If you're like most folks nowadays, you missed the "Golden Era" of railroading. You may well have been born too late to see steam locomotives in regular service.
Have you ever wished for the chance to relive a little of the past, and to see what the railroads were like in the old days? Don't despair, with a visit to the right place, and little imagination, you can get a good feeling for what it must have been like in the old days.
It has been many years since steam ran in regular service. However, on rare occasions you can still ride a steam train on a mainline railroad. Union Pacific has a very well run steam program that operates several trips each year. In addition, other steam locomotives around the country make occasional runs on various railroads. These trips often last all day, and cover several hundred miles. They also have the chance to operate at speeds much higher than you'll find on a typical tourist railroad.
There are some fine railroad museums in the United States. The B & O Railroad Museum in Baltimore Maryland is a good example. They have a large collection of historic rolling stock, from replicas of the earliest steam locomotives, to modern diesels. The displays are well done, and the staff is helpful and knowledgeable.
The California State Railroad Museum is another good one. They have historic equipment, and displays that will help you to understand how the railroad work. Several pieces are in dioramas, including a snowshed and narrow gauge train suspended on a trestle.
Another fine museum is the Pennsylvania State Railroad Museum in Strasburg PA. They feature many historic locomotives from the Pennsylvania Railroad. Best of all, they're right across the street from the Strasburg Railroad, so you can also ride a steam train while you're there.
Railroad museums are wonderful, and they do a good job of teaching people about trains and what they were used for. However, seeing a steam locomotive in museum is like seeing a plane in a hangar or a boat in dry-dock. You really don't get the entire picture of what it's all about until you've ridden one.
That's where tourist railways come in. They offer you the chance to go on a short train ride. Often (but not always) the ride will be through a scenic part of the countryside. Some use steam locomotives, other use diesels, still others operate trolleys. They all offer a chance to "step back in time" for a while and take an old-fashioned train ride. For many kids, and adults too, it will be the first train they've ever ridden.
Aside from a few of the larger operations, most tourist railways are labor of love for the employees. Many of them are run by volunteers, and just about all of them are perpetually low on funds. The staff shares a common interest in railroading, and puts in many long hard hours to make it possible for people to come out and take a train ride. In return, they get the chance to do something they really enjoy.
If you visit a tourist railroad, try and find one that has a steam locomotive. If you can, get a seat next to an open window, or better yet ride in one of the open cars many tourist railroads offer. As the train pulls out, listen to the locomotive work, and enjoy the sounds of the steam whistle. I think you'll agree the old-timers are right when they say there's nothing quite like a steam engine.