From the December 2021 issue of Car and Driver.
It was dark as a thundercloud in the cabin of the Audi RS e-tron GT. A prehistoric roar and a primordial tectonic rumble shook the pedals and steering wheel, oozed through the seats, and knocked on my vertebrae until my skull hummed and howled. After the smoking locomotive pulled past, the silence was eerie, a lonesome space capsule once the rocket falls away. I missed the rumble. The future only whirs.
The future is electric. Relax, I don’t mean our automotive future, at least not for sure. We’re steering that way, but a lot would need to happen for today’s smattering of EVs to replace the decades of gas-burning machines on the road. In the ’50s, the conversation was similar: one technology almost done, another on its way. Steam engines had ruled American tracks for more than 100 years, but by the 1930s, diesel-electric locomotives were starting to threaten the coal-burning steamers’ dominance. The last big steam locomotive, number 4014, a 4-8-8-4 Big Boy, left the tracks for retirement in 1959. Union Pacific eventually restored 4014, and it was this very engine providing the soundtrack as we raced alongside in the battery-powered Audi.
Chasing a train seemed like a good task for an electric car, possible but challenging. Would the 637-hp RS e-tron GT have the power to stay ahead of the Big Boy? Would it handle the rough country roads that train spotters assured us were the best places for watching the steam engine barrel past? Would its 232-mile EPA range be enough for the circuitous route connecting small towns along the train’s path from Denver to Cheyenne, and would we find somewhere to plug in when needed? In theory, this wouldn’t be difficult, a 224-mile trip with plenty of places to charge. The Audi had already beat its EPA range with a 240-mile performance in our 75-mph highway test, and all the charging-station apps showed multiple options.
Out in the wild, things are always more complicated. The closest charging stations to the hotel in Denver were blocked by a dusty VW Jetta and a decidedly not electric Chevy Impala. The next one was broken. A third was three blocks away in a parking garage that cost $12 just to enter. By that point we were willing to pay $100, because we were down to our last few electrons and had to be charged to get ahead of the train the next morning.
Engine 4014 is the only functioning example of what was once the biggest, most powerful steam locomotive in the West. In the early 1940s, Union Pacific commissioned 25 of the monsters at a cost of $265,000 each (about $5 million today) to haul military supplies over 76 miles of the steep grade of the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. After the move to diesel-electrics, most of these big steam engines were scrapped and melted down. Only eight survived, relegated to static museum displays. In 2013, Union Pacific pulled engine 4014 out of the RailGiants Train Museum in Pomona, California. Its restoration a few years later involved converting the external-combustion engine to burn bunker fuel—thick oil—rather than coal. The 11-person resto team had a hard deadline of 2019, which they met, barely. “We were pulling the thing out the door and still putting parts on it,” says Ed Dickens, Union Pacific’s manager of heritage operations, who led the effort and acts as train engineer during the Big Boy’s publicity tours.
An elegant brute in satin black, number 4014 is now in tiptop shape. It weighs a penny-crushing 1.2 million pounds with its tender and makes 7000 horsepower. Parked, it looms over a train station like a steel tidal wave. People come from all over to follow the train on its summer excursions. Train spotters, rail chasers, foamers—whatever you want to call those who track the tracks—two photographers, one electric sports sedan, and I were about to see whether we could keep up with 200-year-old technology.
This RS e-tron GT costs $164,390 in 2021 dollars and weighs in at two and a half tons (5171 pounds), a bit of a big boy itself. It is not the most powerful EV available, but we’re certain it was the most powerful car following the Big Boy from Denver to Cheyenne.
There’s poetry in running down the brutality of a fire-eating engine with two smooth-spinning permanent-magnet AC motors, and there’s a touch of irony in pacing a steam train that no longer runs on coal while many EVs still do. There was also the possibility of failure, an added thrill. The e-tron promised enough range, but there was no time for miscalculation. In train chasing, the route is dictated by a ladder of carbon steel, there are no stops until the engine reaches the next station, and there’s no time to hypermile when you’re trying to catch a vehicle that doesn’t suffer stoplights or traffic.
To find the first stop, we followed the crowd dressed in striped overalls and train-themed T-shirts (“I don’t snore, I dream I’m a train”). The couple next to us had started their chase in Kansas. Another family had come all the way from Florida. Brendan Blaylock from Seattle said he’d been waiting to see a Big Boy in motion since he was seven years old. He’s 57 now.
“Locomotives are impressive,” Dickens says, trying to explain why people spend vacations parked by trestles. “The diesel locomotives are neat: $2 million brand-new, 4000 horsepower, 16-cylinder diesel engine. But the steam locomotive—you can see all the propulsion machinery actually operating. The sound. The heat. It’s terror and pleasure.” Indeed. The engine rolled under the pedestrian bridge and blew its whistle. To those of us standing directly above it, it sounded like a rend in the fabric of time. A small child screamed and burst into tears.
I’d been warned that train spotting gets crazy, that it’s not just a cruise alongside the tracks. “When you chase the train, it turns into a NASCAR race,” a rail enthusiast cautioned. On the road, the imagined cruise turned to a contest to get ahead of the train and the chasers. The Audi is perfect for this. It’ll shoot to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds, but the 1.7-second 50-to-70-mph scoot is how you leap past train-spotting traffic.
At the next stop, we heard the roar at 9:30, and at 9:31 the dragon arrived. Even from inside the car, safely parked the prescribed 25 feet from the tracks, the boiler heat will curl your eyelashes.
Back on the highway, we found ourselves in the crowd we’d passed that morning, and it was indeed like a stock-car race, or maybe a midnight freeway takeover. As traffic slowed and sped, the Audi’s acceleration proved an advantage, but the real MVPs of the day were the responsive steering and fade-free brakes—carbon-ceramic rotors, part of the $20,350 Year One package. Earlier, Dickens had told me what he loved about the Big Boy was its finesse. “You’ve got 7000 horsepower in the palm of your hand,” he said, “but I can make it start so elegantly, the passengers don’t even know we’re moving.” The e-tron could claim the same: so much power on tap, such a delicate and drama-free ride.
All around us, cars jockeyed for position, and the Audi shot ahead, unflappable. While the e-tron GT doesn’t offer enough regenerative braking for one-pedal driving, using the steering-wheel paddles to adjust for a little more resistance on the fly was perfect for the changing speeds of the scrum. The car shares some handling tricks with the train too. The only way an engine almost half a football field long can make a turn is if it bends. The Big Boy has an articulated frame, allowing the front wheels to make a turn while the rear of the chassis is still on the straight. Audi’s version of this is rear-wheel steering, a feature that helps a big sedan feel smaller and more maneuverable.
One area where the Audi can’t compete with the train is in passenger space. It would be nice if you could hitch a few nice sleeper carriages behind, because while the rear seats are acceptable, they don’t offer enough headroom to qualify as first-class transport. The GT may have four doors, but it would prefer to be a two-person ride. And as a freight car? Forget about it: small trunk, even smaller frunk.
Speaking of size, the Big Boy’s mass is astonishing. When we were parked by the tracks, the train first appeared as a small dark spot in the side-view mirror, then grew to paint the Audi’s rear glass, side windows, and front windshield with a night sky of iron and smoke. Alongside the big train, the e-tron GT was a bauble, a shiny red ember, although not without charms of its own. While the steam crew toiled in the Big Boy’s cab, hanging out the windows as much for air as visibility, I was reclining in ventilated seats, listening to podcasts about railway history. For a task that requires a lot of waiting around, you could do worse than sitting in the well-appointed leather and satin-chrome interior of the GT, watching people admire its exterior. When we first got to Denver, a hotel guest lowered his sunglasses and pursed his lips in an expression of appreciation we didn’t think existed outside of ’80s music videos, and during one stop a teenage boy shouted, “I don’t know what that is, but I can tell it’s something!”
It was something, and that thing was running out of charge. We reached our final stop at the train station in downtown Cheyenne with the display showing 90 miles of range, almost but not quite enough to get us back to Denver. Maybe a charge-up while we got lunch? Cheyenne’s Old West vibe is adorable, just the kind of place where you’d love to plug in for a couple of hours and wander around trying on cowboy hats and drinking beer out of a glass shaped like a boot. Only there’s no place to charge downtown, which is why we spent 90 minutes outside a Harley-Davidson dealer in an industrial area for a slow trickle that gained us 50 miles. Audi says the e-tron can quick-charge at 270 kilowatts to 80 percent in just 20 minutes, which is great if you can find a DC hookup.
We made it back to Denver with 30 miles to spare, proving it’s possible to chase the past with the future, but you’ll spend a lot of the present sitting in parking lots. Don’t get discouraged, though, if you’re dreaming of road-tripping on an electric whim. It took 30 years for the diesel-electric locomotives to phase out the steam engines. We’re barely 12 years into mainstream electric-car offerings. As the infrastructure grows and battery chemistry improves, EVs will get even better at providing the transportation to chase your dreams. Full steam ahead.