This 100-Year-Old Train Chugs Along on French Fry Oil

April 6, 2023 by Kate Michael
This 100-Year-Old Train Chugs Along on French Fry Oil

WILLIAMS, Ariz. — In recognition of Earth Day, a 100-year-old steam engine will chug into Grand Canyon National Park powered by french fry oil. 

On Saturday, April 22, 2023, The Grand Canyon Railway — which may be the last daily standard gauge U.S. railroad to run steam engines in scheduled regular service — will use waste vegetable oil and biodegradable lubricants to show that ingenuity can thrive for future generations. 

On Earth Day and other select days from now through October, GCR Locomotive No. 4960, a massive steam engine built in 1923, will use recycled oil to fuel its daily running from Williams, Arizona, to South Rim, Grand Canyon.

Dubbed the French Fry Express, mostly due to the aroma passengers experience while riding, No. 4960 is a 1923 Baldwin Locomotive Works engine that was converted to run on recycled waste vegetable oil, like the oil used for fries, chicken wings, and funnel cakes (but minus the crispy bits) collected from restaurants in Williams and the South Rim. 

Steam engines are fueled by burning combustible materials like coal, oil, or wood to heat water to the point where it becomes gaseous. According to Grand Canyon Railway general manager Bob Baker, prior to this innovation, the engine once burned 1,200 or more gallons of diesel fuel on each round trip of the south rim of the Grand Canyon. 

GCR actually stopped steam locomotive operations in September 2008 due to environmental concerns, as well as rising diesel fuel costs, and began a two-year retrofit development and implementation process.

Now waste vegetable oil is purchased by the pound for train operations, with any excess used to fuel the furnace that heats the Grand Canyon train station. 

GCR claims that this innovation has not only helped the nearly century-old engine to run better but has reduced emissions. By using recycled fuel coupled with captured snow melt for water in the boiler, the machine actually has a neutral carbon footprint. 

And since the railway, built and running since 1901, reduces the number of cars in the national park by an estimated 70,000 per year, GCR officials say the French Fry Express has been especially great for both the environment and tourism. 

“During our monthly ‘Steam Saturday’ events, our passenger count has historically doubled as crowds love to see this magnificent machine in action!” Sam Langner, VIP Sales and Community Relations manager, told The Well News.

Using recycled vegetable oil from restaurants, Locomotive 4960 has been carbon-neutral and third-party (International Standards Organization 14001) certified for Environmental Management. GCR is the first tourism railway in the U.S. to receive ISO 14001 certification.

Kate can be reached at [email protected]

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