Home » I Saw Some Incredible Train History At America’s Largest Railroad Museum. Here Are The Coolest Trains That Stopped Me In My Tracks

I Saw Some Incredible Train History At America’s Largest Railroad Museum. Here Are The Coolest Trains That Stopped Me In My Tracks

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During the weekend, the future wife and I drove away from our compound of car parts and little birds and into Illinois’ seemingly endless farmland. Nestled between the open plains and countless farms is the Illinois Railway Museum. This place isn’t just where you’ll find trains from just about every point in history, but it’s touted as the largest of its kind. The number of trains simply boggles the mind, and many of them are still operational, even a century after they were built. Here are some of the coolest trains I saw.

Like with my posts about the humongous EAA AirVenture Oshkosh fly-in, I’m going to highlight specific trains in future posts. This one is largely about what you’ll experience out there.

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Vidframe Min Bottom

The story of the Illinois Railway Museum (IRM) is similar to that of any person who ends up with a massive collection. It was started in 1953 by ten men who all threw in $100 each to purchase Indiana Railroad car number 65. This interurban car (an electric railcar that runs between towns or cities) was retired from service and its final destination was looking to be the scrapper. But the men couldn’t let that happen, and they saved Car 65. The Illinois Electric Railway Museum was born, with its stakes planted at the former site of the Chicago Hardware Foundry in North Chicago, Illinois.

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IRM

As the museum grew, it also expanded from just electric trains to steam and more. In 1962, “Electric” was dropped from the museum’s name to reflect this. And in 1964, IRM had 40 pieces of equipment with dwindling space for more. IRM found out that the old foundry wasn’t going to cut it, and it sought to find more room to grow.

IRM chose a plot of land outside of Union, Illinois for its new home. The small, almost middle-of-nowhere town had one thing that IRM wanted: an abandoned right-of-way that could be purchased for the price of back taxes.

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That right-of-way used to belong to the Elgin & Belvidere Electric Railway. Opening in 1907, the E&B offered interurban service between Elgin and Belvidere. This railway–which IRM says is notable for creating the world’s first automated electrical substation–didn’t survive the rise of the car and the crush of the Great Depression. It folded in 1930, with its track and cars getting destroyed. IRM initially purchased a mile and a half of right-of-way and a 26-acre plot for its museum.

Today, IRM owns nearly five miles of the old E&B right-of-way and 100 acres of land. On IRM’s grounds sit about four miles of trackage, which allows most of its roughly 450 pieces of train and transit history to sit in giant warehouses, safe from Illinois’ rough winters. Oh, and that right-of-way? IRM has tracks on it and runs many trains of all types down it.

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Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee 749 and 251 – Mercedes Streeter

When Sheryl and I arrived on Sunday, IRM was running only four trains. Two were steam trains and two were running on electric power. On other days, you can catch the museum running newer and older diesel-electric trains, vintage car shows alongside the trains, and even explore the museum’s expanding collection of transit bus history. And depending on when you visit, you may even get the opportunity to take the engineer’s position and actually take the throttle of some train history.

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Mercedes Streeter

Our adventure started at what used to be a real Chicago station. The 50th Avenue Rapid Transit Station was built in 1910 by the Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad Company.

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Mercedes Streeter
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Mercedes Streeter

The station was in operation until January 1978 when the Chicago Transit Authority consolidated this station and the Cicero station into one. Then, amazingly, in that same month IRM’s volunteers went out to the site and began the process of moving the whole station to the museum in Union. That process took until mid-February 1978.

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This is not a replica of that station, but the real deal. IRM only restored it to what it looked like in the 1920s.

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Mercedes Streeter

Parked at the station was an old CTA train and two diesels, including this Chicago Burlington & Quincy EMD SW7 switcher locomotive. It was built in 1950 by the Electro Motive Division of General Motors and is powered by a 12-cylinder roots-blown diesel making 1,200 HP. This little guy is meant for moving cars around rail yards.

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Mercedes Streeter

Like many of the trains that you’re about to see, it’s in operational condition!

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Mercedes Streeter

On the other side of the platform is CTA 2243 and 2244, a married pair of 2200-series Chicago “L” cars built by Budd Company in 1969. IRM says that these two cars ran on what CTA calls the Blue Line today, taking passengers to and from O’Hare International Airport and running at speeds up to 55 mph. CTA retired them from duty in 2013 and IRM scooped them up.

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Mercedes Streeter

We were already impressed. I mean, these people love trains so much that they moved an entire CTA station out into the middle of nowhere. But that’s just scratching the surface. When Sheryl and I walked into one of the museum’s many barns we were blown away.

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Immediately upon walking through the door of one barn, you see a stainless steel diesel beauty shining under the lights.

Nebraska Zephyr Rs
IRM
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Mercedes Streeter

 For this, I’ll let IRM explain what you’re looking at:

The Nebraska Zephyr is the most famous train at the Illinois Railway Museum. It is an articulated streamlined train built entirely of stainless steel. The train is known as the “Train of the Goddesses” because each of its five cars is named for a classical deity. It is the only complete Zephyr train from the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad in operation today.

The Nebraska Zephyr was constructed by the Budd Company of Philadelphia in 1936. Originally it was used between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul and was one of two identical train sets known as the Twin Zephyrs. In 1947 the Twin Zephyrs were replaced on the Chicago to Minneapolis-St. Paul route with more modern equipment. At that time, our train set was put into service between Chicago and Lincoln, Nebraska and renamed the Nebraska Zephyr. The train is articulated, meaning that adjoining cars share the same truck and are therefore semi-permanently joined. Our train was built with six cars; had a seventh car added shortly after construction; and then had two cars removed from its consist in the mid-1960s.

When it was built, the Nebraska Zephyr was pulled by a two-unit set of “shovel nose” diesels. In later years it was commonly hauled by stainless steel E5 passenger diesels, and today the train is still hauled by the last surviving E5, CB&Q 9911A “Silver Pilot.” The train set itself consists of the following five cars:

960 “Venus” – power car and coach

4626 “Vesta” – coach

4627 “Minerva” – coach

150 “Ceres” – diner

225 “Juno” – observation-lounge

In that same barn is something absolutely massive. And this usage of that word isn’t an exaggeration.

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Mercedes Streeter

What you’re looking at here is the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway 2903. It’s a 1943 Baldwin Locomotive Works Northern steam locomotive. It’s over 121 feet-long and weighs in at 975,000 pounds while in operation. This beast has four leading wheels, eight driving wheels, and four trailing wheels (otherwise known as a 4-8-4). It has a tractive effort of 66,000 pounds and has a top speed of 100 mph. IRM says that it ran mixed passenger and freight use for about 15 years before its retirement. Then it went on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry for three decades. It doesn’t run, but it remains the largest steam locomotive in Illinois.

For comparison, a Union Pacific Big Boy is 132 feet-long and weighs 1.2 million pounds with a 4-8-8-4 classification. Still, everything about this locomotive is just colossal. I’ll use Sheryl (a 5-foot, 8-inch human) for scale.

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Mercedes Streeter
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Mercedes Streeter

Now, you’ve probably noticed how I said that giant Baldwin is merely the largest steam locomotive in Illinois. Well, that’s because IRM has an even larger train on hand, so long as you’re counting by length, anyway. IRM has one of the only two remaining Union Pacific gas turbine-electric locomotives (GTEL) left in existence. 

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Mercedes Streeter

This train is so cool that it’s getting its own post, but you’re still getting a brief summary. Remember the UAC TurboTrain?

Well, that wasn’t the only experiment into using turbines to power trains. Union Pacific was so dedicated to the idea that it built 55 turbine-powered locomotives. The final 30 of them were rated at 8,500 horsepower, weighed about 850,000 pounds, and the turbine roar was so loud that they earned the nickname “Big Blows.” And UP claimed that under certain conditions, they could even hit 10,000 horsepower. Here’s IRM’s short explanation:

Early diesels had relatively low power (800-2000 hp). Beginning in 1948, the Union Pacific and GE developed alternatives for heavy freight. The resulting 55 units replaced the usual diesel prime mover with an aircraft gas turbine.

The last thirty turbines (UP 1-30) were the largest (166 ft) and most powerful internal combustion locomotives ever built, but were not fuel-efficient. The lead unit contained a cab, controls, and an 850 hp diesel to start the turbine and for low-speed movement. In the second unit, the turbine drove two main generators to supply electricity for twelve traction motors. The tender (from a retired steamer) held thick “bunker C” fuel oil for the turbine. All turbines were retired by 1969, as new diesels were developed and fuel costs rose.

And that tender? It held 24,000 gallons of that bunker fuel oil.

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Mercedes Streeter

Union Pacific says that it never donated these to any museums, but that didn’t stop two of them from getting saved. Unfortunately, these don’t run.

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Earlier, I mentioned that the Illinois Railway Museum has more than just awesome trains. Located on the east end of the property is a bus barn. The bus barn closed right before we were able to explore the place, but I was able to get the camera in there to take a peek.

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Mercedes Streeter

IRM has a bus day on its upcoming events calendar and you bet that I’ll be there. I just have to solve an annoying check engine light issue with my RTS. Still, I was able to see a couple of pieces of bus history.

Check out this 1979 GM RTS-03. 

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Mercedes Streeter

This bus is an earlier generation of my 2002 Nova Bus RTS-06. It’s a TW-7603 that was used by the transit system in Janesville, Wisconsin until 2002. IRM has owned it ever since and yes, it does drive!

The letter soup of TW-7603 means that it’s a 35-foot, 96-inch-wide transit model with Detroit Diesel 6V-71N 7.0-liter V6 diesel power. Much like how I’m keeping my own RTS, IRM is keeping this bus as it was received. 

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IRM even has a Southern California Rapid Transit District Flxible Metro. This bus isn’t listed on the website, but I can tell you that it has a 10.0-liter Cummins L10 six-cylinder diesel.

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Mercedes Streeter

The best way that I can describe this place is that it’s basically a city celebrating all things transit. Sheryl and I got to take a ride in a few trains on the property, too. It was a completely different experience getting to ride aboard a century-old steam train and inside of an old retired caboose.

And amazingly, both experiences were free. You’ll hear about those in a future post!

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Mercedes Streeter

You’re going to need to visit this place more than once to take in everything. Some of the barns were closed and as I said before, just a limited selection of trains were running. But unlike an airshow, IRM runs most of the year. Tickets are also just $16 for adults so it won’t break the bank to go.

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Mercedes Streeter

Perhaps the most incredible thing about this operation is that it’s a non-profit organization owned and run entirely by volunteers. Money comes from donations and funds from tickets and merch. Volunteers do everything from restore the trains to operate them. These people are there because they love trains and buses as much as the people who visit the place. The museum notes that most of the volunteers aren’t even professional railroaders, but all kinds of people who can lend a hand.

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And of course, this place is very kid-friendly. While the property is very much a free-roaming environment, all over you can find placards and boards with well-written educational pieces about how trains work, why certain designs are no longer around, and more history than you can take in all at once.

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Mercedes Streeter
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Mercedes Streeter

If you (or your kids) are even vaguely interested in trains, stop by the little town of Union, Illinois and give the Illinois Railway Museum a visit. I can almost guarantee you’ll leave with a smile on your face while also learning something new. I certainly did.

 

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TriangleRAD
TriangleRAD
1 year ago

This place reminds me a bit of the NC Transportation Museum (https://www.nctransportationmuseum.org/). Torch can probably back me up, He spent a bit of time there this summer.

Birk
Birk
1 year ago

What if I want to make 130000000 rubles a month but don’t want to change my life? Is manwhoring a good way to pad my accounts? I keep asking for money on OnlyFans but they keep telling me I need to pay them.

BKGrinReaper31
BKGrinReaper31
1 year ago

One of my favorite places. I grew up a couple hours away in WI and we’d go here every summer. Now that I’m in Georgia its a detour stop anytime we’re heading to MN/WI so my kids can experience it too. At one time you could ride the trolley buses as well.

MrLM002
MrLM002
1 year ago

I’m more of a fan of Speeders and such than trains but I appreciate the article.

Jimlovesfords
Jimlovesfords
1 year ago

I love this…

My father was an engineer with EMD in the 60s/70s, he designed the control panels of the diesel locomotives. I often got to tag along when he went in on weekends to work. One time I was allowed to tag along on a test run of a new diesel engine, I even sat in the engineer’s seat with hands on controls as the engineer guided my operation. Pretty heady stuff for ten year old me

I’d love to take my dad here, but at 95 doesn’t get around too well. Thanks for another great midwest based story, Mercedes. Keep them coming 🙂

Douglas Lain
Douglas Lain
1 year ago

If you’re ever out east, you should check out the Connecticut Trolley Museum ( https://www.ct-trolley.org/ ). They run trolleys every weekend, have a good museum, and there are dedicated collections of both fire apparatuses, and transit buses.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
1 year ago

I live about 5 miles away. If anyone out there wants to visit, you can also check out McHenry County’s other attractions-
Woodstock, where you can see “Ned Ryerson’s Corner”.
Harvard, the milk capitol of the world. They even put a statue of a cow on Main Street.
Fox River Grove, home of the Norge Ski jump, which is big fun when they use it in the summer.
And of course, the Chain O’ Lakes Waterway, where you can risk your life amongst ten thousand inebriated river rats every summer weekend. Blarney Island should not be missed.

Jimlovesfords
Jimlovesfords
1 year ago

OMG Blarney Island is still there? Used to go there by boat in the early 60s. My God, what memories 🙂

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
1 year ago
Reply to  Jimlovesfords

Yeah, last time I was there it was like a cross between “Porky’s” and “Waterworld”, with the snake pit at Indy thrown in for good measure.

Dan Cluley
Dan Cluley
1 year ago

I’ve been to a lot of nice RR museums all over the US, but when it comes to operating equipment, IRM probably has the most & the most variety. Also, they continue to make improvements to the grounds & add buildings.

Boulevard_Yachtsman
Boulevard_Yachtsman
1 year ago

Thanks for the post – I definitely need to check this place out! As if The Autopian couldn’t get any cooler, we’re now getting regular train content! The family and I went to the St. Louis transportation museum earlier this year. Other places to check out, at least the ones I’ve been to and enjoyed in the last few years include North Freedom in Wisconsin, The Boone Scenic Valley Railway and Museum in Iowa, and the B&O Railroad Museum out in Baltimore.

Bruce H
Bruce H
1 year ago

The Museum of Transport in St. Louis also has a pretty impressive collection of trains:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/bikebrh/albums/72157624186080679

Ophidia
Ophidia
1 year ago

Great article! One thing for my wish list for this site is making the images clickable/zoomable so I can see more detail. My eyes are getting old!

Freddy Bartholomew
Freddy Bartholomew
1 year ago
Reply to  Ophidia

My eyes are old, too. I right-click and open the image in a new tab. This usually presents a higher resolution image after a single click. After that, I use control+ to zoom.

chad Face
chad Face
1 year ago

This was way more interesting than I thought it would be, super cool stuff!

Also, the zephyr reminds me of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for some reason

Paul Brogger
Paul Brogger
1 year ago

For straightforward, creative, outside-the-box design & engineering, you HAVE to check out the Shay logging locomotives. Offset boiler, pistons arranged vertically to one side, driving an extensible drive shaft that is geared to every axle for all-wheel-drive (while able to handle tight corners)! A brilliantly unique implementation of the steam locomotive.

Knowonelse
Knowonelse
1 year ago

I know there are railroad museums in various places, but in addition to the big California State Railroad Museum, we have a smaller local one in Nevad City California. There was a narrow gauge track from Colfax CA to Nevada City CA, and over time some pieces were used in Hollywood and other places. They have recently restored one of the engines and participated in ‘The Great Western Steam Up in Nevada.
Anyway if by chance anyone comes through the Grass Valley / Nevada City CA area, stop by our local railroad museum, the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum. https://ncngrrmuseum.org/

They have rides on a rail-bus (aha, now I got your attention Mercedes!) through a meadow area. Check out their cover photo on the website for what it is!

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
1 year ago

Obligatory quote: What advantage does this automobile have over say a train which I could also afford?

Tip: Mercedes. You should dust off your travel papers and come up to Canada to check this out. Especially for their anniversary.

https://www.warplane.com

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
1 year ago

You win tonight for that quote. “Free spa getaway with test drive”

John Hower
John Hower
1 year ago

Great story, Mercedes! It adds another destination on a (sorta) planned road trip when my wife retires in 18 months.

If you’re ever in south-central Pennsylvania, stop at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania https://rrmuseumpa.org/ and the adjacent Strasburg Railroad https://www.strasburgrailroad.com/. Both are very interesting and worth the time invested in a visit. Not a museum, but just south of Cincinnati is a collection of old RR equipment that’s fun to wander through. My son had a photo exhibit opening in Cincinnati several years ago and arranged to spend a morning wandering the collection. Unfortunately, none of the equipment is being preserved.

Again, not a museum and open only to photographer groups, is the trolley graveyard in the Altoona/Johnstown area of PA. It’s a huge collection of trolley cars collected by one man. You can find some pics at https://www.abandonedamerica.us/the-trolley-graveyard.

Laika
Laika
1 year ago

The only downside to IRM is that it makes every other railway museum seem pathetic.

B85S5DSG
B85S5DSG
1 year ago
Reply to  Laika

Then you probably haven’t checked out the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay. There they have one of very few remaining big boys.

Phyrkrakr
Phyrkrakr
1 year ago
Reply to  B85S5DSG

There’s one at the National Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, too.

MasterMario
MasterMario
1 year ago
Reply to  B85S5DSG

I live the National Rail Museum, they have some great pieces of history.

https://nationalrrmuseum.org/rolling-stock/

It does seem like the IRM has more operational equipment though.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
1 year ago

This piece is so Sheldon Cooper, in the best possible way. His love of trains is perhaps his most (only?) endearing quality.

And while 2903 was certainly cool, I’d say it did get just a tiny bit upstaged by U-505.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 year ago

OT: complete-nerd note here.
Just heard the word ‘Autopian’ on NPR! I do believe it was Jason. On a story about governors on modern cars.

Not too shabby for a site that’s only been live for like 5 months!
You told us you had a million hits the first month; how about a 6-month follow up?
Alrite, off to buy the startup tshirt- still looking for a Donate button…

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 year ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

The podcast is available @ NPR Marketplace. Article starts around 22:00. It is Thomas Hundal speaking. I wish the mention of Autopian had been more prominent just to spread the word.

Car Talk was my gateway to NPR: Sat & Sun mornings I’d be tinkering in the garage listening to Click&Clack’s laughter. Good times

Birk
Birk
1 year ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

Heard Hundal on Marketplace, too! My wife even picked up on the Autopain call-out. Way to get yourselves out as the experts, guys!

Nerdy side note: has anyone else noticed they often play the piano riff from Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.” between segments? Dollar dollar bill, Y’all. I’m amazed at all the old hip-hop underplaying NPR shows these days.

Birk
Birk
1 year ago

Can one go wander around the yard area between the trains? Climb around the various locomotives and cars?

Railroad would do stop-and-shows in my northern Minnesota town when I was a little human. I always loved it.

I did get to see Big Boy twice in the last few years at it was toured, including switching tracking in a yard near my house! Very impressive.

Billywa
Billywa
1 year ago

Useless trivia:

– The Nebraska Zephyr set and the Frisco 1630 steam engine were used and operated in the movie A League Of Their Own

– The roar made by the Union Pacific turbines was such that they couldn’t be operated in urban areas due to noise complaints and they were ultimately assigned to a narrow, unpopulated stretch of railroad to get trains over Sherman Hill in Wyoming. The most popular story/urban legend about the turbines was that, in addition to the roar, the exhaust was so hot that when one engine was parked for an extended period beneath an underpass, it melted the asphalt in the bridge above.

Dan Cluley
Dan Cluley
1 year ago

It’s the same things your whole life. “Clean up your room.”, “Stand up straight.”, “Pick up your feet.”, “Take it like a man.”, “Be nice to your sister.”, “Don’t mix beer and wine, ever.”. Oh yeah, “Don’t drive on the railroad track.”

Uh, Phil. That’s one I happen to agree with.

Chris with bad opinions
Chris with bad opinions
1 year ago
Reply to  Dan Cluley

I’m not going to follow their rules any more!!

Lew Schiller
Lew Schiller
1 year ago

I remember seeing that Steamer 2903 on one of the annual school trips from Milwaukee to the “Museum of Silence and Misery” (as snarky school kids would call it).
You could also go up stream East Troy Wisconsin for the rail museum there.
https://www.easttroyrr.org/

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 year ago

Great article, Mercedes!
And, thanks for the memories: I used to run through the Museum of Science & Industry every summer to go visit that old Baldwin locomotive. Pretty sure that jump-started my gearhead affinity.
And you’ve nudged me towards visiting the Virginia Museum of Transportation nearby. It’s been way too long since I’ve gone & gawked at the cool machines there, so, thanks twice!

Fencing_elf
Fencing_elf
1 year ago

IRM is awesome! We try to go out each summer, and have noticed new things each time we go. It’s amazing that they have so much there that pieces like X-18 don’t rate an indoor billet.

Chris Stevenson
Chris Stevenson
1 year ago

IRM! I haven’t been there since high school. I’m glad to see it’s only grown and gotten better in those 20 years.

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