Hitching a Ride on a Locomotive

Article excerpt

THE ASSAULT on Webster Groves began not long after dawn's light shooed away the last tatters of morning's haze from this quiet place.h

From far off down the gentle, yet constant hill that carries the Burlington Northern Railroad tracks along Interstate 44, the battle was just beginning - and time seemed to be running in reverse.

Leading the charge up the hill was the 300 tons of fire and fury that is St. Louis-San Francisco Railway No. 1522.lrhecoo

Ka-blam, ka-blam . . . four blasts for each revolution of the 70-inch-tall wheels.

Inside the coaches that stretched for a third of a mile behind the engine, riders of this rare mileage excursion train cocked their ears to hear every note of the symphony in steel. Doing the same were those on the ground who stopped their cars, or opened windows or doors to watch the steamy show. Others stopped their cars along I-44's shoulders to watch the show.

Tens of thousands of passengers relive memories - or form new ones - each year aboard steam-powered excursion trains that crisscross the country during temperate months. In the truest sense, these are trains to nowhere - not regular transportation, but land cruises where riders can enjoy watching a plume of coal smoke tint scenery viewed from the window of a vintage passenger coach.

Such trips are flourishing because of the deep connection between Americans and passenger trains that few can explain.awntrAwu

Mark Davis, a spokesman for the Union Pacific railroad, which operates two steam locomotives as well as vintage diesels in excursion service, puts it this way: "I've seen everything from little children crying because they're afraid of the locomotive and its noises to the same emotion on people's faces who are in their 70s and 80s."

Says Davis, "A lot of people have only read about steam locomotives in books, or seen them in movies - this gives them a chance to see part of history."

Adds Carl Jensen, manager of Norfolk Southern railroad's steam excursions, "This is one of the ways the public can see us in a way that we hope will be positive in their minds and not such a thing as `here I am stuck at this grade crossing and this old train's blocking me. …