If you’ve ever seen a steam locomotive up close, they are fascinating machines. They huff and puff and clang and rattle. They bellow smoke and steam. Intricate pistons pump in and out, up and down, as giant wheels start to move with a groan. They are magnificent… a symphony of sights and sounds and smells that combine our industrial ingenuity and the romance of travel.
Engineers will tell you every steam engine is different. Even when they are built from the same blueprints in the same shops, they have a personality all their own. Hoggers would have their favorite engines. Old Number 9 is a slow burner. Number 53 needs extra oil. 23 needs the throttle open to get a running start.
Diesels and electrics are mostly alike. Interchangeable. Assembly-line standard equipment.
I’m too young to remember steam engines. The ones I’ve seen are museum-pieces that are sometimes fired up for short excursions for tourists and fans. It’s not the same as main-line steam pulling a crack Limited on the main line. I understand how the retiring of the great steam engines broke the hearts of train enthusiasts.
What lingers, is what’s old is more valued than what’s new among train-watchers. We remember the better times of the past, when trains and transportation were synonymous. The great passenger trains offered a luxury that no airline can match. Freight and merchandise moved by rail, and our economy with it.
As a boy in Brooklyn, I remember the new R-46 subway cars. They arrived in 1976, and came with then red, white, and blue stripes for our nation’s bicentennial. They were assigned to the F-train line first… the line I took to grandma’s house. They bumped the older R-6 cars out of service.
I should have loved the new subway cars. They were sleek, modern stainless steel. They were quiet and faster, almost gliding over the rails. The older R-6’s rattled and rumbled. They were dark brown, sometimes covered with a layer of dirt or graffiti. But to a young boy, they were what the subway was all about. Their rattan seats were distinctive. The steam heaters gave off an almost sweet smell in the winter. They had green and white interiors with the ceiling-mounted fans (instead of air conditioning). The big window up front was just the right height for a boy to look out and see the tracks in front of him.
In a few years, the R-6’s would run only during rush hour. Sometimes you could go weeks or months without seeing one of the old subway cars. Soon they'd be gone for good, off to the scrapheap.
But the new R-46 cars had defective wheel-trucks. About a year after they first appeared they had to be pulled out of service for an expensive and time-consuming overhaul. For months the old, brown, dirty R-6’s that dated back to the 1940s were pressed back into service. It was a glorious end to their careers, and no one doubted that sometimes older is better.
Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau