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Norfolk & Western 611 The Virginian 4/9/2016

by Chris Guenzler

When I was planning the La Plata Spring Event, the 2016 Norfolk Southern steam excursion list came out. As I had never ridden behind Norfolk and Western 611, now was the time. I contacted my friend David Pressley in North Carolina and told him I would like to ride the Lynchburg and Asheville trips out of Spencer. He agreed we should do this so I joined the North Carolina Transportation Museum and we bought tickets when they went on sale to Museum members. We found a motel in Salisbury for us and then Steve Grande bought my Amtrak tickets to get me back to it. I then used my Guest Rewards points for a sleeper from Washington, DC to Salisbury and I was all set. I would finally live out my dream of riding behind Norfolk and Western 611, not just once, but twice!

Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 611

The Norfolk and Western Railway's J class steam locomotives were a class of 4-8-4 locomotives built by the railways East End Shops located in Roanoke, Virginia between 1941 and 1950. The first batch, numbered 600 to 604, were built in 1941-42 and were delivered streamlined. In 1943, 605-610 were delivered without shrouding and lightweight side rods, due to the limitations on the use of certain materials during the war; they were classified J1. When N&W showed the War Production Board the reduced availability numbers because of this, the Board allowed the J1s to be re-fitted as Js with the lightweight rods and shrouding in 1944. The last batch, 611-613, were built in 1950, all streamlined. The Js were built and designed completely by N&W employees, something that was uncommon on American railroads. The class should not be confused with the much earlier J class of 1903. The total cost for building 611 was $251,544 in 1950 (equivalent to $2,441,000 in 2015).


The first J's had 275 psi boilers, 70-inch driving wheels, and roller bearings on all wheels and rods; after about 1945 boiler pressure was raised to 300 psi. Calculated tractive effort was 80,000 pounds - the most powerful 4-8-4 without a booster. The 70-inch drivers were small for a locomotive that was to pull trains at over 100 mph. To overcome this, the wheelbase was made extremely rigid, lightweight rods were used, and the counterbalancing was precise. As delivered, the Js had duplex (two) connecting rods between the primary (second) and third drivers, but in the 1950s Norfolk and Western's engineers deemed these unnecessary. 611 and at least one other Class J were rebuilt with a single connecting rod. The negative effect of the J's highly engineered powertrain was that it made the locomotives sensitive to substandard track. Its counterbalancing and precision mechanics were so modern that it was joked that the J's top speed was only limited by the nerves of the engineer[citation needed]. While on loan, number 610 hauled a 15-car 1,050-short-ton (950 t; 940-long-ton) train at speeds in excess of 110 mph over Pennsylvania Railroad's "racetrack", the Fort Wayne Division (a section of flat, straight track).

Service history

The class Js pulled the network's prominent passenger trains, such as The Powhatan Arrow from Cincinnati to Norfolk (Cincinnati to Portsmouth for 611), The Pocahontas, and The Cavalier, as well as ferrying Southern Railway's Tennessean, Birmingham Special and The Pelican between Lynchburg, Virginia and Bristol, Virginia. Despite their power and speed, the class Js were among the most reliable engines, running as many as 15,000 miles per month, even on the mountainous and relatively short route of the N&W. There is one notable accident in the J class's service history, when on January 23, 1956, No. 611 derailed along the Tug River near Cedar, West Virginia while pulling the The Pocahontas. It was determined that the engineer ran the engine at an excessive speed around a curve and its high center of gravity caused it to flip on its side. Number 611 was repaired and restored to passenger service within a year.

In the late 1950s, Norfolk and Western began purchasing first generation diesel locomotives, experimenting with fuel and maintenance cost. They leased several sets of EMD E6s, E7s and E8s from the Atlantic Coast Line and Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroads. The diesels proved to be cheaper in maintenance and fuel cost, but several were required to equal the power of a steam locomotive. In 1958 and 1959, the railroad ran several Farewell To Steam excursions, with 611 pulling the last one in October 1959. While many of the locomotives went to the scrap lines, 611 was preserved. This was in part due to its superb condition after its 1956 derailment and subsequent repair, and also in part to the efforts of photographer O. Winston Link, who offered to purchase 611 himself rather than see it scrapped.

Preservation and excursion service

Due to the efforts of several men, including Link, engine 611 was saved. The locomotive was donated to the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, in 1960, where it sat dormant for two decades.

In the early 1980s, Robert Claytor, president of Norfolk and Western in its last months, had his eye on 611. His brother, W. Graham Claytor, once president of the Southern Railway, was in charge of Southern Railway's Steam Program. This program had been around since 1966 with Southern Railway 2-8-2 4501, sending steaming ambassadors system wide. Robert Claytor envisioned a similar program for the Norfolk and Western. He made a lease with the museum, and in 1981, 611 was sent to Southern Railway's Norris Yard Steam Shop in Birmingham, Alabama for an overhaul.

In 1982, 611 emerged under steam, with the only change being a dual beam headlight instead of the single bulb lamp it carried in the fifties, and effectively wound up replacing another locomotive, Southern 2716, which had its excursion career ended during the restoration of 611 due to firebox problems. Norfolk and Western and Southern Railway had by this time merged into Norfolk Southern; this now doubled the amount of track available for 611 to tour. 611's first trip was a ferry move up the Southern into Lynchburg, Virginia, and then over Norfolk and Western home rails to Roanoke for a ceremony. In 1984, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers named 611 a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark and it has since been added to the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record. Between 1982 and 1993, 611 would make appearances at several of the National Railway Historical Society conventions, and even double-heading with locomotives such as the restored Nickel Plate Road's 587 and 765 locomotives, and Frisco 1522.

On Sunday, May 18, 1986, 611 was at the head of an Norfolk Southern employee appreciation train from Norfolk, Virginia, with Robert Claytor at the throttle. One of the passenger cars failed to negotiate a switch on the main line through the Great Dismal Swamp, causing it and 12 other cars of the 23 car train to derail. Many of the nearly 1,000 employees and their family members were injured; some of the more seriously injured had to be airlifted to hospitals in nearby Norfolk for treatment.

The derailment prevented the use of the main line for freight traffic for some time. This derailment brought a wave of change to the program, including the retirement of many of the older passenger cars. Despite rumors, the program continued, welcoming another locomotive, former Norfolk & Western 1218, a simple articulated 2-6-6-4. The two continued to pull the systems' trains, with 611 even participating in a triple-header with Norfolk and Western 1218 and Southern Railway 4501, until 1994. In September of that year there was a switching accident in Lynchburg, Virginia, involving the passenger cars of an excursion consist that 611 was to pull the next day. This damaged several cars, causing a shortage and the consequent need for more cars. A month later, NS executives terminated the steam program due to rising insurance costs, increasing cost of maintenance, and low spare system capacity. The last steam excursion was on December 3 from Birmingham, Alabama to Chattanooga, Tennessee and back, pulled by 611. The next day 611 set off on a three-day trek home to Roanoke. 611's last official day of being under steam was December 7, 1994. Between Salisbury, North Carolina and Roanoke, 611 displayed black flags on the run. That evening, upon arrival at Shaffer's Crossing in Roanoke, its fire was dumped for the last time in the 20th century.

Post excursion service

In 1995, 611 was put back in the museum, now known as the Virginia Museum of Transportation, under a new train shed. In 2003, a major renovation of the railyard brought a bigger train shed (The Robert B. Claytor and W. Graham Claytor Jr. Pavilion), and 611 was joined by twice former stable-mate, 1218. Both locomotives sat at the museum until May 24, 2014, when the 611 was towed to the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer for restoration.

As one of the last, most prominent, and most distinctive locomotives assembled in Roanoke, No. 611 often serves as a symbol for Roanoke and its railroad history. It is also depicted on the Commonwealth of Virginia's "Railway Heritage" license plate.

On April 2, 2012, The City of Roanoke officially donated both 611 & 1218 to the Virginia Museum of Transportation.

Second restoration and excursions

In 2011, the Norfolk Southern brought back their steam program, under the name 21st Century Steam, leading to speculation among some about a possible restoration of 611. On February 22, 2013, the Virginia Museum of Transportation announced that they were forming a committee to conduct a feasibility study with the goal of returning the 611 to active service. The committee is known as "Fire Up 611."

On June 28th, 2013, the "Fire Up 611" committee announced that 611 would be restored to operating condition in time for Norfolk Southern's 2014 steam excursion season, if $5 million was raised by October 31st, 2013. Number 611 would be restored at the North Carolina Transportation Museum roundhouse in Spencer, NC. The sum of $5 million was sought: $1 million for locomotive restoration, $2 million for a dedicated maintenance shop in Roanoke, and the balance for an endowment and other items. Restoration requirements included repairs of the engine truck, the preparation of a tool car and an auxiliary water tender, application of new safety appliances such as in-cab signals and an event recorder, installation of new flues, boiler work, hydro and fire testing, test runs and inspection and repairs of the tender, running gears and air brakes. However, the hoped-for amount was not reached, and the locomotive remained at the Virginia Museum of Transportation.

On November 22nd, 2013, Norfolk Southern announced that they were donating $1.5 million of the proceeds from an auction of a Mark Rothko painting to the Fire Up 611! campaign. In February of 2014, several key appointments were made by the Fire Up 611 committee to the locomotive's mechanical team. The following month, a formal agreement was made with the North Carolina Transportation Museum for restoration. On April 1st, 2014, it was announced that after raising $2.3 million, the locomotive would move to North Carolina on May 24th, 2014. 611 arrived in Spencer on May 25th and took part in the Streamliners at Spencer event the following weekend. Restoration work on the 611 began on June 2nd, 2014. Restoration was done with the help of volunteers, including several from the Age of Steam Roundhouse. Due to the generally good condition of the locomotive, restoration was complete within a year.

On March 31st, 2015, 611 was fired up for the first time in over 20 years for a test fire, and on May 9th, it ran under its own power as part of the first round of post-restoration testing. On May 21, 2015, 611 made a brief test run from Spencer to Greensboro, pulling the "Powhatan Arrow" passenger cars. On May 30, 2015, 611 pulled its first excursion from Spencer, North Carolina to Roanoke, Virginia.

The locomotive was scheduled to run several excursions during the summer of 2015.

The first set of these excursions (3 trips) operated by the Virginia Museum of Transportation, Fire Up 611, and in coordination with Norfolk Southern, was hosted on the former Southern Railway B-Line (East/West) from Manassas, Virginia B0.0 to Riverton Junction B50.9 (Front Royal, Virginia) on June 6th and 7th, 2015. This included a climb up the Linden grade, a grade over one percent for more than three miles in either direction.

The second set of excursion (two trips) were scheduled for June 13th and 14th, 2015 from Lynchburg, Virginia to Petersburg, Virginia. This is a 260 mile round-trip on the former Norfolk & Western main line historically served by the Class J locomotive.

The third set of excursions and last announced for 2015 were scheduled for July 3rd through 5th. This event included 3 morning trips from Roanoke, Virginia to Lynchburg, Virginia over the historic Norfolk and Western Blue Ridge grade. Also offered were 3 afternoon trips from Roanoke, Virginia to Radford, Virginia which will traverse both the Montgomery tunnel and the Christiansburg grade. Both follow former Norfolk and Western mainlines that were historically served by the Class J locomotives.

As of July 6th, the 611 was put back on display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation along with its cousins 1218 and 2156, as there were no further scheduled excursions that summer. Starting in January 2016, the 611 had its wheels and axles replaced at the Norfolk Southern Shaffers Crossing Locomotive Shop based in Roanoke.

On February 11, 2016 the 611 was moved from The Virginia Museum of Transportation to the North Carolina Transportation Museum under her own power for an inspection in anticipation of its April 9th and 10th scheduled excursions. The 611 is expected to lead an excursion to Lynchburg, Virginia on April 9, 2016 and to Asheville, North Carolina on April 10, 2016. According to the North Carolina Transportation Museum, the 611 is expected to stay in Spencer throughout the summer.

The Trip

The North Carolina Transportation Museum hosts a round-trip from Spencer to Lynchburg, Virginia powered by Norfolk and Western 611 steam locomotive. This will be the first day-long steam excursion departing the museum in twenty years, and features the iconic N&W 611 steam locomotive. This is the second season of Norfolk and Western 611 train rides following the engine's year-long renovation in the Bob Julian Roundhouse.

Arriving in Lynchburg, passengers will enjoy the historic downtown area, with unique shops, sites, arts and cultural venues and more. The Lynchburg Community Market, the third oldest Farmers in the Country, will be available. Restaurants are also located nearby, but dining options may be limited. Passengers do have the option to purchase a box lunch with reusable tote. The lunch is sold in advance for $15.

Passengers can enjoy a walk through the city's historic districts, or enjoy a stroll through the Civil War historic sites in this one-time capital of the Confederacy. Passengers can also choose to take in the sights and shops that sell art, antiques and more.

The Virginian Trip Schedule

Boarding in Spencer 6:00 A.M.
Depart Spencer 7:00 A.M.
Arrive Lynchburg Noon
Depart Lynchburg 3:00 P.M.
Arrive Spencer 8:00 P.M.

The Trip Consist

Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 611, NS Heritage Unit Southern 8099, Southern FP7 6133, N&W 1402 Storage Mail Car, NS 42 "Tennessee", RPCX 2863 "Berlin" Sleeper, Iowa Pacific Full Dome 1294 "Prairie View", SLRG 511 Full Dome "Scenic View", Milwaukee Road Super Dome, Milwaukee Road "Wisconsin Valley", Northern Pacific Chicago Burlington and Quincy short dome "Stampede Pass", Atlantic Coast Line WATX 400 "Moultaire", Southern "Crescent Harbor", NS 26 "New York", NS 28 "The Powhatan Arrow", NS 29 "The Powhatan Arrow", Norfolk and Western 519 "The Powhatan Arrow", WATX 500 Florida East Coast "St. Augustine", Pennsylvania Railroad Lounge "Paul Revere" NS 43 "Iowa", NS 44 "Florida", NS 43 "New Jersey", NS 47 "Louisiana", Pullman "Dover Harbor" and Georgia Railroad Pullman "Dearing".

Our Trip

It was a short night but I woke up excited to finally live my dream. David and I packed up and headed to McDonald's to pick up breakfast to go. We drove to the North Carolina Transportation Museum and parked out on the grass before the grade crossing, first stopping by Norfolk and Western 611 for a few pictures.

Norfolk and Western 611 ready to head to Lynchburg. We walked to Car 14 to board then walked four more cars finding seats. The train was loading so I pulled out my computer and started getting the pictures in for the Lynx story first. The train started to move right at 7:00 AM and we started moving towards the Norfolk Southern mainline from the museum trackage at the east end.

Spencer, North Carolina as we left early on this Saturday morning.

Curving out of the museum.

The passengers in my car with David turned into the aisle. The train stopped and after the mainline switch was thrown back, our conductor boarded and we started north up the Norfolk Southern mainline to Lynchburg, Virginia, the destination of our trip today.

A reflection in the the first stream which Norfolk and Western 611 and train crossed.

Many railfans were out to chase our Norfolk Southern steam train today.

The train ran by Linwood Yard and here is the Crest tower built in 1979.

A hopper car rolls after being crested.

Train cars in the Linwood yard.

Two views of a lake on the east side of Linwood Yard.

The north end of the yard with a Norfolk Southern train that would follow us north today.

A textile factory as we came into Lexington.

Lexington is an Amtrak stop one day each year in October when the town has its world famous barbecue festival. On that day Amtrak stops the Carolinian and all Piedmont trains here.

A home as the train approached Thomasville.

Our route will be through many miles of forest in both North Carolina and Virginia.

Thomasville Furniture Industries, a chair-making factory in Thomasville since 1904.

The former Southern Railway station in Thomasville built in 1870.

Southern Railway caboose X703 built by the railroad on display north of the station.

Here is the backside of the eight foot bronze statue honoring one of High Point's most acclaimed citizens, John Coltrane, a legendary jazz saxophonist in Thomasville.

The 24 foot replica Duncan Phyfe armchair on display here.

Out of the forest they have cut farms and other agricultural items.

A North Carolina country highway.

The evergreen trees are keeping their leaves year round.

A scrap dealer who uses rail.

We travelled under Interstate 40 .

The former Greensboro Amtrak station and current NS yard tower, built in 1979.

The Greensboro water tower with the University of North Carolina Greensboro mascot Spartan on it.

The tallest building in Greensboro has a time and temperature display on it and it was a chilly 45 degrees as our train went through town.

The original Greensboro Southern Railway station built in 1899.

The current Amtrak station in Greensboro built in 1927.

You see that tallest building as you curve around Greensboro.

Two views of North Carolina as the train headed north.

Lily pads in a lake along our route.

The North Carolina forest.

Farmlands in North Carolina.

Another lake along our route.

A graveyard outside of Greensboro.

Lucky Strikes makes cancer sticks for people who are not too smart.

A pair of North Carolina fixer upper homes.

Factory and old exhaust stacks in Greensboro. We then entered Virginia.

A graveyard outside of Danville.

This industry still ships by rail. We stopped in Danville to exchange North Carolina EMT personnel for Virginia EMT.

The Danville Southern Railway station built in 1899.

Norfolk and Western caboose 557707 on display in Danville.

Our train crossed the Dan River.

A race was being run in Danville today. We ran by the site of the Wreck of Old 97 and I bought a book about that event on the train.

The train ran by Norfolk Southern's Dundee Yard.

A poodle dog in the sky.

The forest in the state of Virginia.

The Dogwood trees were all in bloom.

The train climbs the grade toward Altavista.

Another Dogwood tree.

Views as the train climbed the grade to Altavista.

The first good picture of our engines on the trip so far.

A Virginia rural scene.

Railfans taking our picture as we headed north.

My best view of our engines during the whole trip.

More old smokestacks in Virginia.

The new connection track to the old Virginia mainline.

The train crossed the Roanoke River.

The train crossed the former Virginia Railway before Altavista.

This is the sticker they gave out to all passengers.

We crossed this smaller stream.

The shrub was in bloom. As we neared Lynchburg, snow flakes were falling from the sky.

This is one of the legs of the wye we will use when they turn the train. The train pulled into Lynchburg and most everyone detrained in a cold but sunny day. I stayed on to work on stories and to ride around the wye. After everyone had a chance to get off the train, we reversed to the wye in Monteview Yard just south of Lynchburg. We ran by the northwest leg connection.

Here is the train reversing to the wye.

Lynchburg is like a model railroad.

We ran by CP North Leg. The train would return from wyeing on this route then we reversed past CP South Leg before we pulled onto the wye.

Pulling around the southwest side of the wye. We then reversed around the northwest leg of the wye.

The leg of the wye we were just on.

Reversing around the northwest leg of the wye.

The Lynchburg Southern Railway Amtrak station built in 1911. The engine was watered and passengers reboarded. We did not depart here until 4:15 PM but pulled into Monteview Yard to wait on a Norfolk Southern freight train. We left that yard at 5:15 PM to head back to the North Carolina Transportation Museum. Below are a few pictures of that trip.

More plants in their spring bloom.

Virginian Railway caboose 344 built by the railway in 1959.

The Southern Railway station in Altavista built in 1937.

The train crossed the Dan River and we stopped in Danville to exchange EMT people again. We ran back most of the way as I talked to and shared stories with my new friends in Car 17. We had to stop and inspect the train after a trackside detector was not working. We returned to the museum grounds at 10:20 PM. It took a while to get out of our parking spot then stopped by an ATM for money before we made it to Arby's minutes before it closed. We took the food back to the Econo Lodge and I posted the three stories I wrote about yesterday. Elizabeth and Bob would proof these while I slept. I went to bed just before midnight and requested a 4:45 AM wakeup call. It had been a great day riding behind Norfolk and Western 611 for the first time. Tomorrow my second trip but this one will be all new mileage after we leave Salisbury.