Month: September 2016

Golden Age of Passenger Rail Comes Alive Again

In elegant surroundings, a group of well-heeled football fans gaze intently at a television set. The team of their choosing has just gained two yards… the television screen is bigger than that. A mini-bar, buffet with all the fixin’s, comfy chairs, soft lighting and all the other trappings of a Five-Star hotel are available, but ignored in the intensity of the contest on the screen. Also ignored is the the scenery passing by outside the windows. This Five-Star hotel is on steel wheels.

Back in the “golden age” of passenger rail, the cars George Pullman built for the coach class traveler were well appointed enough, but the “first class” cars and the corporate business cars were the equal in their appointments of any luxury hotel. Passenger rail has nearly passed into history, but the passenger cars of those halcyon days are making a comeback. Railroad executives, CEOs of blue-chip businesses, and the celebrity darlings of movies, of television, and of sport are the riders of these re-imaged railcars.

“When can we start?”

The custom car folks call their creations “resto-mod”… a classic car body with completely modernized underpinnings as well as the most luxurious of creature comforts for the occupants. The restoration of passenger cars built by Pullman and others is done with the same end in mind. The degradation of 100 years of weather and wear has greatly compromised the structure of these cars, and rebuilding will be much more intense than mere dent removal and repaint. Not only are modern specifications for the construction of rail cars more stringent than those in place when these cars were new, but the materials available to the restorer of today are much superior to those chosen by the OEMs. The first order of business is to lay a foundation for the car that is structurally adequate and is in compliance with the regulations of the 21st century. Starfire Engineering has been involved in several projects of this type, providing engineering analysis and drafting support to car owners and railcar shops. This support enables the repair and upgrade of the car to ensure a safe and comfortable ride as well as to seamlessly interface with modern railroad equipment.

Guided by computer analysis and a keen understanding of railcar construction, plans are formulated and instructions are composed. Corroded metal is surgically removed and a re-engineered understructure is grafted in its place. New trucks (the wheelsets the railcar rides on are called “trucks”) are rarely available for these old cars, however in many cases trucks from a newer railcar can be placed under the redesigned framework. This can gift the resto-mod with bearings and suspension of modern design, while retro-fittment of the latest design coupling systems allows the classic car to hold hands with contemporary cars and locomotives. The eagle eyes of the engineers search the rest of the railcar for corrosion, cracks and other complications, surrendering to the upholsterers a railcar that is sound and strong.

It is at this point that Mr. Pullman’s work, for all its gilded magnificence, will pale. The cabinet work will be of the finest quality, using materials which Hyatt-Regency wouldn’t spring for… the carpet will be of a grade which would not be out of place in the Royal Penthouse Suite. This is to be expected. For the restorers of these cars, this is a labor of love. This same attention to detail courses through the entire project. Some of these builders use that same cabinet grade wood to make the backing panels for the wall coverings! A full suite of modern appointments pays homage to the classic heritage of the golden era… brass and copper light fixtures harken to a simpler time, but L.E.D. light units hide inside, giving the performance expected today. Covered by antique decorum, heavy-duty electrical circuits feed not only that big-screen television we watched earlier, but any and all devices the modern rider would need or want – we will have a place for our ‘phone-charger AND our laptop!

These projects are popular, and the supply of restorable cars is limited, so if you’re interested in having your own “Hilton-on-wheels”, now’s the time. Bring deep pockets, as a good basic railcar can run well into six figures as it sits!! For those interested in a more involved fixer-upper, this would be a very interesting project:

The Mark Twain Zephyr was built in 1935 by the Budd Company for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. The name was chosen because the streamliner’s route from St. Louis to Burlington, Iowa passed through Twain’s boyhood home of Hannibal, Missouri. Continuing the theme, each of the cars was named for a major character from Twain’s works. The Zephyr series of streamliners set several benchmarks for construction and performance. Powered by the first Diesel engine to motivate an American train, the eight-cylinder Winton promised to deliver 125mph speed. Articulated trucks saved weight and complexity and these sported some of the first roller bearings used on the rails. Stainless Steel construction gave the trainset a sleek, shiny countenance and resulted in the appellation “Silver Streak”. For the restorer, the untainted metalwork means that even after all those years, the consist will be rust-free – although restoring Stainless Steel cars has its own set of complications. As the photos show, the trainset is in reasonably good shape; the articulated trucks are present, though they’ve wandered a few yards from their homes. The down side is, what you see is all you get. The locomotive and the cars are completely stripped, all controls, engine, generator set, driver’s and passenger’s seats, windows, horn, bells, whistles, and lights – gone… but, hey, you’re going to replace all that anyway! The consist is setting on blocks at Gateway Rail Services in Madison, Illinois. Shiny Irons does not have any information on current ownership or on current plans for the trainset. Clyde Hentz at Gateway can fill you in on those details, and, if you’d like, he might be able to give you a quote on what it will take to get back on the rails! We here at Shiny Irons and Starfire Engineering would very much like to help make that happen!

Thank you for joining us, and keep the rails shiny!


Take a Train Ride

During the “Golden Age” of passenger rail travel, luxury notwithstanding, the end game was… to get from here to there. The factors which had led to the growth of the rail industry in the 19th century were, for the most part, still in play. Horses were being replaced by automobiles but the vast majority of the nation was served by roads which were little better than horse trails. Mark Twain offered a comparison of the two modes in the mid-1800s, describing the monumental increase in efficiency of the rails. In the early-mid 20th century, as competition between rails and roads and between railroads for the traveler’s dollar heated up, railroads began to paint (figuratively and literally) their routes as not just a ride, but an excursion:

during the early twentieth century … the famous and legendary named passenger trains began to appear. Some were launched prior to the streamliner age while others were transformed into legendary names after their transition. A few of these include Santa Fe’s Chief and Super Chief (1926 and 1936), the Baltimore & Ohio’s Capitol Limited (1923), the jointly operated [by the Burlingon, Rio Grande, and Western Pacific] California Zephyr (1949), the Milwaukee Road’s legendary Hiawathas (inaugurated in 1935), Great Northern’s venerable Empire Builder (1929), Southern Pacific’s Daylights (originally inaugurated in 1922), Southern’s Crescent Limited (1922), Pennsylvania Railroad’s famous Broadway Limited (1902), and the New York Central Railroad’s lauded 20th Century Limited (1902). (

Today, a train ride is much more likely to be a vacation. Literally dozens of excursion, scenic and tourist railways offer everything from a tour of Royal Gorge

to a trip across the continent. Cumbres and Toltec Senic Railroad will take you to the summit of 10,000 ft. Cumbres Pass and the 1000 foot sheer walls of Toltec Gorge. Follow Sam McCord north to the gold fields of Alaska on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad. Here’s a list of National Geographic Magazine’s Top Ten North American rail rides. If you’re still keening for more, head for Russia where the Trans-Siberian Railway will take you across the Eurasian continent in about 10 days. The actual trip is 8 days, but when the train stops at Irkutsk you will want to take a couple of days to see the incomparable beauty of Lake Baikal.


Play a Train Song

In a post about classic passenger rail, there can be only one song… Steve Goodman‘s wonderful “City of New Orleans”,

sung by Arlo Guthrie from his 1972 album “Hobo’s Lullaby”….


Stop, Look, Listen and Live

Here’s a little experiment regarding railroad crossing safety. Take a can of soda, place it on the ground in front of the tire of your car. But first, let’s back up a bit and get all the parameters of this experiment set… we don’t want to have our results skewed by having the wrong data input. We’re using a 12oz. can, full and unopened.  The vehicle is a standard full-sized sedan, a Fusion, Camry, Malibu, that class of vehicle. Make sure bystanders are back several yards, mostly to avoid spray. Now, run over the can. Note the effect on the can… and the minimal effect on the car. The difference in mass between the soda can and your car is roughly the same as the mass difference between your car and a loaded freight train. To be precise, we would need to specify the number of cars in the train consist, their weight, the number and type of power units in the consist… but the result is still going to be the same. Even a single locomotive outweighs your car by a hundred times.

Operation Lifesaver is a nonprofit public safety education and awareness organization dedicated to reducing collisions, fatalities and injuries at highway-rail crossings and trespassing on or near railroad tracks. Since 1981, grade crossing (the technical term for an intersection of a public road and a railroad track) collisions have decreased each year, but 2015 still saw over 2000 collisions. In these, there were 244 fatalities. These incidents are preventable! All grade crossings are required to be marked with at least a crossbuck. The federal Highway Administration reports that nationwide, just under 25% of grade crossings are controlled by gates, with a total of 45% having at least some form of active marking. These statistics are 2004, and the number of gated crossings has climbed to around 35% today. Even so, BNSF Railroad’s 2014 Grade Crossing Safety report showed 52% of grade crossing collisions occurring at crossings with active warning devices! Crossings in higher traffic areas are more likely to have gates, many with flashing lights in addition to the gate. The onus is on the driver of the vehicle to be aware of the warning markings and to heed them.
“… but, don’t I have the Right of Way??” It is important to remember, the train can’t swerve to avoid a collision. The train can’t stop, either, at least not in time. Return for a moment to the soda can we squashed earlier. If you approach the can at 55mph in your car, you could stop in time if you applied your brakes about 150 feet away. Using the venerable football field analogy, say you’re “driving” for a touchdown at 55mph. To stop short of the can on the opponent’s goal line, you’d have to hit the binders at the 50 yard line. If an average freight train, driving (hauling?) for that same touchdown, applied emergency braking, it would take eighteen football fields to stop… that’s plowing right down the field, through the next field, through the whole regular season, AND the playoffs and into the Super Bowl… before it could stop.
To be safe, be aware. Aware of where the grade crossings are. Aware of the type of markings which denote grade crossings. Aware of your responsibility to yourself and to your passengers.

Do not EVER drive around a gated crossing.

Do not EVER cross a grade crossing when a traffic control signal is active.

Stop, look and listen at grade crossings without active traffic control signals.

The train will pass in a few minutes and you’ll be on your way, safely!
Thank you for joining us, and keep the rails shiny!

For more information, see:
Union Pacific grade crossing safety messages.

Where, oh where are the grade crossings on my route??


Big Iron
adjective: big; comparative adjective: bigger; superlative adjective: biggest
1. of considerable size, extent, or intensity….
Marty Robbins’ 1959 classic hit “Big Iron” concerned a pistol… most likely Mr. Colt’s “Peacemaker” Single Action Army M1873. At 2lb., 5oz., it was “big iron” indeed. The locomotives known as “Big Boys” are… bigger. Often called the “largest and heaviest steam locomotives ever built”, the Union Pacific’s 4000-class 4-8-8-4 articulated locos were certainly among the biggest, regardless of how you measure it. While hauling freight over the Wasatch Mountain Range in Utah, in the late 1930s, Union Pacific saw a need for more traction. To climb the 1.14% grade east of Ogden, helper engines needed to be added to the consist. After climbing the grade, they were extraneous and had to be removed and repurposed to more profitable effort. The U.P. design team worked with the American Locomotive Company, putting the existing Challenger locomotive on a muscle building program.. In the gym, the loco got a larger firebox, longer boiler and 33% more driving wheels. The result was a 1,250,000lb, 130+ foot behemoth designed to pull 3600 tons at 80mph. The corporate name for the series was “Wasatch”, however very early in the project an unknown worker chalked the appellation “BIG BOY” on the beast. Who could argue?


Play Me a Train Song
The real-life whistle of the Pan American Flyer was literally the signature sound of the Grand Ole Opry in the mid-1930s. WSM radio, Nashville took advantage of its location next to the Louisville and Nashville Railroad tracks. A radio station engineer placed a microphone by the window, and every day when the train known as “the Pan” blew its whistle approaching the station, the sound would go out over WSM….

Live at the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry, Emmylou Harris sings “Smoke Along the Track”