All Aboard for Railfest

All aboard! The Funtown Express is heading to North Platte’s Rail Fest.

(This article first appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

IT IS the ultimate training seminar. Locomotive lovers from all about the continent and even across the Atlantic Ocean arrive at the same destination for a weekend to remember in September. All aboard! The Funtown Express is heading to North Platte’s Rail Fest.

From Friday, Sept. 14 through Sunday, Sept. 16, North Platte and its visitors will revel for the sixth straight year in the city’s historic and epic ties to the Union Pacific Railroad, the Titan of the Tracks that all year has been celebrating a 150th birthday bash. Thousands are expected to explore Cody Park, with its interactive exhibits, fun rides, tasty food stands and classic steam locomotives on display. A fireworks extravaganza on Saturday will be launched at nearby Bill Wood Field. And to literally top things off, throughout the weekend you can look down from the 8-story Golden Spike Tower and gaze out at the Grand Canyon of railyards.

“People come from all over the world because it’s hands-on and it’s interactive,” said Rail Fest Chairman Dave Harrold. “You get to go into the Bailey Yard. You get to go into the diesel shop. You get to see the trains right next to each other. You won’t see that anywhere else in the world.”

Perhaps that’s why a lucky 13 British train enthusiasts made their pilgrimage in 2011 to this railroad Mecca. Well, actually, one of the chaps conducting the tour, Peter Fogiel, of Aberdeen, Scotland, clarifies the passenger list on a bus tour of the immense Bailey.

“There’s myself and 12 Englishmen,” chuckles a bravehearted Fogiel. “It works out just about even. I think that’s about fair.”

But each of these United Kingdom travelers would raise a pint to Bailey Yard, which in 1995 was officially recognized by The Guinness Book of World Records as the largest railyard on earth. In fact, this choo-choo champ sometimes handles 175 freight trains in a day over an area so immense it can hold 2,800 football fields. If you stretched all of Bailey’s tracks together in a straight line it would travel 315 miles from North Platte, past Omaha, and over the Missouri River another 40 miles into Iowa.

Yet that’s still a long way from home for Fogiel’s traveling buddy and fellow tour organizer, Keith Grafton of South London. Grafton spent 42 years working in the British rail industry, but he is amazed by Bailey’s awesome village of tracks.

“This railroad’s on a grand scale that we don’t see in the U.K.,” Grafton gushes. “We’re looking at a train here that’s running maybe 140 cars, two or three locomotives in front. It’s a massive railroad.”

Retired UP employee Dean Buhlig doubles Grafton’s pleasure when he regales the busload about the train he once saw ride around North Platte’s rails that was more than two miles long. The mother of all trains was never officially put into the UP freight line, but it was an awesome run when two empty coal trains and their 235 cars were linked together to chug about in the Bailey test drive.

“We called it the Double Whopper,” said Buhlig, who then fuels the Brits’ curiosity with more amazing UP trivia. “There’s only one company in the world that uses more diesel fuel than Union Pacific Railroad and that’s the U.S. Navy. So just here in North Platte, if you want to pay our diesel fuel bill, it’s 14 million gallons a month.”

Buhlig retired in 2011 from UP management after nearly 40 years in a railroad career that included jobs as a carman, machinist, and pounder of spikes with the track gang. In his last position he was director of a building he designated with an official sign, Area 51. Buhlig actually named it in honor of the year he was born, but his co-workers doubled down on the pun and gave him the new title of CAIC, Chief Alien In Charge.

North Platte had a reported UFO sighting in 2008 so perhaps some ET tourists may crash this party, which could be out of this world. The Omaha-based company certainly can afford to throw a supernova birthday bash since it reported a $19.6 billion galaxy in earnings for 2011. The world’s largest railroad network got its start on July 1, 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act to form Union Pacific and speed up construction from the east for the transcontinental railroad. While UP and the eventual birth of North Plate can be traced to the stroke of a pen from Honest Abe, truthfully, Rail Fest began over a cup of coffee.

The journey of hailing the rails began in 2006 when a neighborhood group interested in reviving the north in North Platte formed the Original Town Association. Two of the group’s members were longtime local business owners, Ken Bible, and his wife, Connie, and they were chatting over their ritual Sunday morning cups of coffee. Suddenly, the ideas started brewing in Ken’s mind.

“Rail Fest,” Ken suddenly blurted, and he quickly sketched out his vision.

“Take it to Dave!” Connie excitedly urged her husband. Ken, who now owns the 1950s-themed Pink Poodle diner with Connie, had been a “train-iac” since he was a small boy in a small Nebraska town where his dad worked on the railroad. When he heard the steam engine’s whistle, young Ken would hop on his bike and pedal alongside on the tracks for miles. Harrold’s only link with trains was the iron and steel nails sold at his hardware store, but the Original Town chairman was immediately sold on Bible’s vision. The plan quickly picked up steam, and in 2007, North Platte celebrated its first Rail Fest.

This festival continues to grow along with Harrold’s appreciation for both the passion of train followers as well as the history and evolving role of the railroad industry. Rail Fest fans will once again get to get to check out the famed locomotives at the Cody Park Railroad Museum, including UP’s Challenger 3977, one of the largest steam locomotives ever built. It’s also hoped that a return celebrity appearance will be made by the “Living Legend,” the last steam locomotive built for Union Pacific Railroad in 1944, which rolls on UP’s tracks for special events across the nation.

The Bailey Yard tour includes a demonstration of a mantis crane that will pick up a derailed car, and Rail Fest organizers are also touting the people power of the Kinetic Derby with movable pieces of art on bicycles and skateboards. But Harrold says what really keeps Rail Fest rolling is the connection festival-goers get learning from some of the several thousand intrepid UP workers in North Platte who share train tales, and explain what it takes to run world’s busiest freight corridor.

One of those longtime workers on hand at the festival is Brad Halligan, a 1989 North Platte High grad who as machinist takes apart things on the trains, airs them out, and puts them back together. A lot of those parts are challenges easily handled, such as air dryers and horns, but one of the train’s toilets once proved to be a rather perilous adventure for a fellow worker. Yet rather than dwelling on that unappealing incident, Halligan instead paints a vivid picture of the Bailey Beast that rises in the night.

“You work out there around midnight and at the yard it’s a different beast,” Halligan said. “They shut the lights out and it’s like, Wow! This place is a monster.”

During a career of nearly 38 years, Ruben Rangel is a bridge to the high-tech machinery being used today, and the backbreaking work of yesteryear. He is not a giant of a man, but those forearms still are as strong as steel from all the heavy lifting on the rails.

“We used to do everything by hand,” Rangel said. “We used to change these wood ties by hand. We changed rail by hand. We used these tamping bars to raise the track rock underneath these ties.”

UP carman Jerry Vieyra is one of the most enthusiastic tour guides at Rail Fest, but after he graduated St. Patrick’s High School in North Platte in the early 1970s, Vieyra headed overseas into the military and vowed never to return home.

“My father passed away while he was working for the railroad,” he said. “One day I graduated, and some of his fellow workers
said come on you’re going to work. I told them I’m going to go in the military and I’m going to see the world and I’m never coming back here.” But after 25 years of military service, Vieyra came back with his wife and children to his hometown and in 1996 began a new career with UP, which he cheerfully describes as the best job in the world. When he’s not at home hunting and fishing on the farm on his own street, Vieyra Avenue, he’s often attending meetings for Rail Fest. What he finds even sweeter than the sweet corn he grows is the gathering at Rail Fest and the bond between retired employees and current railroad workers.

“You see old retirees who are amazed at the technology and they tell how things used to be,” says the 58-year-old Vieyra. “I think it’s just a coming together of everybody.”

A trainload of fun, filled with history and railroad wonders is steaming down the track. North Platte is where it’s at.

(This article first appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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