Riding the cab of Clinchfield 800

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, November 7, 2017

CSX engineer Larry Bobbitt is in command of F7 116 -- originally Clinchfield 800 -- at the head of a RoadRailer train in 1988. Note the message stenciled on the visor: MAXIMUM SPEED 95 MPH. Kevin P. Keefe photo
Amid all the sound and fury over what CSX is doing these days under E. Hunter Harrison, it was nice this week to see the railroad make some positive news, and for the most positive of reasons.

On Monday, the railroad unveiled Clinchfield F7 No. 800, fully restored to its original 1948 appearance by shop forces in Huntington, W.Va. The beautiful, fully operational F unit, gleaming in its original gray-and-yellow livery, will be on the head end of CSX’s annual Santa Train on November 18 when it delights thousands of children along the former Clinchfield main line between Shelby, Ky., and Kingsport, Tenn.

The 800 arrived on the Clinchfield as part of an order of six late-model F3s built by EMD in 1948–49. The railroad eventually had 44 various F units on the roster. The 800 was upgraded to F7 specifications in 1952.

This will be the 75th annual running of the Santa Train, an occasion that certainly merits something special like the 800. The cab unit will be accompanied by an ex-Seaboard Coast Line SD45, painted for the Clinchfield and renumbered 3632 to follow the sequence of the railroad’s other seven SD45s. The big SD is privately owned and was restored by the Southern Appalachia Railroad Museum in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and East Tennessee Rail Car Services.

Clinchfield 800 still wears its original livery as it heads a freight at Marbleton, Tenn., in June 1971. Roof details show that it was built as an F3. James L. Jeffrey photo
I take some personal delight in seeing the 800 back in the spotlight, having spent more than 15 straight hours aboard the unit back in 1988 when it was hauling CSX’s short-lived RoadRailer trains between Atlanta and Detroit. My cab ride was part of the reporting for a cover story on RoadRailers in June 1989 Trains.

My assignment was to delve deep into RoadRailer technology and marketing, but truth to tell, the highlight of the whole project was the chance to ride an F unit on a Class I revenue freight train — in 1988! At that time, the former Clinchfield 800 was running as CSX 116, part of a quartet of F units CSX maintained in its then-current blue and gray.

I was pretty excited on that fine September morning when I walked up to train 211, awaiting departure at the south end of Queensgate Yard in Cincinnati. I got a warm welcome from the engineer, Larry Bobbitt, who had 40 years on the railroad, including some time on L&N’s beloved M-1 “Big Emma” 2-8-4s. Alas, Bobbitt died in 2011 at age 83.

In its CSX 116 identity, the historic diesel, along with an F7B, is ready to depart Cincinnati with a RoadRailer train for Atlanta in September 1988. Kevin P. Keefe photo
Bobbitt wasn’t all that thrilled about having F units that day — “They just plain don’t have the power,” he told me — but I remember him as a soft spoken but cheerful host. With his silver hair, white baseball cap, and powder-blue short-sleeve shirt, he looked the part of the veteran locomotive engineer.

In those days, CSX seemed to be gamely supportive of its RoadRailer service. Although never a huge success, the RoadRailer concept was a novel approach to intermodal based on truck trailers riding directly on four-wheel railroad bogies. CSX marketed its version as XpressRailer, mostly to haul auto parts for a single customer, General Motors.

I remember the trip as uneventful, yet thrilling at the same time. How could it not be when you’re in the cab of an F unit? The ride was smooth, the chant of the EMD prime movers working behind us was positively musical, and the view of the L&N through those distinctively curved windshields was grand.

CSX 116 tools along the Clinch River in Tennessee with the Atlanta-bound RoadRailer. Kevin P. Keefe photo
My notes from the trip indicate that after our 9:50 a.m. departure it took a while to creep through Cincinnati’s dense trackage, but we hit our stride once we were south of old DeCoursey Yard. Then a succession of L&N trademarks came into view: the green hills past Uma, Cynthiana, and Paris; the succession of tunnels as the Corbin Division turned mountainous; the climb up fabled Crooked Hill south of Livingston, Ky.; easing through crowded Corbin Yard later in the afternoon. Along the way we met several coal trains.

The view over 116’s bulldog nose was especially glorious along a stretch of double track beside the Clinch River headed toward Knoxville. It was a perfect early autumn evening, with golden light bathing the palisades near the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Bull Run power plant as we did what I recall was a good 60 mph.

At 9 p.m. we reached Etowah, Tenn., where a new crew took over for the shorter part of the trip on the Atlanta Division. It was after 1 a.m. when we finally came to our final stop at the intermodal ramp in Hulsey Yard, some 493 miles after departing Cincinnati. Tired as I was, I lingered in that warm, cozy cab as long as I could. I wouldn’t get a chance like this again.  

Freshly restored to its as-built appearance, Clinchfield 800 gleams at the CSX shop in Huntington, W.Va. Ron Flanary photo
The 800, or the 116, if you will, bounced around a bit after CSX stopped running the XpressRailers a few months later. It worked for a time on the luxury American European Express, running between Chicago and Washington, D.C., and ended up in MARC commuter service for a while. Later, former CSX Chairman Hays T. Watkins saw to it that the 800 was donated to the C&O Historical Society in Clifton Forge, Va., and the unit worked for a time on the Potomac Eagle tourist train as “C&O 8016.”

Now the 800 is ready for its close-up again. How fitting that it will be working on the Clinchfield, where it and its sister diesels helped displace 4-6-6-4 Challengers all those years ago. It will be quite a show on November 18. And the crew is going to love that cab. 

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