The AT & SF No. 2926 sped ahead under its own steam power for the first time since 1953 in Albuquerque’s Sawmill district on Saturday.
The restoration of the historic steam engine was a collaborative project that took 21 years, many volunteers and lots of donations. Socorro’s own Jon Spargo serves as the safety officer for the train restoration project.
Spargo spent the last 20 years of his professional career as a safety officer for the VLA, and was already familiar with OSHA and EPA regulations, and fire safety codes, but railroad safety meant learning the General Code of Operating Rules.
“Part of what I had to do is learn GCOR and turn around and teach GCOR to the members of our organization who were going to be part of the crew when this engine takes off.”
The engine was built in 1944 and ran for 10 years, hauling both freight and passenger trains.
“There were passenger trains on the Santa Fe that went from Chicago to Los Angeles. The hardest part of the trip was in the west out in canyons and mountains. These engines, these 2900s, would pick up a passenger train in Kansas City and take it all the way to Los Angeles,” said Spargo.
In 1956, the train was donated to the city of Albuquerque and was displayed in Coronado Park for 44 years until it was bought for $1 by the New Mexico Steam Locomotive Railroad Historical Society, who were committed to restoring the engine.
“We have touched every nut and bolt on that thing. Along the way we’ve made discoveries, like parts of the boiler wrapper sheet were too thin, rusted away. We had to cut them out and replace them,” said Spargo.
The rebuild has also included modern improvements like a webcam mounted to the front of the train to make for easier visibility.
“The way I characterize it is that what we have done is we are performing industrial archeology. We are taking something very old and we are fixing it up and making it run again,” said Spargo.
Prior to World War II, the Santa Fe Railroad began to phase out steam engines for diesel freight engines, but after the war began freight traffic picked up and it was harder for the railroad company to get diesel engines. So, they updated a 1930s design for the 2900 series.
There were 30 of the 2900s built, and six are still in existence. The 2926 is the only one that runs, said Spargo. The rest have been left to more stationary fates in parks and museums. Steam engines were once a common sight, but functioning steam engines are becoming increasingly rare.
“At one time they were as prevalent as semi-trucks or greyhound buses, and now it is so rare to be able to see one of these operating and not in a museum,” said the train’s engineer Mathew Casford.
Casford has been involved in steam engine restoration since the 90s. He recently became the operations manager for the 2926 and is also the operations manager for the BNSF in San Antonio, Texas.
“This has been the accumulation of 21 years of work by these guys and I take no credit,” said Casford. “This engine is a great testament to the dedication of all of these volunteers.”
The over four hundred New Mexico Steam Locomotive Railroad Historical Society members who have donated their money and time to bring the old engine back to life were invited to gather Saturday to witness the engine’s first steam powered journey since the restoration effort began.
“Yesterday we all had tears in our eyes. We couldn’t even talk,” said volunteer Tom Turrentine.
Turrentine is usually a move crew guy. The move crew moves the car in and out and the engine in and out. They set up the break system, pressurize air and do coupling.
On Sunday, the public was invited to watch the engine steam along a short stretch of track on 8th street where the train engine is housed. The 2926 is an oil fired engine and has a cruising speed of 90 mph.
“It feels like I’m driving a corvette in a parking garage,” said Casford. “She wants to go.”
Passengers were able to climb into the cabin four at a time and go for a short ride right behind the train’s fireman and engineer.
The train whistle blew three times before it pulled backwards, once when it stopped and twice before it pulled forward. Passenger Linda Cekala got a chance to pull the steam engine’s whistle herself. When Cekala told the engineer that her daughter, who lives in Spokane, Washington, wanted to blow the whistle, the engineer offered to let Cekala pull the whistle while he took a video to send to her daughter.
Cekala’s husband John has been a volunteer on the project for 20 years.
“It’s been long, but it’s given him something exciting to do,” she said.
With the train restoration close to completion, the group is looking forward to long term plans. They hope to someday run excursions, carrying passengers to locations like Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Spargo has a wild dream for the steam engine. He’d like to see it run a route through Socorro down to Deming, following an old line that runs all the way to Spaceport America. Spargo wants to pick passengers up with the steam engine and take them by rail to watch a space ship launch.