Chinese Steam in the Heartland

This will also be the first time I’ve ever published a “joint” trip report. Usually it’s just my stuff, because let’s face it: I tend to cover large distances and railfan alone. What can I say, I enjoy the solitude. This trip was a bit different. For Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, it was more a father-son team effort – riding, chasing, photographing. Then, once I took off for home (Colorado) on Sunday morning, he took over the chase for Sunday’s trip back from Muscatine, and then also for the final QJ run on a westbound freight Monday morning. Thanks, Dad – it really was a lot of fun having you along.

History of the IAIS QJs

On Friday, 21-Apr-2006, Railroad Development Corporation of Pittsburgh made the startling announcement that they’d purchased two Chinese 2-10-2 Class QJ steam locomotives, with an option to purchase three additional units. Concurrent with the announcement, the first two units – 6988 and 7081 – were being loaded at China’s Dalian port for shipment to the Port of Houston, TX. The two had already been completely overhauled to FRA standards by the Jinzhou 701 Works, under contract with Multipower International, a US firm specializing in Chinese-made steam locomotives and parts.

6988 and 7081 arrived on American soil on Sunday, 11-Jun-2006, as they were unloaded at the Port of Houston. Since they had not yet been reassembled or inspected by the FRA, the two units, along with tenders, were loaded onto flatcars for the trip north to Rock Island. On Tuesday, 27-Jun-2006, the pair and their tenders arrived at the IAIS-BNSF interchange in Colona, IL. They were hauled back to the Rock Island yard, where over the course of the next five weeks, they were reassembled and prepared for the move to the railroad’s yard in Iowa City for finishing work and FRA testing.

Once in Iowa City, a team of steam specialists began working to both get the two steaming again and to deal with the regulatory issues surrounding their FRA certification. The first signs of life came on Thursday, 24-Aug-2006, when Jerry Berwald reported to the Iowa Interstate list that both units had been loaded with coal. Over the next two weeks, both units would be brought back to life, steaming around the Iowa City area on short test runs. As sort of a final check, each performed a test run leading the westbound BICB (Blue Island – Council Bluffs, the IAIS’s main westbound manifest) from Iowa City out to Yocum Connection, just past Homestead. Once past this step, they would each move as light power to Rock Island, where they’d be stored in preparation for the upcoming excursion runs.

For more information about Railroad Development Corporation, Iowa Interstate, and the QJs, take a look at either the RDC website, the Iowa Interstate website, or the unofficial IAIS Railfans site.

Riverway 2006 Operations – September 14-17

Over the weekend of September 14-17, the Quad Cities area would be hosting the RiverWay 2006 celebration – saluting the 150th anniversary of completing the first railroad bridge to cross the Mississippi River back in April of 1956. A great number of activities and events were coordinated as part of this celebration, but by far the highlight would be excursions run all four days powered by the two QJs. All of the trips would be run by the Friends of the 261, and use their restored Milwaukee equipment. Thursday’s run would be a short trip – a dinner train departing at 1830h from downtown Rock Island, running out to Walcott and then back to RI. Friday would follow on with an all-day excursion from Rock Island out to the Yocum Connection wye (near Homestead, IA) and then back. Saturday’s trip would run east, covering the line from Rock Island to Bureau, with intermediate stops at Silvis, Geneseo, and Atkinson. Finally, on Sunday, the train would leave IAIS rails for a coordinated boat / train excursion between Rock Island and Muscatine. Passengers would ride the train one way (either out or back), making the opposite leg of the trip via the riverboat Celebration Belle.

My father, while not being a railfan at heart, had taken an interest in the units since their arrival (thanks for the photos, dad!), and also picked up tickets for my mother and himself on the very first day reservations were opened up. A few days later, I had my ticket ordered. I figured that the chance to ride behind Chinese steam on Iowa Interstate rails is one of those things that would happen once in a lifetime, and a day out doing such with my family is something I shouldn’t pass up. All three of us had just decided to go whole-hog and ride in style – premium class on the Cedar Rapids, the only remaining operational Milwaukee Skytop car.

Thursday, September 14

As things worked out, I wound up working in Madison, WI, for the four days before the trip. A couple days before the trip, I learned that my routing – Colorado to Wisconsin via South Dakota and Minnesota – would present a unique opportunity. Milwaukee 261 would be used to pull the passenger equipment down to the Quad Cities, and it would be coming down from Minneapolis on Sunday – the same day I’d be passing through the area. Unfortunately, pouring rain and bad light, combined with 261 not leaving until late, made me skip that one. I’d also planned to do a little railfanning on the Wisconsin & Southern, but that just didn’t happen, either. My entire stay there was marked by heavy cloud cover and pouring rain. Finally, when I was getting ready to leave for the Quad Cities on Thursday morning, the clouds finally parted to reveal a sunny but cool fall day. As a result, I spent most of the day wandering around, slowly working my way over to the Mississippi and then southward along its western shore.

Upon arrival in Rock Island around 1730h, I found the three engines all simmering in downtown Rock Island, along with a large crowd gathered around to take in the sight and smell of these strange creatures. I stopped for a few photos, but really just wanted to get home and thus didn’t stick around long. (Photos #1-3) Later that night, upon hearing the train at Walcott, my dad and I did follow it back into town. While well after sunset, it still was a calm, clear night, and there were plenty of folks – fans and locals alike – out watching its journey. After arriving in Rock Island, most of the fans called it a night, but a few of us stuck around for some night shot opportunities.

Friday – Rock Island to Yocum Connection and Back

Unlike the week before, Friday and Saturday both promised to be beautiful weather. As of departure time on Friday, it was definitely living up to that expectation – clear blue skies and moderately warm temperatures. There was some twinge of regret that I’d be riding and not chasing, but not enough to keep me off the train. Things went very smoothly, and we were out of Rock Island right on cue at 0900h. The original schedule, as published, had us back into Rock Island at 1600h, but this conflicted with the one unofficially published on the IAIS list, which showed us back in at 1930h. Once we were underway, the crew announced that they’d be targetting something in the middle – hoping for 1800h – but due to having to hurry a few things, there might not be time for run-bys.

Originally there weren’t any planned stops from Rock Island through Iowa City, but in reality, we stopped briefly for an unknown reason just outside Wilton. After only a short delay (which I’m sure the chasers appreciated), we continued on to West Liberty, where the train picked up the mayor and the city manager for the rest of the trip. Otherwise, it was a straight-through trip, with both the BICB and the Iowa City switcher tucked away off the main well before our arrival.

Iowa City marked a brief stop for water, as well as to let off those passengers who wanted to stay in Iowa City while the train was turned. Thankfully, faced with the prospect of no afternoon run-by, the crew let off any passengers who wanted off to photograph the train while stopped. The two units were pulled up onto the Clinton St. crossing, where each was watered from a nearby fire plug.

For those folks getting off the train, representatives from the Iowa City/Coralville Convention & Visitors Bureau already passed out information onboard the train about local attractions, and would be helping direct people to the downtown pedestrian mall for food and shopping, as well as help inform people when the train was due to return. I’m sure this was helpful, since it isn’t exactly obvious how to get to downtown from the Rock Island depot in Iowa City. Those of us staying on for the run to Yocum reboarded our cars, and within 30-40 minutes of arriving, we were off again.

It was a relatively quick couple of hours out to Yocum and back, and relatively uneventful from the passengers point of view. I do have to admit that Yocum had more camera-wielding fans than I’ve ever seen in one place. Personally, I’m still a fan of the guy standing on his car roof when it buckled under him. Yes, those of us on the train got a fine view of that… From there, it was back to Iowa City to pick up those passengers we’d dropped off before, and also to once again top off the tenders.

The trip back held another stop at West Liberty to drop off the city manager – we apparently kept the mayor for the rest of the trip. Then, a few miles out from Atalissa, they announced we would be doing a run-by after all. I do admit, that big green lawn at the photogenic Atalissa elevator does make an excellent place to line everybody up for such an event.

I have to commend everyone involved with the Friday trip. It was, hands down, one of the best executed trips I’ve ever ridden. Things went off like clockwork for the entire trip, nearly without exception. It really is a tribute to the capabilities who planned and ran the event. While I can’t name them all, nor do I probably even know half of what happened behind the scenes, there are a few people and groups I’d like to mention. I’d like to extend particular thanks to Mr. Henry Posner III and Railroad Development Corp, the Friends of the 261, the management and employees of Iowa Interstate, the City of Rock Island, the Quad Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the Iowa City/Coralville Convention & Visitors Bureau. All of these deserve a big thanks for making this trip happen, and then operating it with an efficiency and professionalism like I’ve never seen before. Well done to all – thanks for an incredible trip, and a great couple days of chasing.

Saturday Triple-Header with 261, Rock Island to Bureau

As for Saturday, my father and I joined the gaggle of fans following the train from RI up to Bureau and back. Somewhat at the last minute, it was announced that since Milwaukee 261 was in town anyway, they’d be doing a triple-header on Saturday’s train to Bureau and back. Based on the sheer number of people out on Friday, I knew Saturday would be a test of patience, but with a sunny day, many miles to cover, and plenty of back roads to help stay away from the loonies who’d be chasing on the main roads, why not? After all, the last mainline triple-header anybody can remember was back in 1991, when Southern 4501 was teamed up with N&W 611 and 1218 between Roanoke and Lynchburg. (Thanks to “doubleheader” on Trainorders for that one.) Definitely not an event to be missed!

It actually turned out pretty well. I got most of the shots I wanted, never got all that stressed, and it was a good day out. Unlike the previous day’s trip to Iowa City and Yocum, there were a number of intermediate stops on this eastward run. Stops would be made in Silvis, Geneseo, and Atkinson to let folks on and off, depending on which trip segments they were riding. That made the chase easier, as it gave us a break to keep getting ahead of the train and find new shots to set up. The weather generally held, although there was a bit of cloud cover up around Bureau during the mid-day. For the most part, though, things ran smoothly and on schedule, aside from a reported accidental emergency brake application sometime in the morning and then a diesel generator glitch just outside Bureau. We pretty much chased the whole route, aside from the last couple miles – it was getting late and we were overdue at home in Walcott for dinner.

Sunday – Rock Island to Muscatine

Sunday’s run down to Muscatine wasn’t looking so good – rain and heavy clouds – so I decided to wrap the trip up a bit early and head for home Sunday morning. My parents, on the other hand, decided to go see the train on its return trip, and chased it all the way back from Muscatine to Davenport. Despite the weather, they did manage to get a few decent shots out of the run.

Monday – The Return to Newton

Likewise, my dad had a few minutes on Monday, and went out after the QJ’s last run (at least for now). On Monday morning, the two, along with their tool car (IAIS 9201), were placed on the front of 20ish grain cars headed for Iowa City. According to the IAIS list, the train left Rock Island around 1030h. The QJs pulled the train as far west as Iowa City, where they dropped the grain cars and continued west with only the tool car in tow. Once they arrived at Newton, their fires were be dropped and they were stored, pending either their sale or another excursion to being them out again.

Anyway, what follows is a combination of our two sets of photos. Anything followed by (DJH Photo) is one of my father’s shots. Enjoy!

All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 20D using either a Canon 24-105mm F4 L IS/USM or a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.3 IS/USM.

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This work is copyright 2024 by Nathan D. Holmes, but all text and images are licensed and reusable under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. Basically you’re welcome to use any of this as long as it’s not for commercial purposes, you credit me as the source, and you share any derivative works under the same license. I’d encourage others to consider similar licenses for their works.