Volunteers ready to restore and relaunch historic steam-powered locomotive



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Andrew Chung

Posted on May 5, 2013 at 10:44 PM

Updated Monday, May 6 at 8:30 AM

TEXAS HILL COUNTRY -- From the boiler to the tender, to the cowcatcher, a historic train - the Southern Pacific 786 - is ready to be rebuilt and relaunched.

This steam locomotive, built in 1916, carried both passenger and freight cars until the mid-20th century.

It then saw new life in the 90s - carrying passengers on the "Hill Country Flyer" route between Cedar Park and Burnet between 1992 and 1999.

That's when train workers found a crack in the engine - and a minor repair turned into a complete overhaul of the locomotive. 786 hasn't been in operation since then.

Ben Sargent is not only chairman of the Austin Steam Train Association - he’s also the train's conductor - and plays the part. "We're all very excited, because we've missed it for a long time - it's been sort of 'out of sight, out of mind’,” he said.

Sargent said time and money issues involving the train's overhaul are the reason 786 hasn't been in service for nearly 14 years.  “We feel now that it's back here in our backyard in Cedar Park, you know, that it will really be something that's visible and that people can see some of the railroad history that we're preserving," he explained.

The ASTA sent many of the parts to contractors in other parts of the country to be rebuilt.  Now that they're back, the locomotive can now be reassembled.  It's no easy task.

"Some things will need to be put on there new; for example, we're going to have to run about a million miles of piping on there for water and air and steam," said Sargent.

The boiler is the largest piece of the locomotive. It may not look like much right now, but when all of the pieces are put together, it will turn a lot of drivers' heads on Highway 183.

While 786 is out of commission, Number 442 - a diesel locomotive - has been carrying passengers on the "Hill Country Flyer" route.

To Sargent and other train workers, it just isn't the same though.  A steam locomotive has that charm and nostalgia 442 just can't duplicate.

"We feel like this thing is a machine, and really the only way to really legitimately preserve a machine is to have it doing what it was built to do," explained Sargent.

Paul Phelan is the general superintendent of Austin & Central Texas Railroad.  "I'm really excited to see it done and running again - it was, when I started on the railroad, I first came to work here after high school as the mechanic on this same locomotive," he said.

Sargent estimates it will be a year-and-a-half to two years before 786 is up and running.  "It would be nice to have her back under steam for her birthday in 2016."

For now, you can only hitch a ride on the diesel-powered train. Nevertheless, Phalen says, "Everybody come ride - it's a great experience."

The Austin Steam Train Association is asking the public for help in funding the steam engine's restoration.  If you'd like to donate, click here.