Friday, December 11, 2015

611 Homecoming

Norfolk & Western 611; Vicker, Va.; July 3, 2015
In our last post we explored the former Norfolk & Western mainline east of Roanoke, Va. The line is now operated by Norfolk Southern, but still features some uniquely N&W characteristics. In this post we are going to flash back to July 2015 (just a few months ago) when a very special visitor was on the line. The Virginia Museum of Transportation and Norfolk Southern teamed up to bring N&W J-Class No. 611 back to mainline rails for the summer. The big 4-8-4 ran trips out of Alexandria and Lynchburg in Virginia, but the red letter trips were six that were run over the Fourth of July weekend -- trips that took No. 611 back to its old home rails out of the city it was built in, Roanoke.
Norfolk & Western 611; Christiansburg, Va.; July 5, 2015
By steam locomotive standards, No. 611 is not old. It was constructed by the N&W in Roanoke in 1950, and by 1959 it was retired. In the early 1960s it was donated to the Virginia Museum of Transportation and displayed throughout the 1970s. In 1982 it was restored to take part in the original Norfolk Southern Steam Program, and powered the last trip for the program in 1994 before returning back to VMT. Norfolk Southern started the 21st Century Steam program in 2011, and the Fire Up 611! campaign started in 2014 to raise funds to have 611 join the program. It made its earlier this year.
Norfolk & Western 611; Shawsville, Va.; July 5, 2015
When the Roanoke trips were announced, I knew I had to get down to Virginia for the trips. Each day over the long weekend No. 611 would power two trips -- a morning trip from Roanoke to Lynchburg and return over Blue Ridge Summit and an afternoon trip from Roanoke to Walton over Christiansburg Hill. It was going to be a great weekend. Both lines have a lot of Norfolk & Western era color position light (CPL) signals, especially east of Roanoke. These are being replaced by more modern technology as railroads install Positive Train Control on their routes.
Norfolk & Western 611; Webster, Va.; July 5, 2015
I knew there would be crowds down in Roanoke chasing the trips, just as I was, but I wasn't expecting quite that large of a crowd! On the first day, July 3, the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge over the N&W near Bonsack must have had 100 people on it. Cars lined the roads along the tracks through Webster. We caught the train at Webster, then went ahead to Forest, near Roanoke for a shot. Forest has a nice CPL signal, so after the train went by heading east a few of us started organizing a photo line for the westbound trip, which made for a nice photo.
Norfolk & Western 611; Forest, Va.; July 3, 2015
After the stop in Roanoke, we headed west for the Walton portion of the day, pausing at Riverside near Elliston. Wet rail and a heavy train had 611 working hard as it blasted past us on a nice curve.
Norfolk & Western 611; Riverside, Va.; July 3, 2015
The train had slowed down considerably thanks to the grade, and that allowed just about every chaser to congregate in Shawsville. While the photo doesn't show it, there were several hundred people in the small town to watch the train pass through. It only went through at about five miles an hour, thanks to the grade and wet rail.
Norfolk & Western 611; Shawsville, Va.; July 3, 2015
The slow speed allowed us to get ahead of the train again. Montgomery Tunnel, a classic N&W location, was under construction for a clearance project, so we bypassed that and headed for the CPL signals in Christiansburg.
Norfolk & Western 611; Christiansburg, Va.; July 3, 2015
After the train turned at Walton, we caught it coming under the old N&W coaling tower at Vicker (top photo of this post). Fading light at this point encouraged us to call it a day.

The next morning found us at the CPLs at Montvale for the Lynchburg run. The sun was out, then went back under a cloud. We could hear 611 approaching as it tackled the Blue Ridge grade, and we thought we were skunked. But amazingly the cloud cleared about 20 seconds before the train's arrival and we got 611 splitting the signals in fantastic morning light -- probably the shot of the trip.
Norfolk & Western 611; Montvale, Va.; July 4, 2015
From here we negotiated the outskirts of Bedford and made it to the overhead bridge in Lowry with just a couple of minutes to spare.
Norfolk & Western 611; Lowry, Va.; July 4, 2015
From here we headed back west towards Roanoke to set up for a shot on the "must do" list -- passing the CPLs at Blue Ridge. Blue Ridge requires a bit of a hike to get into, and is almost in the middle of nowhere. Imagine our surprise when we got to the signals and found 30 other people already there! There were some anxious moments, though -- as we were monitoring 611's return from Lynchburg via cell phone from others along the route, a slow freight train came out of Roanoke and trundled upgrade on the track between us and where 611 would be. Eventually we could hear 611 whistling as it got closer, but the freight just kept on coming. Finally, the last car of the freight went by and less than 30 seconds later 611 came flying down the hill.
Norfolk & Western 611; Blue Ridge, Va.; July 4, 2015
From here we headed for another shot on the "must do" list -- westbound at the coaling tower at Vicker. Despite being distracted by some freights on the former Virginian Railway that parallels the N&W, we arrived at Vicker in plenty of time for the shot. Once again, the train would be battling bad sun on the way back to Roanoke, so Vicker was the last steam shot of the day.
Norfolk & Western 611; Vicker, Va.; July 4, 2015
The next morning, July 5, we joined the throng of people on the Blue Ridge Parkway overpass at Bonsack. Our last day of 611 started with a fine sight as the train negotiated the S-curve.
Norfolk & Western 611; Bonsack, Va.; July 5, 2015
From here we made an attempt to get greedy by getting ahead of the train at the CPL signals at Villamont. Parking was -- ummmm -- interesting on the one-lane dirt road back into the signals and it did take some time to get everyone untangled once the train went by. Still, the shot was worth it.
Norfolk & Western 611; Villamont, Va.; July 5, 2015
There wasn't much one could do with the delay in getting out of Villamont, so we headed to Lowry to await the train's return. We had shot off the bridge here two days earlier when the first trip went east -- now we were shooting at ground level as the train went west.
Norfolk & Western 611; Lowry, Va.; July 5, 2015
Back to the "must do" list -- we left Lowry and headed straight for the CPLs at Webster. That shot appears earlier in this post. For the afternoon trip to Walton, we paused on the grade up Christiansburg Hill at Wabun to enjoy the sights and sounds of the train working uphill.
Norfolk & Western 611; Wabun, Va.; July 5, 2015
Another shot at Shawsville followed by another shot at Christiansburg (both photos appear earlier in this post) finished off our westbound chase. With home beckoning, we set up for one final shot of the eastbound at Vicker, then reluctantly said goodbye to the Norfolk & Western and 611 for the drive back to New Jersey.
Norfolk & Western 611; Vicker, Va.; July 5, 2015

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