Lovers Of Trains Converge On Michigan Town

Steam train enthusiasts from around the world are converging on Owosso, Mich., this week for a once-in-a-generation gathering. The Steam Railroading Institute is hosting a train festival it says is unlike anything since the World's Fair in 1984.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

You're listing to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

For thousands of people with an unusual, I guess we could say this, it's an addiction - this is their drug of choice…

(Soundbite of train)

BRAND: …old-fashioned steam locomotives. In Owosso, Michigan, starting today, thousands of train fans from around the country have turned out to get their fix. From member station WCMU in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, Amy Robinson reports.

AMY ROBINSON: Right now I'm standing in the rail yard of the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso. And this is a virtual who's who of steam locomotives. Right in front of me, the 4449 from Oregon. This is the train that, back in 1976, served as America's Freedom Train for the bicentennial. And just a short ways down the track, I can see the 1225. That's the locomotive that served as the model for the train in the movies "The Polar Express."

Mr. GREG UDOLPH (Steam Railroading Institute): The minute that we pull that locomotive out there on the turntable, I always look up at it, and I'm, like, oh my god, that thing is huge.

ROBINSON: Greg Udolph is with the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, Michigan. He wanders among the locomotives. The enormous trains dwarf him. Some top 400 tons of steel. The big drive-wheels are as tall as he is.

(Soundbite of train)

ROBINSON: Udolph's group of mostly volunteers works out of a non-descript brick building in one of the nation's most-recessionary states. In spite of that, the group has pulled together one of the biggest train shows in a generation.

Mr. UDOLPH: In this case, we're kind of lucky that the economy is kind of down right now because railroads don't have as much traffic on them as they do normally. And it opened up a spot for us to bring this special train across the country.

ROBINSON: He's talking about the 4449, the Daylight, billed as the most famous steam locomotive in the world. It took two weeks to get here, traveling across the country from Oregon. It's the first time in three decades the engine's been east of the Mississippi. And some hardcore fans couldn't resist seeing it. They even rented railcars to ride along every mile. You know, there's a term for train fans with that kind of passion - no, not nuts - foamers.

Ms. KIM LAZAR (Steam Railroading Institute): As far as I'm concerned, I'll be a foamer from now until my last day.

ROBINSON: You'll be a what?

Ms. LAZAR: Foamer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBINSON: What's a foamer?

Mr. T.J. GAFFNEY (Steam Railroading Institute): A foamer, it's a rail-fan term, basically, for people that literally foam at the mouth when they see a steam locomotive, so…

ROBINSON: And you're proud to say you're a foamer.

Mr. GAFFNEY: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAZAR: Yeah. Rail enthusiast…

Mr. GAFFNEY: Rail enthusiast, rail fan.

ROBINSON: Kim Lazar and T.J. Gaffney with the Steam Railroading Institute say the foamers are converging from all 50 states and more than a dozen foreign countries. And they're thrilled to have them. SRI needs to raise upwards of half a million dollars to complete a federally mandated inspection of its locomotive. The group needs to ultrasound the steel and examine more than 3,000 bolts. If parts are needed, they'll likely have to be made from scratch. And all that takes money.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GAFFNEY: Six-figure bake sales don't usually come about.

ROBINSON: SRI decided to forego the bake sale and instead launch an international event. The festival is expected to bring 30,000 people to this quiet community, whose population is normally half that. The economic impact is expected to easily exceed $1 million. So, foamers unite. More than 3,100 tons of steel and steam sits in the train yard through this weekend in Owasso, Michigan.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Robinson.

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