By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency
I just returned from a two-day rail excursion in Oregon from Portland to Bend and back, along with about 400 other people. The excursion wasn’t cheap, but it sold out within a week. Why do people shell out big bucks for a trip like this? Two reasons:
- Big Steam: The train was headed by former Southern Pacific steam engine 4449, a “streamlined” 4-8-4 model famous for having hauled the legendary “Daylight” for many years and later for pulling the “Freedom Train” around the U.S.
- Rare Mileage: The itinerary included about 140 miles along the line through the spectacular Deschutes River canyon on the former Oregon Trunk Railroad — a line that hadn’t seen scheduled passenger service since 1931, at least according to one source.
My primary interest was in the rare mileage. There is no paved road through the Deschutes Canyon, and the scenery is fantastic. Steam, not so much. I’m old enough to have traveled behind steam as a kid, and as far as trains are concerned, I’m much more interested in high-speed rail, modern metros, and light rail than I am in steam nostalgia. But I’d guess that well over half of the tour participants were steam buffs.
The train carried more than a dozen vintage passenger cars, including six dome cars and a parlor car, along with several coaches. It also included a baggage car with open doors for folks who wanted to photograph the train and scenery. Although the steam engine hauled the train, the train also included an Amtrak diesel to provide electrical power for the cars and as a backup in case something happened to the steam. That sort of arrangement seems to be par for the course on big-time excursions.
The experience was, at least my rail buff friends tell me, also par for the course. Among the high points:
- Nothing could have detracted from the excitement of the scenery except rain, and we had great cloudless weather.
- Other than a couple of Amtrak employees, the crew consisted of the volunteers who maintain engine 4449 with loving care. No matter what the situation, they retained their unflagging good nature and helpfulness.
But the trip also had some downsides:
- Morning departures from both Portland and Bend were delayed enough that we lost some of our “slots” along the mostly single-track lines and had some sidetrack delays.
- The busses in Bend transporting us between train and hotels were a bit disorganized, which, combined with the late arrival, meant many of our group didn’t get to their hotels until after 10 p.m.
- Air-conditioning failed on several cars and several ran out of water so toilets didn’t work.
Although big steam and rare mileage trips are common around the country, many are single-day trips rather than two-night excursions. The less frequent extended excursions are a lot more expensive, but they permit some rare mileage runs that are too remote for simple day trips.
According to my rail buff friends, much of the big steam excursion interest is focused on six historic engines, restored to full capability, and typically owned and operated by volunteer enthusiasts. All but one are 4-8-4 models:
- Southern Pacific 4449 based in Portland, Oregon.
- Milwaukee Road 261 based in Minneapolis.
- Nickel Plate 765, a 2-8-4, based in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.
- Norfolk & Western 611, another streamlined 4-8-4, based in Roanoke.
- Union Pacific 844, based in Omaha.
- Santa Fe 2926, based in Albuquerque.
If you’re interested in an excursion, the sponsors’ websites cited show upcoming schedules. And also check trainweb.org for more information that you can possibly use about historic engines and rail excursions. Whether you’re a steam buff or want to enjoy some unique scenery accessible only by rail, a rail excursion or day trip might be right for you.
(c) 2017 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC. — July 3, 2017