Famous steam engine waits to steam again... maybe...
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The Class J locomotives could pull a 15-car passenger train at 110 mph across level terrain. But the service life of the J class was short as they were nearing retirement by the end of the 1950s when the N&W began purchasing more first generation diesels. The railroad was scrapping these steam engines, but saved the 611 due in part to the efforts of noted railroad photographer O. Winston Link. The locomotive was donated to the Virginia Museum of Transportation in 1960 where it sat on display until the 1980s.
Then something unexpected happened. Norfolk Southern Railway (formed from a merger of the Southern and Norfolk & Western) struck a deal with the VMT and took the 611 for servicing. She returned to steam for the first time since the 1950s pulling passenger excursions all around the southeastern United States.
NS ran these excursions until 1994. The 611 was then returned to Roanoke to take up residence beside another famous N&W steam engine, the #1218. Rumors and hopeful speculation spread for years that Norfolk Southern would return this rare steam locomotive to service, but so far, that was all it was -- hope and rumors.
There was a press conference at the Virginia Museum of Transportation on February 22, 2013. Rumors had been rampant for days than an announcement was coming that the 611 would return to steam. Trains Magazine had teased that something big will be announced on their Facebook page today. Likewise local TV station WDBJ had reported on the possibility of one of Roanoke's two steam engines hitting the high iron again.
And while the announcement wasn't that big, it was exciting nonetheless. The Virginia Museum of Transportation has formed a committee to "determine if it is possible to Fire Up 611 and what it would take to do it."
Norfolk Southern surprised the railfan world in 2011 when they began running steam excursions after a seventeen year hiatus. They currently use Tennessee Valley Railroad Museumís former Southern 2-8-0 #630 and the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Societyís Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 #765. NS CEO Wick Moorman says that if 611 is rebuilt, the railroad would be happy to run the engine on its new 21st Century Steam program.
Under Moorman's watch, in addition to the new steam program, Norfolk Southern began their Heritage Program which saw 20 new diesel engines painted in old paint schemes once worn by the railroad's ancestor lines.
The VMT expects the feasibility study to take between sixty and ninety days. Committee members include Prestor Claytor Federal Railroad Administration and safety consultant and the son of the late Robert Claytor, who was chairman and CEO of the company when 611 was restored in 1982, Ron Davis, President of the Norfolk & Western Historical Society, Beverly T. Fitzpatrick, Jr., Executive Director, Virginia Museum of Transportation and Jim Wrinn, Editor, Trains Magazine.
As soon as the news conference was announced two days ago as a "strategic undertaking," Facebook, Trainorders and other internet sites devoted to railroads was busy with speculation that the press conference had something to do with the 611. No one denied it. Some thought an announcement was coming that the famous J Class locomotive was returning to steam. The only question for those folks was where she would get worked on in order to be rail ready again.
But in the announcement, the VMT said some things would still have to be worked out. The first and most obvious question that would need to be resolved is if the 611 can be restored to meet FRA specifications. Running a steam engine in 2014 (the absolute earliest she could get out) involves different regulations and requirements than it did in the 1980s and 90s.
They would also need to know how much money it would cost to get her running again. Most people say the least it will take is one million dollars. They would also need to actually run the trips and break even. Operating a steam engine alone is not cheap. Add in the costs of the rail cars on the train, the insurance premiums and countless other things I can't even contemplate right now and the trips would not be cheap by any stretch. They expect most of the trips would run out of Roanoke which makes perfect sense given the history of the engine.
But the cat is out of the bag. What has been speculated on for years is now an official policy of the Virginia Museum of Transportation. They want the 611 to roll again. they're not alone.