Field Trip!

Building digital models involves hundreds of hours of sitting behind a desk, carving up intangible boxes, smoothing mathematical polygons, and painting shapes that only exist by the graces of the local electrical sub-station. But occasionally, all this work must be put aside for trips to research the prototype for the digital project. In this respect, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to the Illinois Railway Museum to get an up close and personal look at our latest project, the U30C.

Illinois Railway Museum

Illinois Railway Museum

The IRM is located on 70 acres just outside the little town of Union, Illinois. The town is the typical midwest setting – corn fields, soybeans, heat, and even the occasional tractor parade. Though it’s not the largest rail musuem i’ve ever visited, the IRM has the largest collection of rolling stock that i’ve ever seen, with something for just about every fan of anything that moves on (or is attached to) rails. You can visit and in some cases ride steam, diesel, electric traction, and even street cars and interurban buses. And although they have a large amount of static equipment, a good deal of what they own actually works!. During the diesel days celebration, about twenty locomotives were in operation and were presented to the railfans during the Parade.

Illinois Railway Museum dead line

The dead line.

In addition to rolling stock, the grounds had a fair amount of infrastructure – signals of every type, static turn tables and bridges, and even a working diamond crossing that existed simply to show how one looks and functions. You can discover a lot by staying in the common areas and visiting the large barns that provide protection for various pieces of rollingstock. But wandering away from the crowds and taking a simple stroll around the entire grounds revealed much that other visitors missed. I even found a Decapod, quietly rusting away in the steam dead-line.

Illinois Railway museum locomotive BN #5383

Illinois Railway museum locomotive BN #5383

Although I quite enjoyed watching the various diesels in action, the real star of the show, and the whole reason behind the trip, was Burlington Northern U30C  #5383. On the first day, I stuck close to the locomotive, which was stored in the Steam shed, waiting for a crew to show up and start it. Doing this proved to be a smart move, as I also got to watch the crews fire up a small switching locomotive, couple to the Burlington Zephyr, and tow it out of the shed onto the grounds. After the crew finished placing the Zephyr on a holding track next to the shed, they disembarked the switcher and boarded 5383.

The flagship trains waits to be towed out of the barn at the IRM

The flagship train waits to be towed out of the barn at the IRM

I have read among the various railroading forums that first-gen GE diesels were temperamental and earned a rather deserved dislike from engineers and railfans of their time periods. In this respect, #5383 did not disappoint. With camera and audio equipment recording, I eagerly awaited the startup. There was the hum of the excitation charge, the whine of the priming motor – and then a “thud” as the engine failed to turn over. Again the crew tried to start the unit, with the same end result. An advisor on the ground told the engineer to turn on the headlights, and when they tried to start the U30 again, the trouble was obvious – dead batteries. The engineer left the area, but soon returned with company – two chugging Alcos, with the intent to jump start #5383. The transfer worked, and soon, all three diesels were roaring in the barn, and the smoke was so thick that you could barely see a hand in front of you.

Two Alco's come to the rescue to revive an ailing GE unit.

Two Alco’s come to the rescue to revive an ailing GE unit.

The Alcos left and the crew of #5383 moved the locomotive into the yard in front of the barn. It was going to be a while before the unit could line up for the parade. A few minutes after moving outside the barn, an alarm bell sounded from inside the cab and the U30 faltered. After a few moments of uncertainty, the locomotive regained it’s notch settings, then faltered again.  A ground-fault was causing the the engine to stall. After several minutes of the engineer working the throttle, the fault finally cleared. A few minutes before the locomotive was moved to the parade line, I was invited into the cab to take a look around. Murphy’s Law being what it is, of course the batteries in my camera were dead by this time, but I was still able to get a few photos with my cell phone for reference.

After gathering as much information about the U30C as I could, the rest of the day was to be spent watching the Diesel Parade. However, in the summer in Illinois, the weather can be a bit unpredictable, and the sunny day turned stormy after lunch. A tornado warning for the area convinced me that it was time to head back to the hotel.

The kept the good stuff stowed away in the diesel barn.

They kept some good stuff stowed away in the diesel barn. A UP Dash 8 can be seen in the background, and a Santa Fe Warbonnet on the other side.

I had originally planned to return home the next day, but decided to go back and see if I could pick up any sounds that I may have missed. I spent more time wandering the museum than I did the day before, and got good photos and sound recordings of other diesels. I also found a few gems hidden in the back of the diesel barn. As for picking up more more info on #5383, that plan was quickly deep sixed. The locomotive was a dead-starter again. After charging at the diesel shed, it did start, but the locomotive was never notched out of idle, and though the U30C did appear in the parade, it was towed by an SW switcher. The last sounds I heard from the unit were two short blasts of the horn.

An ailing 5383 sits next to an idling Illinois Terminal unit that had had problems of it's own earlier in the morning.

An ailing 5383 sits next to an idling Illinois Terminal unit that had had problems of it’s own earlier in the morning.

Although it was a long journey that was much more business than pleasure, the trip to the Illinois Railway Museum was definitely worth it. I would recommend that anyone who has an interest in railroading to visit the museum at least once. If you are going to visit the museum, here are a few tips to follow so that you can have a more productive trip to the IRM:

Check the museum’s website, Not every museum piece is running every day, so check the site schedule first to be sure your favorite piece of rolling stock will be available.

Fly there. If you live only a few states away, you may be tempted to drive to the museum. Don’t make this mistake. Illinois is a northern state, and the constant ice-heaves and salt treatment in the winter means that some of the state’s interstate highways are about as good as an Alabama dirt road. Construction is also a constant hassle, so the best thing to do is fly in to O’Hare or Midway and rent a car to the museum.

Dress for the occasion. This is a working railroad, which means ballast, grease, creosote, smoke, and various black gooey liquids abound. If you are going to wander the entire site, it’s not the right place for shorty-shorts and flip-flops. I was right at home with slip resistant steel toed boots, jeans and light shirt. However, keep in mind that in the summer it is hot, and I do mean HOT, so light colors, hats, and sunscreen are a must.

Wandering is encouraged, but don't climb on the equipment and be mindful that very large pieces of rolling stock are moving around you.

Wandering is encouraged, but don’t climb on the equipment and be mindful that very large pieces of rolling stock are moving around you.

Mind your surroundings. As had been said, this is a working railroad that provides an amazing amount of leeway to it’s visitors as to where they can go on the grounds. Treat the museum as you would if you were photographing a busy mainline, as you will be in close proximity to moving locomotives and other rolling stock.

Visit the cafe. Corn-fed grilled chicken samiches. Nuff’ said!

Make a donation. Being onsite gives a great appreciation for just how much it would take to keep this many pieces of rail equipment maintained and running. Loosen your wallets so that future generations can enjoy what IRM has to offer.

Bonus Trip: Rochelle

If you go to Union, you’ve got to go to Rochelle. Located an hour’s drive southwest of Union, the town hosts a railroad park that is located at the crossing of two double-track mainlines; Union Pacific’s Geneva Subdivision and BNSF’s Aurora Subdivsion. It is estimated that 100 trains a day move through the diamonds. Trains Magazine even has a web cam set up there for it’s subscribers.

The railroad viewing area is set on top of a man-made hill just east of the crossing. There is a shelter, benches, picnic tables, and a scanner feed set up. There are also bathrooms and a gift shop.

According to the locals, the railroad park was born from a derailment years ago that wiped out a shantytown located on the site. Sometime later, the town repossessed the property after the owner at the time failed to pay back-taxes. At the same time, local residents were complaining to the city about the number of rail-fans that were trespassing on their properties. Eventually a group came forward to pay the taxes and create a park that would solve both problems.

My visit only lasted about three hours, but I was not disappointed. Four BNSF trains, three UP trains, and a light engine move all happened in the first two hours, with a bit of a lull the last hour. BNSF trains move through at reduced speed, giving a good look at their consists. UP trains blast through at full speed, pumping the crossing so hard that huge clouds of dust fly and the freight cars rock violently in transit.

Clouds of dust fill the air as an eastbound manifest train pumps the crossing.

Clouds of dust fill the air as an eastbound                     manifest train pumps the crossing.

To get to the Rochelle Railroad Park from Union, go west on US 20 until you reach I-39. Take the ramp southbound and travel on I-39 for about 26 miles until you reach the Rochelle exit. Take a right, then follow the Railroad Park signs.