BELFAST — The Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad is set to embark on a journey into the past that it hopes will secure the future.
B&ML President Rod Rodrigue will travel to Sweden this week looking to buy a 1920’s vintage steam locomotive and some European-style passenger and dining cars to go with it. If successful, the steam train could be carrying tourists along the Belfast to Burnham Junction line by mid-summer.
Waiting to meet Rodrigue when he steps off the airplane will be Don Shapiro and Chris Kim of Encounter Steam Inc. of Davis, Calif., the North American agents of Swedish State Railways. The firm specializes in steam rail equipment. Kim and Shapiro were in Belfast this weekend measuring track and collecting the data needed to retrofit the Swedish locomotive to the B&ML’s rails and equipment.
Kim said that during the 1950s, Sweden placed 125 locomotives in storage in case fighting broke out on its territory between the Soviet Union and NATO forces. With the Cold War now history, the Swedish government has put the trains on the market. Encounter Steam sold an entire steam train to a Candadian tourist line last year.
The locomotives are similar in design to the Manchester 4-6-0, which was used throughout America, including on the B&ML, until the 1940s. Manufactured in the 1920s, the locomotives are in near-perfect condition.
“I wouldn’t say they are pristine but they’re pretty darn close,” Shapiro said Monday. “The engines were stored in such a way that you can take them out and start them up in 10 hours.”
Shapiro said the engines were initially coated with lubricants and stored in sheds on rail sidings. Over the years they were moved to special buildings, wrapped in plastic and protected from moisture with electric blowers. The engine Rodrigue will inspect was one of 10 stored in an 800-foot-long metal building near the Arctic Circle.
“It’s a very nice piece and it will be ready to go when Rod arrives,” Shapiro said. “He’ll be driving it through Sweden at 50-60 mph a few days after he gets there.”
The price, availability and condition of the equipment are its major selling points. Rodrigue estimated the cost of a locomotive and train of cars at “around a half a million dollars, including shipping.” It would cost that much for an American-manufactured locomotive of similar vintage, which would require years of restoration work, Shapiro said.
“It’s really hard to restore a used American steam locomotive because the American railroads ran them until they basically fell to bits,” he said. “An historical society can spend two to three years rehabing and restoring an old locomotive. For a for-profit company it’s much more prudent to buy something that is virtually in turn-key shape.”
Despite their having been in service since the 1940s, Shapiro said the passenger and dining cars are in remarkably good condition.
“Sweden is a very tidy and orderly society. You just don’t see places where people scratch `Billy loves Sue’ with a pen knife. These cars have been in constant service and still are in great shape.”
If all goes according to plan, the 75-ton locomotive will be loaded in the hold of a freighter and the cars strapped to the deck by late May. The crossing should take 10 days. The train will be off loaded onto a Bangor & Aroostook siding at the Searsport docks. The train will travel to Northern Maine Junction then south to Burnham Junction, where the B&ML joins with the Maine Central.
“I’m looking for everything to be here by early June,” Rodrigue said. “Things should get rolling pretty soon after that.”