hare to use as our base. The last piece of the logistics puzzle was a Hertz car to transport us the 80 miles each way between O'Hare and North Judson, Indiana.

Thus in order to satisfy our yen to enjoy a two-hour ride behind a steam locomotive, we had to plan a three day trip (Friday morning through Sunday afternoon) that involved two trips to the Raleigh/Durham airport for my wife, two airplane rides, two nights in a hotel, and a car rental. So many variable always increases the odds that something will go wrong, and of course we hit a few snags.

Luckily our flight RDU/ORD was on time, and even luckier, upgrades came through for both me and my son. I used to be an Executive Platinum flyer with AA but have since dropped to a lowly Gold, so I never expect an upgrade any more. The fact that I could get not one but two upgrades on a Friday morning flight to Chicago brings home the severity of this recession.

I've been staying away from airports as much as possible for the past few months, so I was unhappily surprised to find that the Obama administration's new TSA gurus have re-instituted random gate checks. I don't know any frequent flyer who was sorry to see those discontinued during the Bush years, nor anyone who thinks they really make a difference in tightening security. Instead, the poor schmucks who are pulled out of line on the jetway for patdowns and carryon searches watch helplessly as other passengers board ahead of them and take up all the overhead luggage space.

It became my practice in the years right after 9/11 when random gate checks were the norm to tarry when my section was called for boarding and only jump in the line when TSA had snagged a couple of poor fools to harrass. Thus engaged, TSA ignored me as I strolled by, and I never lost the narrow window of early boarding when sufficient overhead bin space is still available. Certainly if I, a good citizen, could routinely avoid being searched, a person intent on wrongdoing would have little trouble, either. So why do it?

That was the question I posed to the TSA employees waiting with rubber gloves at our gate before the flight was called. None had an answer, and because they never, or rarely, fly themselves, they could not envision the uninended consequences of their random searches for the frequent traveler. Having told them how I planned to avoid being searched, the TSA person in charge merely smiled and nodded, saying, "Yep, you don't want to be the first person on board!"

So I wasn't. And TSA pulled the first two people. My son and I boarded thereafter with no interference from TSA whatsoever, though had I been they, I might have suspected me for employing the very tactic I described to them in advance.

Next week I will continue this story with Part 2, which takes us as far as a stormy morning at O'Hare and seeking a rare fire engine red Mustang convertible from Hertz.


Blogger roland10pct said...

Taking a train every day to Manhattan for work, I never knew that riding an old time locomotive could be so much fun. I rode the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Durango, Colorado last year and I had the time of my life! The train was featured in many movies, most recently The Prestige with Michael Caine, and I was like a little kid, riding on the open air car as we snaked through rocky caverns and along an emerald river where we stopped for photos. There's several more like it in Colorado - nine to be exact! Narrow Gauge, Cog Railways, Incline Railways - each offering a different type of experience.

7/10/2009 10:29 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

roland10pct - I think that railroad is also the one that C.W. McCall sung about (he is more known for his song "Convoy").

A couple of years ago, there was a "steamie" traveling from the Chicago area north into Wisconsin. It was about 2.5 hours each way, and was a blast. We have some great pictures of the train and my son who got the opportunity to sit in the engine when we were in Wisconsin before heading back.

7/14/2009 1:43 PM  

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