It’s Interesting Work if You’re a Four Wheeled Trailing Truck

2010 has already been a particularly interesting year for mainline steam, with three of its biggest stars experiencing vastly different playing fields in the new year.

Only a few weeks into its tear down for routine federally mandated work, Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 no. 261 rose to the top of railfan headlines as its owners, the National Railroad Museum of Green Bay, Wisconsin and its caretakers, the Friends of the 261 were unable to come to terms over new lease negotiations for the locomotive. The present 15-year lease is to expire in 2011 and the 261 cannot turn a wheel without substantial overhaul work; work that would be completed just in time for the lease to tick out.

In what has apparently been a series of bold, if not uninformed moves, the museum has sought to increase the lease payments to over ten times their original amount, forcing the Friends to either walk away or pass that cost onto its customers. The museum also wanted the locomotive returned with several years of its operable life left. With the excursion market forever in flux and no guarantee of a return on the investment, the Friends were unwilling to concede to the new and wholly unrealistic lease demands. The museum continued to position itself as only interested in having the operable 261 run and further posited that it was the failure of the Friends to concede to their demands that would prevent this.

Nevertheless, the effort to price the Friends out of leasing the 261 may have been a calculated one, as the 261 immediately found itself listed for sale at $225,000 soon after the negotiations publicly ended. As if the story didn’t have enough curve balls, the 261 was apparently sold, then not sold, and as of this writing rests in purgatory as the buyer, apparently a gentleman from the western United States, seeks to evaluate the mechanical condition of the locomotive and reportedly seek additional buyers to make the purchase with him. To add a final twist, there have been rumors of the buyer offering to lease the 261 back to the Friends, but under similar pretenses that the museum also presented.

Since the negotiations between the Friends and the museum had been ongoing for several years, the Friends have been looking forward and have taken the opportunity to “re-brand” as the Railroading Heritage of Midwest America, allowing them to seek out new restoration candidates and presently operable steam locomotives to lease and operate on their own excursions.

When it came to light that the sale had yet to be finalized, The Green Bay Press published that National Railroad Museum Executive Director Michael Telzrow had resigned from his position to take a job elsewhere.

Across the Great Lakes, Pere Marquette 2-8-4 no. 1225 and Owosso, Michigan’s Steam Railroading Institute, fresh from their renown success as hosts of TrainFestival 2009, were forced by the presence of a long-standing and massive debt to lay off a number of its employees, including Chief Mechanical Officer Greg Udolph who joined SRI in 2007 as its young, but remarkably determined Chief Mechanical Officer.

Lead by Executive Director TJ Gaffney, also newly installed, the Steam Railroading Institute thanks in part to its ongoing Polar Express stardom and “North Pole Express” excursions, rocketed back into the limelight as the engine performed more frequently throughout the year than it had in the previous decade. Excursions, photo charters, and a variety of other operations showcased the 1225 and the young leadership of SRI as it moved to create one of the country’s largest railroad festivals in years.

Looking ahead at a locomotive requiring considerable work (and temporary loss of its major bread winner) and its financial obligations (costs associated with property ownership and the facility’s turntable) forced the board of directors at SRI to curb its operating budget, curtail operations, and lay off part-time and full time employees. This move came after the 1225 was removed from service after only a day of operating its Christmas trips, as the engine’s age and need for the overhaul was again catching up to it.

After experiencing a minor (and in the steam days, a completely normal) tube failure during TrainFestival, SRI descended on the repair and replacement of the failed tubes plus neighboring ones, allowing them to operate a memorable doubleheaded photo charter and public excursion to Cadillac, Michigan in the fall. With the locomotive set to go down for its overhaul the following summer, SRI made the difficult decision to concentrate all its efforts into operating successful North Pole Express trips albeit with a diesel.

While the loss of its talented staff and the removal of the 1225 from active service are remarkable abrasions, Gaffney is actively pursuing underwriting opportunities for the overhaul of 1225 and SRI is approaching operations this year with cautious optimism, where opportunities to partner again with other historical railroad organizations. Michigan has seen how meaningful its Steam Railroading Institute is, and it is this authors opinion that Owosso won’t be long for help from its community, including aid from a grant similar to the one a certain Nickel Plate Road Berkshire received in 2000.

And speaking of the 765, the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society has taken a cue from the Nickel Plate in upgrading the 765’s tender to all roller-bearing wheel sets in an effort that will streamline and expedite the operation of the 765 on Class 1 railroads. Originally thought to be undertaken during the 765’s ground-up rebuild in 2000-2005, this work will put the 765 in the running to become Amtrak certified and includes the application of thermocouplers on its engine truck and main driver boxes to further demystify the locomotive for modern railroads.

The 765 has nearly ten years of boiler time on it before it goes down for its own federally mandated work and the roller bearing upgrade is expected to be completed in time for the summer excursion season.

The recent drama centering on the three largest steam locomotives operating east of the Mississippi underscores not only the importance of these historical marvels, but that the process in restoring, operating, and maintaining these beasts requires thick skin, appreciable public support, and are vocations one paycheck shy of a real job. Gray hair is optional, though definitely an eventuality.

It’s interesting work if you can get it.