In January of 1985, an unlikely scenario unfolded as steam returned to coal train service on the Chesapeake & Ohio main line. Entrepreneur and locomotive owner Ross Rowland headed American Coal Enterprises, a startup company dedicated to designing and building a state of the art coal-fired steam locomotive. At the time, oil prices were skyrocketing, and railroads were receptive to alternative motive power.
To gather baseline data from a modern steam locomotive, Rowland arranged for his 1948 ex-C&O 4-8-4 614 to pull coal trains and returning empties between Huntington and Hinton, West Virginia for the month of January 1985. The data from tests showed that the Greenbrier had a thermal efficiency of 6% and had approximately the same operating cost as an equivalent diesel. With a projected efficiency of 18%, the ACE 3000 design was set to have a prototype built, with financial backing from several railroads. Shortly after, oil prices tanked and the prototype was stillborn.
Of course, West Virginia became a railfan destination during the month of tests, and I managed to make two pilgrimages. Here the test bed, renumbered to 614T, barks eastward through Barboursville, West Virginia. Just before it came into view, the big 4-8-4 lost its footing on the snow-covered rails and slipped, spinning its drivers several times until it finally regained traction. The sound is something that I can remember like it was yesterday.