Saturday, April 9, 2016

Guest Post: Do What you Can, While You're Able


The exact moment at which youngster realizes his heart beats to the cadence of jointed rail is rare, but
poignant to capture on film. Here, the guest  article's author poses with the 611 in the mid 1980s. 

E/N: Today all eyes are aligned towards Spencer, NC, as the 611 makes its first excursions of the season. In the spirit of that event, enjoy this guest post from John, who's out chasing and riding this weekend.

As I write this, I’m sitting at the computer looking up routes to chase the 611 this weekend, contacting friends to meet up with while I’m there, and typing this note about my reflections on steam engines. Next week I’ll drive down to Chattanooga to get the last few steam hours I’ll hold down in the cab before I leave town for the summer. Three weeks from now I’ll start my  drive from my home in Tennessee to my railroad job in a Western state. 

Every time I leave for the summer, the feeling is bittersweet. Tourist railroading divides your time with the cycling on/off months feeling more like a long week. Steam trains only run during bankers hours, ironically. The majority of operations utilize the summer and holiday months exclusively, leaving the rest of the year with an unbalanced void that is only broken by a few limited schedules and special excursions. You might begin to think that the process of boiling water during the winter were not within the realm of physical possibility if you took a statisticians view of the unoccupied schedules. Potential passengers take vacations during the summer, spend January and February recuperating from holiday expenses, while the railroads use the downtime to work heavier repair jobs that consume those boring weeks. When I’m working my summer job, the rest of the world is running wide open with steam miles that I may never have the chance to see. That’s how it goes. 

I tell my friends all the time, see as many steam excursions as  you can while you still have the option. Since the schedule for the 611 was released a couple of months ago, I’ve been elated for the chance to see the thing run before my commitments take me north. My love for steam railroading would not have been created were it not for my dad taking us down to see the 611 regularly when I was younger. The first steam engine I remember seeing? 611. First cab ride? 611. The first engine I was taught the names of parts to the running gear? 611. I’ve worked as an engineer and conductor in some of the most beautiful places on Earth, all because of an interest that started and can be traced back to the 611. 



As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that many other people have a similar affinity for the 611 in particular. (To counter that fondness, I still remember the Trains magazine coming out of the mailbox in 1995.) For some, it was their first experience of every human sense being wholly consumed for the first time. Others appreciated the innovative technology the N&W developed for the class, and benchmark it set for the steam industry. The fact remains though, the 611 has been absent of a soul for the last 21 years and there has been a hysteria associated with it's return more-so than any other locomotive I’ve known. I think there is a way that every museum can benefit from that connection. 

Decisions made about whether or not steam is allowed to run are made solely from tangible money. Time continuously passes with every day leaving fewer favorable conditions for mainline trips. Skill sets fade and the relationship of the landscape formed by the railroad has been lost in translation to the general public. I may be one of the odd ducks of my generation because I found a career that I love when I was young and impressionable, but that doesn’t mean it can be a selfish experience. In fact, the only way to save anything that you love to is to share it with others so that they too want to come and enjoy the shared results. 

No one understands the rarity of running steam in a native setting better than the two people looking out the cab window. All the shop time you could wish for is abundantly available but throttle time is always rare in comparison, gleaned from the thousands of hours necessary to make any locomotive operate before lighting the oily rag. Mechanical work is an art in itself, and the hours required to learn specific crafts are always available because shop work is harder to garner a following for. When the locomotive is outside putting on a show,  how many people go out to  ride the train, but don’t want to blow the whistle? If you can’t find a shop crew, you don’t have an engine, and without the engine you can’t keep the operating crafts alive. Therein lies the catch of working and preserving steam… 

Pulling the throttle and shoveling coal may be the most visible, but every specialty that goes into a steam special is important, from the work of the  lawyers writing the insurance policy to the dining service attendants. All of these elements must be orchestrated before that final moment when the engineer bails off the independent and pulls the slack. Every excursion takes years of work and countless skill sets. Looking out the cab window you may see hundreds of people lining up for miles to take in the show. Some may be curiously caught off guard in a wave of sudden traffic or have spent half the night driving in from out-of-state to get what may possibly be their last look at an old way, a way when people worked together and enjoyed the fruit of their labor. That, I believe, is the intangible way to preserve steam. 


So this weekend, I’m going to take in as much as I can just like everyone else driving to Spencer tomorrow. Who knows how much longer we’ll enjoy steam on the mainline? For the most part the engine looks exactly as it did when I was 3 years old. The view looking out from the cab windows may always change but looking in, time has thankfully stood still.