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Deep inside the cavernous backshop at Cheyenne, Wyo., a giant is coming back to life. I saw it with my own eyes on a visit earlier this week. Here's what I saw.
Union Pacific Big Boy No. 4014 is about as disassembled as you can get and still be counted as a locomotive. The wheels are out from underneath it – all 24 of them – and 100-ton freight car trucks support the frame. It currently holds the title of the world’s largest 0-0-0-0. The boiler is as empty as it has been since Alco built the 4-8-8-4 in 1941. The cab is in another part of the shop and resting near 4-8-4 No. 844.
The tender, as yet un-rebuilt, is sitting in the yard. But there are signs of progress everywhere at the Alamo of Steam. They are the kind of signs that give confidence to the crew that is laboring so hard to see this done, the railroad that wants to see this behemoth completed as a goodwill ambassador, and the fans who have long dreamed of a Big Boy back in steam.
The news out of Cheyenne in mid-March 2018 is this: The crew is working hard on multiple tasks to get the job done. They’re sequestered in a “clean room” machine shop, where computerized machine tools of today are bringing back the past. They’re huddled around the gigantic trailing truck frame (estimated weight, 17,000 pounds and the size of a small car) that’s been removed. They’re perched in a lift on the side of the boiler.
Respectively, they’re making bolts, inspecting the casting, and welding. They’re also deep inside the firebox, where the task of renewing metal is ongoing. It is relentless, exhausting, and exhilarating work all at one time. But you can sense that this is a crew that is proud of getting the 4-8-4 back on the road in 2016 and that is on the verge of something big, something that was always believed to be too big to ever happen, too far out of reach, or just a silly dream. But dream no more.
Throughout the shop, confidence is high that we’ll see No. 4014 done in time to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad in May 2019. That will be 60 years since a Big Boy last pulled revenue freight in regular service. It will be a cause of celebration among those who love steam the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
Ed Dickens, the railroad’s manager for the restoration and the steam program in general, says the job is about 50 percent done. The focus is on the 300 psi boiler that is the heart of this 7,000 horsepower giant of the rails. He estimates that 85 to 90 percent of the parts needed to restore the locomotive are on hand. Boxes of new staybolts of varying lengths await installation. The steam exhaust water pump sits ready on a workbench.
A Nathan lubricator shines in fresh gloss black having been overhauled. The much celebrated burner for oil firing is in the building. The crossheads are nearly done with machining. The brake stand has been rebuilt. The list is a long and tedious one, but such is the way of steam locomotive restoration for the mainline on a stage that only Union Pacific could provide. Only one highly visible part of the old No. 4014 – the ashpans from the locomotive’s coal burning days – will go away with the conversion to oil firing.
The time for taking parts off Big Boy has passed, and the time for putting new or refurbished parts back on has arrived.
That is extremely evident one track over from the Big Boy, where the front engine awaits wheels and a boiler: The front pilot has been renewed. Rebuilt cross-compound air pumps are installed on the platform. Lubrication lines, soon to be covered up by the boiler, snake across the top of the frame in all directions.
Soon, the drivers with new tires and crank pins will return from rebuilding at the Strasburg Rail Road. Workers will load the tubes and flues into the boiler.
Reassembly will begin with thousands of parts ready to breathe new life into this old friend. The railroad will run No. 844 only once this year on the Cheyenne Frontier Days train in July so the crew can stay focused on the Big Boy. That is a small price to pay for a Big Boy back in steam.
The next chapter in the story of the much celebrated Big Boy locomotives is being written. The giant is coming back to life.
This article first appeared on cs.trains.com
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