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Where to find main line steam locomotives in the U.S. in 2021

By Jim Wrinn | March 9, 2021

After COVID-19 put the brakes on hard on mainline steam in 2020, will there be a comeback in 2021?

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A Big Boy locomotive leads a yellow passenger train through the Great Plains.

Steam in 2021

It’s too early to tell what will happen with certainty, given the grip the virus still holds on the nation. But it’s not too early to anticipate. As always with big steam, there are many dreams of excursions and plans for trips drawn up and ready to dust off. Every big steam operator knows their engine(s) are people magnets. None of them want to be superspreader events. So, for sure, don’t expect much in the first half of 2021. But if masks and vaccines have the impact they’re expected to, the last half of 2021 could get good.

A Big Boy locomotive leads a yellow passenger train through the Great Plains.
Union Pacific Big Boy 4-8-8-4 No. 4014 leads a matched UP office car train westward through Speer, Wyo., in 2019. Jim Wrinn photograph

Union Pacific 4014 / 844

Either or both of UP’s mighty locomotives are ready to roll. I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard fans comment that they were glad the Golden Spike Sesquicentennial tours with Big Boy 4-8-8-4 No. 4014 and Living Legend 4-8-4 No. 844 were in 2019 and not happening in 2020 — or none of it would have occurred. I’ve also heard plenty of fans who sat out 2019 because it would be too crowded/crazy/insert-your-favorite-overthinking-excuse-here say they wish they’d ventured out after all since they got zero UP steam action in 2020. Confidence is high that if the pandemic is brought under control, expect to see UP steam burnish the rails.

Reading & Northern 2102

The big homemade T-hog was test fired in January, and I suspect that R&N management is eager to button up the engine and get the big 4-8-4 out for the first time in 29 years. In 2020, R&N found ways to keep running excursions with social distancing and long trainsets, so the Road of Anthracite may be one of the places to be this year for Big Steam that you can both ride and chase.

Santa Fe 2926

The big 4-8-4 was ready to fire up and move for the first time last spring when the pandemic hit. New Mexico has strictly enforced COVID-19 rules, and the Albuquerque-based crew know they have a big crowd of supporters who want to be on hand for that first move, so they’ll wait until the rules are relaxed. There’s a tool car to complete, but otherwise, it may be time for a southwestern road trip to see the first AT&SF 2900-class locomotive in steam in the preservation era.

Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum’s Southern Railway 4501

Everyone’s favorite Mikado will be back for trips to north Georgia. For the past 55 years, the 2-8-2 ’01 has been thrilling fans new and old, and she’s never lost a bit of her magic. If you haven’t treated yourself to one of TVRM’s day-long north Georgia trips, here’s the year to enjoy a classic. I checked tvrail.com for a schedule and it’s not yet posted for 2021, but when it is, jump at the chance!

Western Maryland 1309

The newly restored 2-6-6-2, the last Baldwin, test ran New Year’s weekend. Now it’s down to the punch list, and significant track work. After a well-deserved rest, crews returned to jump on the final work list in January. How soon before we see steam on Helmstetter’s Curve again? I expect the railroad to restore track in and around the shop at Ridgeley, W.Va., and the depot just across the Potomac River at Cumberland, Md., first. That enables engineer-for-an-hour operations to start and get some cash coming in. If state and local sources of funding come through to pay for track work, the rest of the railroad could be in operation by midsummer. With a landmark locomotive and a great fleet of passenger cars to go behind it, all that are needed is the rails to run her on.

Norfolk & Western 611

The Class J 4-8-4 locomotive was getting tender axle work this winter at its home away from home, the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, N.C. More on that soon. Again, if things improve, I foresee the J running at Spencer at the very least.

A worker holds a pole next to a steam locomotive moving slowly.
A worker hoops up orders to the engineer of the Soo Line Mikado-type 2-8-2 steam locomotive in Horizon, Wis., in November 2020. Jim Wrinn photograph

Soo Line 1003

The Wisconsin-based 2-8-2 Mikado did us a great honor in 2020 by running Trains’ 80th anniversary photo charter. I expect to see it back again this fall!

Milwaukee Road 261

This 4-8-4 steam locomotive based in Minneapolis is another Midwestern favorite that I predict will polish the rails in its home state of Minnesota.

Southern Pacific 4449

If all returns to normal in the world of medicine, I don’t see why the annual holiday trains wouldn’t run this fall out of Portland, Ore., behind this venerable 4-8-4.

Canadian Pacific 2816

CP says it fired up the spotless 4-6-4 Hudson steam locomotive last fall for its Holiday Train online special and moved the engine in the Calgary, Alberta, yards for the taping. But the temptation may just be there to take the engine out once more on the main line.

3 thoughts on “Where to find main line steam locomotives in the U.S. in 2021

  1. With the race to vaccinate millions from coronavirus when those hope mainline steam was to make up for shutdowns in 2020 when in 2021 those expect a top ten list of mainline steam in 2021 when some of the highlights on the top ten list is not just one but two Santa Fe 484’s had those wonder if there was to be a photo opportunity of LA based 3751 and new Albuquerque based 2926 in a doubleheader. As other items on a top ten list of mainline steam in 2021 is the test of the last Baldwin ever built restored to operating condition when those expect western Maryland 1309 to run on the horseshoe curve.

  2. Great idea for a listing — but you left out the previous Denver & Rio Grande Western narrow gauge steam engines still running on 2 longer scenic rail lines. They are: ‘The Durango – Silverton’ and ‘The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.’ It is something to see a double-headed Cumbres train leaving out of Chama, NM climb the 4% grade to the top of Cumbres Pass. And the view down onto the Animas river as the Silverton heads into the mountains on it way to it’s name-sake town is breathtaking, with the steam engine pulling the train as it heads up river. They are 2 great steam rides that can be done back-to-back over just a few days, given how close they are to each other.

    1. We love the C&TS and D&S … they’re just not what we’re thinking of when we say “main line steam”.

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