May 10, 2019 By Joseph P. Farrell

Regular readers here know I have this fascination for three things that I suppose could fall under the category of "steampunk." Those are: (1) artillery (the bigger the better); (2) roller coasters; and (3) steam locomotives, which are I suppose the very essence of "steampunk": clanking, snorting, hissing beasts of valves, tubes, and pressures all bolted together, and dreamed up by engineers doing things the old-fashioned way, on drafting tables, using pencils, and slide rules. When you stop and think what the steam locomotive represents in terms of its engineering achievement, it really is breathtaking.

Well, all that's a bit of context for a story I've followed and blogged about on this website occasionally, and that is the Union Pacific Railroad's purchase and restoration of old steam locomotives to fully functional operations, and their conversion to burn oil, not coal. This effort began in the 1990s, and the railroad restored a 4-6-6-4 "Challenger" articulated locomotive, which you can watch the sheer muscle of this locomotive pulling 143 freight cars over the mountain passes in California, and doing the work of several diesels:

And if you've ever been driving around Wyoming, you might have seen engine 844 chugging along and 75 mph or better (you can find many videos by Skip Weythman on youtube with engine 844; check them out, they're fun to watch).

But a few years ago, Union Pacific brought the largest steam locomotive ever built to its "steam shop" in Cheyenne to begin the process of restoration and conversion, the 4-8-8-4 "Big Boy" articulated locomotive, even bigger than the Challenger in the first video above.

Well, that restoration work has been concluded, and the Big Boy has not only had its first "steam up" and trial run, but has joined engine 844 in a "double-header" expedition to Ogden, Utah:


Now, pardon me for cramming so many locomotive videos into one blog. As I say, I can't help it; I have a "thing" for these old beauties and marvels of engineering skill and ingenuity, all done without a scrap of "computer-aided design" in their day, just drafting paper, pencils, triangles, French curves, erasers, and slide rules.

There is, however, method to my madness, and I have blogged about this before, and now, with Big Boy's and 844's double-header to Ogden, it's time for a "revision and extension" of my previous high-octane speculations. As I've mentioned before, the restoration work on these old locomotives has been extensive: fireboxes and boilers needed to be rebuilt, many complex parts needed to be completely manufactured anew. In effect, the process of these restorations has meant - I have argued - that Union Pacific probably now has (re-)acquired the knowledge to manufacture a steam locomotive from the bottom up, from scratch. Additionally, it has had to train engineers to operate and run the monsters, and has had to build out the infrastructure to allow them to operate on the company's track, after all, steam locomotives need fuel and water.

What all this means (as I've also previously argued) is that the railroad is laying out a considerable amount of money, so much, in fact, that I highly doubt it's just because it wants to provide photo opportunities for local "railways heritage days" clubs. Something else is definitely involved, and as I've also speculated, that something may be "EMP," electromagnetic pulse. A conventional diesel electric locomotive will be taken down in a heartbeat; so too, will your automobile (unless, perhaps, it is a model T, but that's another story); likewise most aircraft. But a steam locomotive - all valves and gears and levers - will chug along quite nicely. Hence, behind this "steam locomotive restoration" effort I've suspected a much bigger national security agenda, one to reacquire the know-how to build, repair and maintain, and operate these locomotives. (Since I first blogged about this subject, people both in Australia and in the United Kingdom have written me informing me that similar restoration efforts of steam locomotives are under way in those countries as well.)

Which brings us to the last video above, the one showing engine 844 and the Big Boy "double-heading." Now, if you don't know railroad parlance, double-heading is when two or more locomotives are used to pull a train. You see it all the time with several diesels coupled together at the head (and sometimes the middle and ends) of very long trains. Double-heading is relatively easy to do with diesels, since they are built to be able to do so, with the rates of acceleration and deceleration being controlled from one cab via electronic links to the others so that all the engines are acting in an identical fashion, under unitary control.

But double-heading with steam locomotives is a considerably more complicated business, since these are all analog technologies, and no centralized automated electronic control of the engines is possible (and, if my EMP national-security hypothesis is what lies behind this restoration effort, one wouldn't want to devise such a method anyway since it would be vulnerable to EMP interdiction). Double-heading with steam locomotives requires a great deal of experience from the engineers in the cabs of each locomotive. Yet, double-heading was done in the age of steam, and particularly during the American Civil war when both the Confederacy and the Union used railroads to move massive amounts of troops, supplies, ordnance and so on. And it was done with no means of remote or automated radio communication between cabs.

So what I suspect we're now looking at once again (and under the guise of a "railroad heritage days" event) is a bit of trial and practice, a training exercise on how to double-head with steam locomotives, should the occasion ever arise that it would be necessary to do so.

It does make one wonder, especially since President Trump also recently issued an executive order regarding electromagnetic pulse.

See you on the flip side...