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'Steam event of the decade': CPKC Final Spike Steam Tour kicks off

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On April 14, 2023, CPKC drove a ceremonial final spike completing North America's only transnational rail network.

Now, the railway company is celebrating that anniversary with a steam tour.

CPKC is a combination of two historic railways – Canadian Pacific (CP) and Kansas City Southern (KCS).

It's restored steam locomotive 2816, which will travel from Calgary to Mexico City and back again.

Adam Meeks, on-board train master and CPKC's senior manager of heritage services, operations and corporate historian, says the locomotive will pull a full complement of cars for the trip.

"You have 1,600 feet of train," he said.

"We will have two of our heritage diesel locomotives ... and we actually have a fleet of passenger cars. Some of them are nearly 100 years old.

"We also have some cars from the Kansas City Southern. They have an incredible fleet of business cars."

It's taken close to two years for a team to restore Engine 2816 at the Ogden Yard and on April 24, it will head out on the historic trip.

"We haven't had it verified but it's certainly in world record territory," Meeks said.

"We know for certain that this will be the only steam-powered passenger train to cover Canada, the United States and Mexico in a single trip."

Meeks expects a lot of people will come out to see the train when it stops in cities along the route.

"I think this is going to be the steam event of the decade – certainly this year," he said.

"We have a series of public events planned where the people will be able to come out and get close to the locomotive, take pictures, learn about the history of CP, KCS and the Mexican National Railways, because they're an important part of the story as well."

Jonathan Morris, manager of operating practices and part of the restoration team, says the locomotive has a long Canadian history and was built in Montreal in 1930.

"It ran from mostly a Toronto to London, Windsor corridor in the early 30s," he said.

"Then worked between Calgary and Winnipeg and this locomotive would leave – just to put it in perspective – Calgary 841 miles to Winnipeg, then turn it around and run it right back 841 miles every day, back and forth, back and forth, tens of thousands of miles a month."

Morris is confident the steam engine is in top working order but says the team operating the train from Calgary to Mexico City has to be ready to make any repairs on the fly because there are no stores to purchase replacement parts.

"Once we leave here, we have to make everything ourselves," he said.

"We actually have a tool car that comes with us. It has a lathe and a milling machine. We have spare materials, copper tubing, lots and lots of things that we can do on the road to keep it going if we have any little minor things that come up."

Morris is making the trip as one of the train's engineers.

He says 2816 was originally built as a coal burner and during the original restoration from 1998 to 2001 was converted to burn diesel fuel.

"We can actually even burn biodiesel in this," Morris said.

"So it's a very environmentally friendly steam locomotive."

Justin Tracy will make the long journey as the train's fire man, making sure the flames used to create the steam are consistent.

He was also on the restoration team.

"You know, the excitement level's building as we get closer to this event," he said.

"We put a year and a half into prep – it's time to go on the road."

Tracy says it's not a pleasure trip for the crew because it takes a lot to run a steam engine.

"When we're going, you're constantly moving on either side," he said.

"You're outside looking for signals, switches out there in front of you, then you're automatically right back in, scanning this steam pressure gauge, water glasses, what the engineer's doing and then right back out and it's constant, all day long."

Tracy has a lot of respect for crews that used to operate these steam engines on a regular basis because they had to know everything about the train, from running it to fixing it.

"You know everything in the modern day is controlled via computer," he said.

"(The engineer and the fire man were the) two computers sitting in the seats, doing all of those functions for 12 to 16 hours in the day."

The train will leave Calgary next Friday but CPKC is hosting a public event to see the steam locomotive on April 24 at 3 p.m. at the CPKS head office (7550 Ogden Dale Road, S.E.).

You can learn more at https://www.cpkcr.com/en/community/final-spike-steam-train.

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