The Thrill of Engineering: My Journey with a Vintage Locomotive

The Thrill of Engineering: My Journey with a Vintage Locomotive

By Cory Ramsey

I engineered a train locomotive last year. It was a highlight of my life, akin to driving a Corvette C8 sports car around a race track, or flying a fighter jet. I have now done two of those things, and I guess I’m still waiting on the third. The L&N some years ago set up a giant railyard over in the eastern Kentucky mountains of Estill County near Irvine. Actually closer to Ravenna if we are keeping score. Later, that railyard all became part of the CSX of the modern day, and last decade, parts of it were offered to the folks who call themselves Kentucky Steam, with the vision to create a tourism attraction centered on the railroads of yesteryear and industrial spirit of the modern day. Much like our depot here in Bowling Green, the vision will be for displays and entertainment, with hands-on exhibits for all rail fans. One project they are heading up is a full restoration of a vintage steam locomotive. And not just for looks. When this engine is back up and running, it is going to run for real. Steam and glory and all.

To help raise funds for the restoration projects of the engine and railyard, last summer they spearheaded something called the Engineer University. An hour to set in an old L&N switcher from the 70s. It would be an incredible hour to take the engine down the tracks and back, hand on the brake and throttle. Blow the whistle at crossings. Even couple up to a flatcar and move it around the railyard. Model trains are real.

My wife joined on the occasion with the expert staff from Kentucky Steam all up in the cab. Being a University, at least for the hour, I was being graded on such items as proper horn blasts at certain times such as take off and crossings. And an additional test involving a raw egg. More about that shortly.

So I engineered that train. Probably the most powerful piece of machinery I have been at the helm of. Some 1500 horsepower. A beautiful deep blue and yellow EMD SW1500 built by GM, which in its active service lifespan also carried the Seaboard System colors and familiar CSX colors, along with its original grey and yellow L&N paint job back in 1970. Top speed of 70mph. I was allowed to go about 7 to 10 miles per hour. But that was ok, because I was engineering a d—med train.

The egg test. So I coupled up to a flatcar with the aid of a crewmember and two way radio, for a 5,4,3,2,1 countdown to how close I had put the locomotive coupler to the flatcar coupler. The test was to link up with such poise and precision as to not shove the locomotive into the flatcar and burst the egg asunder in the midst. Leave the egg whole. Take care of the equipment you have been entrusted with. It was perfect. My egg wasn’t toast. I passed my exam, scored perfect, apparently, and when the steam locomotive they are restoring gets up and running again, I will have a shot at engineering it as well, based on how awesome I had scored with the diesel. Absolutely. That is as American as it gets. And fighter jets (one day?).

For more about what is going on in Estill County with Kentucky Steam, visit them at