29 July 2011

Riding the rails

"Oh, the Rock Island Line is a mighty good road

Oh, the Rock Island Line is the road to ride
The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road
Well if you want to ride you gotta ride it like you find it
Get your ticket at the station for the Rock Island Line."

-Rock Island Line, Leadbelly Johnson

"Well, listen to the jingle

To the rumble and the roar
As she glides along the woodland
Through the hills and by the shore
Hear the mighty rush of the engine
And the lonesome hoboes call
No changes can be taken
On the Wabash Cannonball"

-Wabash Cannonball, various artists

Last weekend saw Train Festival 2011 in Rock Island, complete with various old engines and rolling stock and numerous excursions, both on the railroad and on the Mississippi River. The event seemed to be pretty well attended and well-run. A great time for all of the railroad geeks out there, of which I am at least a junior member of the club.

Most of the excursions were run on the rails of the Iowa Interstate Railroad, which is the spiritual of not actual successor of the old Rock Island Railroad. The IAIS runs from Chicago to Omaha on the old Rock Island main line and crosses the Mississippi here in the QCs.

IAIS even recognizes their ancestor road by having one of their new GE ES44s done up in a 1950s era 'Rock Island' paint scheme. It's an eye-catcher and a favorite of rail photographers.




















Iowa Interstate is a 'fan-friendly' railroad, generally amenable to hosting excursions and rail events. They even keep 2 Chinese-built 2-10-2 steam engines on the roster for running steam trains!

TBH and I took the train last Saturday for the all-day excursion west approximately 60 miles through Iowa City and turned on the wye west of town. The consist was one of the IAIS steamers, 2 Amtrak diesels, and 13 passenger cars.

We rolled across the bridge at the Arsenal over the Mississippi River (sorry-no pics. National security and all that. It's absurd in a million ways, but, hell, I don't wanna give ol' Ahmed any ideas), and soon we were on our way across the farms, fields, and small towns of eastern Iowa at a comfortable 45 mph.

For those who haven't heard a steam engine whistle, it has a deep and mellifluous sound not heard on modern-day horns. One need only close their eyes when they hear the old whistle blow and go back in their mind to the days when the train pulling up to the station was a major event for a village or town, bringing goods from far away and passengers leaving and arriving from distant and exotic locales (possibly someplace as far as 25 or 30 miles away!). A big treat when a person's world stretches mostly just to the horizon, I reckon.

The trip went well-no problems that I heard about. Everyone on board seemed to have a good time. I've said it before and I'll say it again-travel by rail isn't always the fastest option, but I think it may be the most relaxing. Nothing wrong with a nice, roomy coach seat and a drink and just taking everything in. Kudos to the Iowa Interstate crews and Friends of the 261 for work well done!

A little bit of background for the next encounter:

When the Iowa Interstate started up in the late 1980s, it ran over the Rock Island main line west from Chicago. The Rock was in sad financial shape for years and had let the physical plant (equipment and roadbed) deteriorate to the point where 15 mph was about as fast as could be run without risking a major derailment. The Rock went bankrupt in 1980 and the track lay abandoned for a number of years. A group of investors, led by a former Conrail manager, Henry Posner, looked at the traffic that was available and could be scraped up, took a chance and created the IAIS. At first, they ran with a hodgepodge of equipment, and none too fast. (Aside within an aside-there used to be a dinner train here in the late 1980s-the Quad City Rocket. I had the pleasure of having dinner aboard her once. Over the track in the condition it was in at that time, the experience was akin to eating on the pitching mess deck of a small ship in a storm.) Over the years, with wise spending and some loans from government and private entities, the ownership group got the roads fixed, new motive power, new service facilities, and a lot of new accounts for moving industrial and agricultural goods along the line. A real business success story, which should be studied by some of the current shlups running businesses (and government) in this country.

We're sitting in our coach on the way back to Rock Island when this thin guy in overalls and a jacket, looking like the guy in the painting American Gothic, walks into the car and introduces himself. None other than Chairman Posner Himself! Cool! He looked like he'd just got done with a turn at the throttle of the steam engine, and maybe he did-it IS his locomotive, after all. He welcomed us aboard, told us a bit about the condition of the railroad when his group bought it, and told us to be safe when waiting to shoot the runby. Actually, he pleasantly told us not to screw up or screw around on his railroad. I can accept that. Railroads are dangerous places to be hanging around. Liability insurance for excursions is expensive, and IAIS doesn't HAVE to sponsor them. Also, running essentially a non-revenue passenger train does divert people and resources from making money moving freight.

I also know from what I've read that Mr. Posner is something of a railfan at heart. He likes trains and is aware of how the rails helped form the nation. And hosting these events and excursions is good publicity for the company and fosters goodwill between the railroad and communities along the line. IAIS keeps their right-of-way, facilities, and motive power clean and well-maintained. Some of the bigger roads could do well to follow their example. It looks like everyone from the Chairman down to the guy wielding the hammer takes pride in their work-and it shows.

A long ramble-but impressive to me that there are still a few businesses that are trying to do things 'the right way'.

Anyway, an outstanding trip. I hope we can pull out another one again soon.

Oh, yes. Of course. You can see the runby and the column of smoke and hear the chuffing of the cylinders and the clicking of the drivers simply by going here. Enjoy!

yankeedog out.

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