New engine in town

Gray Hughes

Black Hills Central Railroad, who operates the 1880 Train, has a new locomotive: Engine 108.

The locomotive took its first revenue run — meaning it had its first paying customers — on June 3, but according to Nate Anderson, business operations manager for Black Hills Central Railroad, it’s been years in the making.

“It probably goes back 20-some years, probably 22 years ago, when the railroad purchased Engine 110,” which is a larger locomotive than the previous locomotives in the fleet,” he said. “That allowed the train over the years to expand from four cars to seven cars, so nearly doubling the amount of guests we could accommodate on any given train.”

When the railroad went to the larger locomotive, it needed to have a backup locomotive in case one had to go down for preventative maintenance or if something broke on the big locomotive.

The railroad sought out over the course of over 20 years a twin locomotive. The railroad found what it was looking for, and purchased Engine 108 four years ago and been working on it ever since to bring that locomotive up to Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) compliance.

For Anderson, all of the credit goes to Mike Grimm, the railroad operations manager and the Roundhouse Crew manager, and Meg Warder, president of Black Hills Central Railroad and the 1880 Train.

“(Grimm) and his Roundhouse Crew worked really hard to bring (Engine 108) up to speed and bring it all the way up to repaired status,” Anderson said. “It was a 22-year legacy to get us to here.”

What having two near-twin locomotives does for the railroad is advertise the railroad is a steam railroad, that it is going to run steam and if the railroad has a problem with one locomotive, crews can substitute the second steam locomotive and meet what the customers want, which is the steam experience, Anderson added.

The two trains will be equals and, based on FRA’s maintenance schedule, sometimes Grimm and his crew will pull out one of the locomotives for a day or two to wash the boiler, inspect the locomotive and clean.

“(Grimm) will work a location schedule where 110 will be on for maybe four days and then 108 (will run) for four days and just work like that,” Anderson said. “If there are any mechanical breakdowns, then one is standing at the ready to jump in in the backup roll.”

The railroad, too, has a diesel locomotive (which itself is over 70 years old, Anderson said) to use in a pinch and as a third level of backup.

Preferably, though, the railroad would like to run the two steam locomotives in an alternating pattern, which puts wear and tear evenly on both.

“That’s important to us as a steam railroad, to have both options on steam locomotives,” he added. “And they’re near twins. …They can pull, essentially, the same number of cars — seven. So that’s exciting for us.”

On Oct. 3 of this year, the railroad plans on having the two near-twin locomotives pull what is called a doubleheader, where they are back-to-back and running at the same time.

The whole process, though, was a 20 year investment to rebuild the cars, too, that go along with the locomotives.

“Most of them were done here in-house,” Anderson said. “But to restore seven cars worth of vintage railroad cars, too, so there’s a lot more than just running two locomotives, but to run and get all seven cars built and ready to run. That allows us to haul as many passengers and accommodate as many guest as possible, and it allows us to be a steam railroad when we say we want to be a steam railroad.”

When the train was readying to depart the station for its first revenue run on June 3, an announcement was made on the train that it was the train’s first revenue run, to which a cheer went up by some on board. Hill City’s mayor Kathy Skorzewski was on board the first revenue run.

When the train left the station for its first revenue run, Anderson said he was very excited for Grimm and his crew.

“I was excited for him and his ladies and gentlemen who worked on it, that have been laboring away for those four years,” Anderson said. “What a proud moment to see that locomotive go out. It was exciting for the company, exciting for the crew that worked on it for all those years.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic, Anderson said the railroad delayed its scheduled start by a month.

Normally, he said, the railroad likes to start running cards in May, but it didn’t start until June 1.

Currently, the railroad is running one train a day for just a couple more days before ramping up to two trains.

By the end of June and toward the July 4 holiday, Anderson said the railroad should be back up to a full schedule.

In the meantime, the railroad is monitoring the COVID-19 situation cautiously.

Anderson said there are some concerns about having some empty cars, but from the way the season has started he doesn’t see that as likely.

“I think travelers are out, visiting the open areas and camping and visiting the Black Hills National Forest,” he said. “This is good news for us. I guess we will remain cautiously optimistic. …Hopefully we can accommodate anyone who wants to ride with us.”

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