Friday, June 02, 2006

Union Pacific 844

In the last few weeks I have posted a couple of photos of Union Pacific Steam Engine No. 844, and each time had many requests for more information. We saw it in Salina, Kansas, at the end of April and in Hutchinson, Kansas, a few days later. The photo above was taken just outside of Hutchinson.

I contacted Union Pacific to ask about the possibility of riding the train and getting more details. They were very gracious in allowing me, and Greg Holmes, a professional photographer, to come aboard on the Claremore, Oklahoma to Kansas City run. The photos here are ones Greg took on this trip, and also when it was through Kansas earlier on this run.

It's the first time I've ridden a train in the United States and I can't imagine a better way to be introduced to rail travel than behind a historic steam engine.

We boarded at 7:30 a.m. and arrived in Kansas City about 5:15 p.m. on May 28. Along the way we met other riders and had the opportunity to talk with them about their love of trains.

Steam engines have been rare in the US for more than 50 years. There are some excursion and tourist trains running around the country, but by and large when you see a steam engine these days it's in a park or museum. It's very rare to see them on a mainline that also carries normal rail traffic.

Union Pacific's No. 844 was delivered in 1944 - the last steam engine the railroad bought. It has been in continuous use since then, first as a passenger train, then for freight, and finally for special projects. It has never been warehoused, put in a museum, or left in a park. It has always been operating.

Union Pacific has been celebrating its 140 year long history with a "Heritage Express Tour," using No. 844 on a trip through the midwest. Thousands of people have come to see the engine during its 10 state trip that began April 27 and wrapped up June 1 when it returned to its home base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. When it was in Hutchinson in early May, one of the employees said it was like the parting of the sea because of all the people who turned out.

Ric Jung of Hutchinson is particularly fond of steam engines, and has been since he was a kid. He caught 844 years ago when he was overseeing the building of a radio station near Abilene, Kansas. "We didn't know anything about it being there," he said in a phone interview. "We just looked up and saw the smoke coming across the prairie."

At the time, 844 was known as 8444, to differentiate it from a diesel that was named 844. Once the diesel was retired in 1989, steam engine 844 regained its original number.

This time Jung was not surprised to see it. He, like others, had been keeping tabs on it. Union Pacific offered regular updates on the train's whereabouts by GPS on its web page at The information updated every five minutes and you knew where you needed to be to catch a glimpse of it on the track.

People are passionate about steam engines. "Steam engines have personality and a lot of dimensions a diesel just doesn't convey," Jung said. "They excite virtually every sense in the body," he said. "The smell is not limited to the smoke, but also includes the burning oil. The sight is massive moving parts working in quiet harmony. The sound includes the whistle, the air pumps, the leaking steam, the fire, and also what seems like 'breathing'." He said the engines "also have a feel. They are these huge, heavy, ponderous things that make the ground rumble if you stand next to them, yet they're very gentle. Everything about them is alive."

Director of Media Relations for Union Pacific, James Barnes, tells me that they make an effort to take 844 to places they've not been previously, so everyone has a chance to experience it. Claremore was a new stop this time, as were some places in New Mexico and Texas.

The engine carries 23,500 gallons of water and 6,200 gallons of oil, its fuel source. They make multiple stops along the route to take on water.

One of my fellow passengers on Saturday was 12 year old Michael Hoge of Arkansas. I struck up a conversation and asked, "so how did you get to ride," expecting that the answer would be he was related to a railroad employee as that comprised the majority of the other passengers. His answer was not what I expected. He answered directly and briefly, "I asked nicely."

He had gotten permission to ride on an earlier leg, and on Sunday morning had shown up with his parents and waited until all the other passengers had gotten on. He then asked Conductor Reed Jackson - nicely - about riding, and was granted permission. It's obviously not the standard way it's done, but it worked for this young man.

I was impressed with Michael's style. At 12 he has already learned that asking nicely can get you a lot of things. It got him a ride behind No. 844 from Claremore all the way into Kansas City's historic Union Station, with a jaunt through the Union Pacific yard where he spotted something he'd never seen before - a new engine being used by the Army.

Michael's parents, along with many other "rail fans" as those who chase trains are often known, were driving, taking photos of the train. They stayed in phone contact with each other and at various stops his mom would meet him with snacks or other supplies. The family was like a well oiled machine itself.

During the trip Michael spent a lot of time in the vestibule where we could lean out and see the engine in front of us. It was really a choice spot to get a look at the engine as it rounded a curve.

He has already traveled to 26 states seeing trains. His dad is a long time rail fan and they spend a lot of vacation time chasing trains. He says it has become a "yearly ritual of riding trains." Michael is well versed about paint schemes, types of cars and details lost on all but the most dedicated rail fans.

They also chase trains in their area. Michael said they used to chase between Little Rock and Conway but he says, "those train chasing days are over because my parents don't want to waste fuel." But, obviously, something like No. 844 was worth expending some fuel on.

I asked if he was going to continue chasing the train and with some disappointment he said, "No, I've got space camp to go to." So, young Michael's train excursion was ending so he could head to Alabama by car.

Steam engines engender a passion that is palpable. No. 844's unique place in history makes it worth a trip to catch it. The first thing you're struck by when you see it is the sheer size of it. The wheels are taller than most men. It's a mindboggling thing to realize you're seeing something work much the same as it did 60 years ago. It truly is living history.

Barnes challenged me to consider how many companies celebrate their heritage, and I confess I had a hard time coming up with any. Of course, few companies can boast nearly a century and a half of operation, either. That's impressive, any way you look at it.

Steve Holmes, an award winning documentary producer, has produced a movie called "RailFans: Passion for the Iron Horse." He's also a lifelong rail enthusiast. "It's a neat thing that Union Pacific is doing this. They are the only railroad now that has a steam program. And as you saw in Hutchinson and elsewhere, clearly it's a goodwill tool for the communities in which they operate. Steam trains are really powerful PR tools."

Union Pacific is well aware of the public relations value, and they make no bones about their reasons for having No. 844 out and about. It is not only a celebration of the rail road, but helps with branding, and also gives them a chance to recruit employees - something they're very interested in - through publicity.

Union Pacific is expecting about 40% of their employees to retire in the next 5 years due to the aging baby boomers. They are hiring people to prepare for that. Some years ago after the Southern Pacific merger, they had a situation where they lost a number of employees and were crippled for awhile. "Once we got behind and started parking trains, it took forever to get caught up," says Kevin Dawson, the Manager for Training and Attendance in the Wichita Service Area. They don't want to do that again.

Dawson says, "Our business is growing rapidly." Part of the reason is there's lot of freight traffic these days, and they're continually looking at new businesses. But another big one now is high fuel costs.

"Look at the highways and you see our future for the railroad," says Dawson. "We can pull 100 containers that take 100 drivers, with one crew." They're also able to tailor the power for the size of the load they're moving, something a truck can't do as well. One thing I hadn't really considered before, but that Dawson pointed out, is that the railroad is, "not moving on publicly owned properties, we have our own infrastructure."

Barnes said Union Pacific thinks of their operation in the western two thirds of the country as a huge manufacturing plant. Only in their case it's open and exposed to the elements, which presents a new set of issues. They have 22,000 plus miles of track alone, not to mention the investment in locomotives and cars.

Finding new employees is something you'll hear about from almost any Union Pacific employee you strike up a conversation with. It takes a unique personality to "marry the railroad," as I heard from a couple of people. Over the course of the day I talked to former farmers, mechanics and factory workers who had made a move to the railroad.

Dawson says, "This is a lifestyle. It is a cultural change. We want to make sure potential employees understand this is not a 9 to 5 job." Union Pacific spends about $40,000 training someone from the moment they come in off the street to get them to the entry level position of brakeman. It takes about 14-16 weeks to do that. It's obviously a huge investment.

Railroading is often a generational job, sons follow fathers into what has become the family business. Barnes says they know what the job is like because it has been a part of their lives. It has been their dinner table conversation.

Glen Driskel of Cherryvale, Kansas, retired from being an engineer just three days before he was a passenger on No. 844 between Claremore and Coffeyville, Kansas - the route he normally worked. His wife and three grandchildren were with him on 844. He had been with the company for 38 years, and says, "it's a great place to work, with good pay and great benefits. And it's fun. I wouldn't have had it any other way."

Driskel is a second generation railroad worker. His dad ran steam engines in the forties. He joked, "This ride is a little better than what I normally have with the freight." He said on a normal day the leg of the trip that took us a little over an hour would take him between 4 to 6 hours, depending on other railroad traffic. He joked, "This is very relaxing. Those other guys have to answer the radio and watch the signals and run the thing." Getting a little wistful, he looked out the window and said, "but, I think I'll miss it."

No. 844 can reach speeds over 100 miles per hour, but on this trip Barnes says 79 in West Texas was the maximum speed reached. No. 844 can move 10 miles faster than freight and it doesn't stop, it has priority on the rails, so other rail traffic stops to let it pass. That's why it made Driskel's usual jaunt so much quicker.

Ten crew people are devoted to No. 844, when it travels and at its home base. It requires many more than those people to run this operation, though. That's one of the reasons steam engines were replaced by diesels, because the steam was so labor intensive. At every stop on this trip, they have to take on water, and maintain various parts of the engine.

Some of the jobs are a bit less mechanically inclined, but essential nonetheless. Penny Braunschweis is one of the people who welcomes guests to the gift shop and passes out information on the engine. It's her third year to do it and she loves "seeing how excited people are, especially the kids" to see the engine.

She is right about people's excitement. Everywhere the engine goes it is met by crowds eager to catch sight of it and see it work. Even people who aren't tracking the engine's every move get excited to see it.

Marty Foster of Cookeville, Tennessee didn't even know to expect the train. She was in Waggoner, Oklahoma, visiting on Saturday, May 27, when she heard the whistle. She jumped in the car with her dog, Barley, and drove down to the track. Someone there told her it was heading north, so she did too. She was rewarded by getting to see it in Claremore, where it made an overnight stop.

Seeing it moving, spewing smoke into the air, is a sight you don't expect. Documentary producer Holmes says he thinks part of the appeal of steam engines is that you can actually see them work. "You see the big wheels move. As one of the people in our program put it 'a steam engine is like a living creature.' A steam engine is working and it shows it so dramatically - the sight, the smell, the feel, the sound. That's all overwhelming, especially if you've never seen it before."

All along the route, people were pacing the train on the road, standing at intersections and standing along the track, wanting to see No. 844 and also to get a better view. People try to capture it with photographs and video. Those seem to be a rail fan's most often used tools.

I was struck how digital cameras have changed our world. I found myself sitting with young Michael and Nathan, another friend we'd made, comparing our digital photos. It's an innovation rail fans couldn't have imagined twenty years ago - being able to see the photos instantly.

Of course, photos don't compare to the actual experience of seeing it in person. "I've seen these things at work and I don't know how any recording or photograph can do it justice," says movie producer Holmes. "It's simply an overwhelming experience. It touches young and old but in different ways. The people who are older are seeing something they remember from their youth. The people who are under 50, unless they've sought it out, this is new for them. But for both it's a step back in time."

The documentary Holmes produced examines the relationship between rail fans and the rail roads, a sometimes contemptuous one. "There are people who take jobs on the rail road because they love trains. There are people who paint trains. There are people who move to houses by the tracks. It's part of our culture, our folkore. Our movie looks at what inspires that devotion, how people show it, and why that is controversial right now."

After 9-11, railroads had to become more conscientious about why people were along the tracks, and that has impacted the hobby. Generally, what railfans want is a photograph, and they're often jockeying for position to get the best shot.

Holmes says on his website for the documentary, "Railfans have been around almost as long as trains themselves. I am convinced that five minutes after the maiden run of the Iron Horse, some guy was out there drawing it. This was before photography. In fact, trains and photography grew up together."

"RailFans" is headed for public television stations across the country this fall. Read more about it on Holmes' website at

Union Pacific did a major overhaul on No. 844 in 2000 that included a great deal of work on its running gear, pumps, piping, valves and springs, along with replacement of its firebox, and extensive boiler work. Even the cab interior has been refurbished. They carry some spare parts with them, and have the ability to fabricate some items on the spot if necessary.

"The Steam Team" is a specific crew that works with 844 and Union Pacific's other steam engine, 3985. Running a steam engine is a specialized endeavor. Part of the reason diesel engines replaced steam was because of the labor required to run a steam engine.

Also traveling with them are their own "police" who work with local officials wherever the engine goes. You'll not find nicer folks. Almost everyone who deals with No. 844 is a PR person in addition to their regular job.

I noticed even the official police and sherriff's officers are not immune to the charms of No. 844.

They take the opportunity onboard to do education for the Operation Lifesaver program, designed to educate people about the importance of safety at rail crossings.

Trains weigh so much it takes them about a mile to stop. Obviously, by the time the person on the train can actually *see* someone on the rails, they cannot stop. It would defy the laws of physics for them to bring a 12 million pound train to a stop in a manner of moments. Barnes says, "The engineers are helpless. They can't stop the train."

The recently retired Driskel said, "people run in front of you all the time," shaking his head. For the engineers who are unfortunate enough to be put in the circumstance of hitting someone the railroad offers counselors and peer support.

I covered Operation Lifesaver many times when I was a journalist, but had forgotten the history of the program so went and looked it up. It started in Idaho in 1972 when the national average of collisions at highway-rail grade crossings exceeded 12,000 annually. It was intended as a one time, one state, six-week public awareness campaign sponsored by the office of Governor Cecil Andrus, the Idaho Peace Officers and Union Pacific railroad.

During the campaign's first year, Idaho's crossing-related fatalities dropped by 43 percent, which is an astonishing success rate. In 1973 the program expanded to Nebraska, and they saw a 26% reduction in crashes. Kansas and Georgia experienced similar success the following year.

Between 1978 and 1986, while Operation Lifesaver operated under the auspices of the National Safety Council, all 49 continental states started independent Operation Lifesaver programs. In 1986, the national program was incorporated as a national, non-profit, 501(c)(3) educational organization.

Some people mistakenly believe that if the railroads put gates and lights at every crossing that would solve the problem. In reality, half of accidents happen at crossings with those. So, that is not the solution. It seems that education is the best answer, and they use every opportunity to spread the message. "Safety is our number one priority," says Barnes.

Others think the answer is stricter laws. But when someone drives around a crossing, they break five traffic laws. Obviously, this has not solved the problem because, as Barnes says, "You cannot legislate people's behavior."

This was an amazing experience. I learned a lot about rail roads. What I knew previously was pretty much limited to what I'd learned through Operation Lifesaver, and a previous story I did on 844, back when it was 8444.

I guess you might say I have a little history with this engine. About 20 years ago when it was in Salina, I made an hour long, early morning drive up the interstate to see it. I was doing radio news then, and did some interviews with those gathered at the depot, and did a story. Greg and I were already friends then, and he shared this photo he took that day of me recording the sound of the engine.

At the time I had no idea I'd ever have the opportunity to ride behind it. Frankly, it hadn't even occured to me until last month when I saw it again and noticed the interest from readers here. I'm thankful for the experience.

I'm much more aware now of No. 844's unique place in history. If I'm lucky enough to find it in my area again, you can be sure I'll travel out to get another look. I'm starting to understand what others have known for a long time - there is something magical about the lure of a steam engine.

See more photos of No. 844 at


Anonymous said...

I saw #844 pulling a Union Pacific passenger train from Denver, CO to Pueblo, CO. What an impressive site! I went to Palmer Lake, CO where it would have to pull the Palmer Divide - no problem - but a lot of smoke and steam as it chugged up the divide. By the time I learned of the run, the seats had been sold out for months. The entire train was washed and waxed! I found your site - great info.

Patsy Terrell said...

It is a magnificent sight. I understand they do excursions pretty regularly. They'll be back in Kansas next month but I can't go this time.

Anonymous said...

I could hear the whistle from inside my home in Denver which is some miles from the railroad tracks in downtown Denver. I knew that it was different than any other train that I had ever heard. Actually, the sound was beautiful. I had no idea what I was really hearing until I learned from my son that he was going to see the #844 as the train came through Colorado Springs. I wish that I had seen it. One can only imagine what a sight the train must have been.