First steam-up a success for Santa Fe 4-8-4; more work yet before it runs

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Santa Fe 4-8-4 No. 2926 raises steam in Albuquerque, N.M., on Aug. 22. More work needs to be done before the locomotive is ready for main line operation.
William P. Diven
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It's been a long pull — 18 years since Santa Fe Railway No. 2926 creaked and groaned out of an Albuquerque city park — but this week fire and steam again brought the behemoth Baldwin-built 4-8-4 to life.

"That was our goal, 'Steam in 2018,' and we did it," says Chief Mechanical Officer Rick Kirby of the New Mexico Steam Locomotive and Railroad Historical Society.

The last time No. 2926 felt an oil fire in its belly was in 1956 when the locomotive retired at the age of 12 after a million miles of dual-service running. Outshopped in 1944, the engine represented the apex of locomotive development as the Santa Fe began buying diesel power.

For three days historical society crews nursed the fire checking appliances, plugs and with a roar blowing out the steam tubes. On Tuesday, boiler pressure topped out at 260 psi, short of its operating pressure of 300 psi but enough to claim victory in a preliminary round leading to operational status.

As expected, problems arose although they are considered minor: a few leaks, valves that need to be tighter, a finicky extender that wouldn't raise the smokestack, a bent blowdown nipple and inconsistent fuel flow from tender to fire box. An attempt to blow the whistle on Tuesday revealed water in the line and produced a sound compared to a sick moose.

"Your first steam-up is always a punch-list-development session," says Sam Lanter, retired chief mechanical officer of the Grand Canyon Railway.

The Grand Canyon Railway, which re-built and operates ex-Chicago, Burlington & Quincy No. 4960, was one of a number of steam programs that helped support the No. 2926 restoration. That included mechanical work such as machining and truing crossheads, being a ready source of knowledge and advice, and providing training for historical society volunteers.

"They've got a good bunch of guys here," Lanter says, adding he was impressed by amount of data the team gathers from sensors installed in the locomotive.

The first fire had been planned for early June until a routine shove of No. 2926 into its engine house stalled when an H beam holding rail over the work pit shifted and derailed the tender truck. It was two weeks before Hulcher Professional Services could rerail the engine, and the historical society then set about repairing and bolstering the pit.

A special guest on Wednesday was Medardo "Uncle Mel" Martinez, who during his 44 years as a machinist with the Santa Fe ran No. 2926 onto the transfer table at the Albuquerque Shops and once took it to the roundhouse. Born into a railroad family in San Marcial, N.M., a railroad town wiped away by back-to-back floods of the Rio Grande in 1929, he is now 92.

"I worked on it before they put it in the park," Martinez says. "It's wonderful to be here. This brought back wonderful memories for me."

Martinez had little difficulty climbing the stairs to the cab and taking a seat at the throttle. He says he's looking forward to riding behind No. 2926 when operations begin.

When that will be is an open question given Amtrak's new antipathy toward excursions with privately owned cars. The historical society had been counting on operating through Amtrak for its insurance coverage and steam-qualified engineers.

For now No. 2926's crew is letting the engine slowly cool before attacking the new punch list. Work sessions are scheduled every Saturday and Wednesday morning with visitors welcome.

The next steam-up is expected in about two weeks.

Meanwhile the crew is also finishing work on the new company store after tearing down the old one in June to make way for Hulcher's heavy rerailing equipment. Also in progress are preparations for the locomotive's annual open house from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 29.

More information is available online.
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