The 611 will look fine on the Strasburg

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, March 21, 2019

N&W 4-8-4 611 rides its old high iron at Concord, Va., with a Lynchburg–Petersburg excursion in May 2017. Robert S. McGonigal
Two themes have been running through my mind since last week’s news that Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 No. 611 will be visiting the Strasburg Rail Road for weekend trips in September and October. 

The obvious one is the David and Goliath angle, sort of in reverse. What’s a big stud racehorse like the 611 going to look like on that most bucolic of tourist lines, the 4.5-mile Road to Paradise? Actually, the disconnect might be a lot less than you think. 

The other theme must have occurred to anyone who’s an N&W steam fan: 611’s visit will be a reunion of sorts, as the big Northern once again will rub shoulders with one of its little brothers, Strasburg’s former N&W 4-8-0 No. 475. Back in their heyday, these two machines worked entirely different assignments on the N&W system, but they must have encountered each other on occasion. More on that later. 

It took a lot of imagination to come up with this scenario for 611, so credit the 4-8-4’s owner, the Virginia Museum of Transportation, and the Strasburg for some creative thinking. Kudos, also, to Norfolk Southern, which will make all this possible by getting the 611 up to Harrisburg from Roanoke, then east to the Strasburg connection at Leaman Place on Amtrak’s ex-PRR Harrisburg Line.  

N&W 4-8-0 475, accustomed to sharing the Strasburg Rail Road with small locomotives like Thomas the Tank Engine, will be joined this fall by a giant when former N&W roster mate 611 visits the tourist line. Robert S. McGonigal
So what’s it going to be like, seeing the imperious 611 — with those 70-inch drivers and gleaming lightweight, roller-bearing rods — loping along the Strasburg? Frankly, I don’t think it will be out of place at all. Even Bruce Springsteen shows up to play occasionally at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park. Superstars shine in small venues.

Besides, the Strasburg isn’t as small as it looks, as I was reminded when I checked in with Linn Moedinger, who retired in December 2018 as the company’s president and chief mechanical officer. The entire main line is 286K compliant, referring to its FRA certification for hosting 286,000-lb. freight cars, required for the short line’s grain and lumber customers. The main track is all 112- and 115-lb. rail, with even heavier rail at the yard at Leaman Place.   

“We claim Class 2 track for FRA purposes, but would most likely qualify for Class 3,” Moedinger says. “Class 2 gives us a maximum speed of 30 mph, which is faster than we need to go. Class 3 would be expensive overkill.” So maybe the 611 will be going a leisurely 30 mph, but it should otherwise look right at home on the Strasburg’s first-class physical plant.  

Then there’s that reunion angle. The 475 and the 611 represent different generations in Norfolk & Western steam development, sort of like comparing a Curtiss Jenny to an F-86 Sabre. Baldwin built the 475 in 1906. After it was retired in the late 1950s, the engine bounced around among a number of owners before Strasburg acquired it in 1991 and put it back in service two years later. 

N&W 606 breezes into Bristol, Va, with local train 9 in August 1955. At left, beyond the Southern Railway PA's laying over between runs of the Tennessean, is the Bristol roundhouse, which regularly hosted N&W 4-8-0s. Hayden T. Alford
Meanwhile, the 611 is one of the last passenger steam locomotives built in America, turned out by N&W’s Roanoke Shops in 1950, and represents the pinnacle in U.S. steam technology. Reactivated in 1982, the engine went into its second retirement at the Virginia museum in 1994 when Norfolk Southern ended its celebrated steam program. Then in 2015 the 4-8-4 returned to steam in sensational fashion, with renewed support from NS.  

So how often did these locomotives encounter each other? 

It’s hard to say. By the time 611 was doing its thing in the 1950s, hauling N&W’s Powhatan Arrow and other varnish, the 4-8-0s had long been relegated to branchline duty. The M-class engines were most closely associated with the fabled Abingdon Branch, made famous by photographer O. Winston Link.

The Abingdon engines could always be seen around Bristol, Va., in the extreme southwest corner of the state, where N&W handed off its share of its Washington–New Orleans passenger trains to the Southern. The J’s were the premier engines on the Pelican and the Birmingham Special. Veteran N&W railroader and writer Ed King — a Bristol native — made a point of getting up close and personal with the 4-8-4s.

“The J’s worked in cycles [on the] the Norfolk–Cincinnati trains and the Southern trains,” Ed recalls. “Bristol would see every J in the course of a month except the one in Roanoke Shops for regular maintenance. There were three Southern trains every day each way using J’s in and out. I was cab-happy — that made it easy for me to get in the cab of all 14 of them. Hostlers let me ride them around the shop area as they were being serviced.”

Nearly 40 years before it joined the Strasburg's roster, N&W 475 heads the Blacksburg branch mixed train onto the main line at Christiansburg, Va. Philip R. Hastings
As plentiful as the 4-8-0s were in Bristol, Ed says, it’s more likely the 611 and 475 encountered each other elsewhere on the Radford Division. In the photo shown here, Philip R. Hastings caught the 475 returning to the main line at Christiansburg with train M112, the daily-except-Sunday mixed off the 9-mile Blacksburg branch.

“Bristol hosted a lot of M-class engines up until the last, both in yard service and on the Abingdon Branch, but the 475 was not one of them,” says Ed. “The only time I saw the 475 in Bristol was to celebrate Bristol’s centennial in 1956. It is certain, though, that the 611 and 475 rubbed elbows at other locations.”

The 611 visit promises to be quite a show, with a variety of events planned, including opportunities to ride in the cab, photo charters, a vintage car show, and a formal N&W steam reunion weekend. For details, check with the Strasburg.

One final observation: the 611’s trip to Strasburg will be just the latest in the encouraging trend of mainline steam performing on tourist lines and regional railroads. Given the Class I railroads’ disinterest — nay, hostility — to most steam, we can be thankful for opportunities to see Nickel Plate 765 on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic, or Milwaukee Road 261 on the Twin Cities & Western, or Pere Marquette 1225 on the Great Lakes Central. And, in a few months, the 611 on the Strasburg.

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