Letting off Steam: Historic Engines, Sustainability, & Safety


What do Wenck and the railroad industry have in common?

More than meets the eye.

Wenck serves the railroad industry with environmental permitting, compliance, and emergency response. We share similar ideals on multiple fronts.

Railroads are green-minded, the most fuel-efficient mode of surface transportation, 3X more efficient than semi-trucks. Utilizing the railroad for transporting both resources and people not only decongests our highways of long-haul trucks and cars, but also improves traffic, reduces fuel cost, pollution, and energy consumption. Low-emission technology and developing strategies to conserve fuel are just the beginning. Likewise, Wenck strives to restore, protect, and improve upon environmental staples (land, air, water), keeping resiliency top of mind. Our efforts have been building a better planet for more than 30 years.

In addition, both not only promote safety, but implement it at the forefront, daily. Wenck offers a comprehensive health and safety compliance service that ensures everybody goes home in the same condition they came to work in. We offer training workshops, and a host of emergency response operations. The railroad has its own extensive protocol, and now, Positive Train Control (PTC).

“PTC is a processor-based/communication-based train control system designed to prevent train accidents… PTC technology is capable of automatically controlling train speeds and movements should a train operator fail to take appropriate action for the conditions at hand,” (Federal Railroad Administration). This computer system aims to prevent train on train collisions, overspeed derailments, and overall track optimization. Integration to typical diesel trains, passenger or freight, is a no brainer since the train powers the system with its own engine. But what about steam?

This question may come off as nonsensical at first. It certainly did to me 3 years ago, when I first heard of the 261. Those old metal giants? Built in what, the 1940s, ‘30s, ‘20s? Before WWII? Don’t those only run in Europe? Believe it or not, the age of steam is alive and well in the United States, all thanks to Steve Sandberg.

Local legend, train guru, Milwaukee Road 261 owner, restorer, and engineer: Sandberg brings the past to future generations all aboard his fleet of enchanting rail cars. And pulling them in tow, the historic 261 steam engine, built by the American Locomotive Company in 1944.

Sandberg runs the Railroading Heritage of Midwest America, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote public understanding of the history of railroading in the Midwest.

When the shift to Positive Train Control came up on his radar, Sandberg had to get crafty. His solution: solar panels. I had the chance to ask him a few questions on the origin of this one-of-a-kind effort, as well as what he loves most about working with the engine:

Q: What sparked the idea of getting solar panels on the rail cars?

A: Our steam engine doesn’t provide the electrical generating capacity to produce the necessary voltage supplying PTC, so we had to develop our own unique battery system. We also didn’t want to disrupt the steam engine by adding a diesel-powered generator in it, since that would take away from the historical correctness.

Q: What are you currently working on that has got you excited?

A: The North Pole Express, a small excursion aimed at families around the holidays. I like how it engages children in the railroad industry and teaches younger generations about our nation’s railroad history. It’s also a great opportunity for us to promote the importance of railroad safety.

Q: What are you most proud of to date/what is the most rewarding thing about working with the engine and the people involved?

A: I’m proud of educating people about the railroading industry. It’s fun to have my entire family involved within the corporation and it’s rewarding to see the smiles on people’s faces when they get off the train for the first time, totally in awe.

The 261 is the first steam engine to utilize solar panels for PTC, pioneering a new balance between rich history, sustainability, and safety. To learn more about the train, including a list of upcoming excursions, visit their website here: https://261.com/

Link Cited: https://www.fra.dot.gov/Page/P0358

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Paul Rousseau

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