So last year, I went up north to visit Ray. Ray lives in Chicago, which just so happens to have the largest railway museum in the United States, the Illinois Railway Museum.

At the IRM, we saw the Nebraska Zephyr, which is a streamlined stainless steel articulated trainset. Each of the cars in this train are named after Greek/Roman goddesses. Venus, Vesta, Minvera, Ceres, and Juno. It's really quite striking. And the train is pulled by an EMD E5 (the only surviving E5 in fact) named Silver Pilot.

The next day we went to the Museum of Science and Industry. There we saw the Pioneer Zephyr, the first of the Burlington Zephyrs.

So after we get out of the MSI, we're sitting in the Metra station, waiting for the train, and we're doing Independent Research on our phones. Because the concept of the Nebraska Zephyr is great, right? Five beautiful cars all named after goddesses. And that is when we learn that Silver Pilot did not originally belong to this train.

Over the next few months, we did more Independent Research. And every new piece of information we found about Silver Pilot just made his story even better. The whole thing is wild and we had to DIG to find almost all of it. It's insane because the engine has this amazing story - a story that Ray often points out would sound contrived if it wasn't true - and apparently no one has cared to document it.

Comparatively, the Pioneer Zephyr was easy to find more about. Its history is extremely well-documented. Lots of people have cared about this train. That's why it was preserved. The thing about the Pioneer Zephyr though is that it was made in the early 1930's, right? And Burlington promoted this train in a way almost... vaudevillian. It broke the land speed rail record on its way to its debut at the 1934 World's Fair (outdoing its competitor from the Union Pacific, M-10000 only a couple months after it broke the record), it went on an exhibition tour, it was asked to appear at events like a celebrity, there were commemorative letter covers given for its service milestones, there was a ride-on children's toy made of it, it starred in a movie!

So me and Ray were now thoroughly enthralled by these two separate but related trains and how different their service lives were - and continue to be - when we get an idea.

We'd considered the idea of trains writing letters to each other before because we got into trains through Thomas the Tank Engine (and we got into that by way of a video where some enterprising individual had edited George Carlin's stand-up into scenes from the show). We thought it was a little human for trains in general, particularly for working engines who are busy. I was quite pleased, though, when I was able to report to Ray that there was indeed an episode where Thomas sends Percy a postcard.

But these guys are both preserved and while Pilot still works, the IRM is only really open on weekends. They got time. They have people with hands who can read and write and who also have time.

So the idea of the trains writing to each other was all well and good, but then I found something practically serendipitous. A sign that this was the way to go.

Remember how Pioneer had all these publicity stunts and events done for it? On its tenth anniversary, they made a six foot birthday cake and rigged up an eight-foot-long knife such that the train could pull forward, break a ribbon, and cut its own birthday cake.

Most of this cake was given to hospital patients, but individual pieces were also sent off to each of Pioneer's "brothers" and a hundred-ish other fellow streamliners across the country.

With a letter.

The train actually, canonically, wrote a letter.

If Ralph Budd himself thought his train oughta to be writing letters, then we can't be too offbase, can we?

P.S. This is a work in progress. Though the broad strokes will remain the same, it will be subject to minor changes as we continually learn more about both of these trains.


DJ writes Pioneer's letters and Ray writes Pilot's.


Ray: M-10000 was doomed when they decided to make it banana yellow.

DJ: The banana yellow probably seemed marketable at the time, but the silver was just too good comparatively.

Ray: I realize part of it is that we're biased by the fact that we've grown up into the future which, arguably, Pioneer helped define. Minimalist, silver and black. Like, I'm not saying he did it singlehandedly, there's a lot of factors at play, lmfao. But like, the future is still silver to us. M-10000 looks and feels, to our modern eyes, like a thing of the past.

DJ: That banana yellow/brown color combo woulda ended up being the future in the 70's. Maybe M-10000 was ahead of his time.

Ray: Yeah, it's the color and shape of retro-futurism! Its rounded shape, it almost feels like it came from another timeline.



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