From Little Acorns...

Posted by George Hamlin
on Saturday, September 01, 2018

Norfolk Southern train 233 west of Rectortown, Virginia, October 14, 1989; photo by George W. Hamlin

Shortly after arriving in northern Virginia in the fall of 1989, I had a weekend available for railfanning in mid-October.  Since I’d had only a modest opportunity to learn the local “lay of the land” from a railroad perspective, it seemed logical to start with something close by, in this case, the Norfolk Southern’s former Southern Railway line from Manassas west to Front Royal and Strasburg.

For years, this had been a bucolic branch through the Virginia Piedmont countryside, with only local traffic, and the occasional steam excursion.  However, in the aftermath of the collision of an Amtrak Northeast Corridor train and a set of Contrail locomotives running light at Chase, Maryland in January 1987, the NS’s north-south traffic that was formerly interchanged at Potomac Yard, just south of Washington, DC in Virginia, was re-routed via Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with the interchange between Conrail and NS changed to Hagerstown, Maryland, the northern end of the former N&W’s H-line.

Because of this, the eastern portion of the Manassas Branch, known as the B-line, from Riverton Junction at Front Royal to Manassas, became part of the through route for NS freights between the northeast and what had been the Southern’s Washington-Atlanta main line.  Initially, this involved a pair of manifest freights in each direction.  Due to the configuration at Riverton Junction, which was not set up for a straightforward move between the H and B lines, a backup move was required until a new connection was built in the southeast quadrant of the junction.

Since the B-line was not signaled, a series of manual blocks was created for use in controlling train movements; this was replaced a few years later with Track Warrant Authority, which allowed for more flexibility in train dispatching, particularly for multiple trains in the same direction.  More recently, the B-line east of Front Royal was upgraded into a fully signaled, TCS operation.

The initial service pattern on the B-line called for the eastbound freights to operate typically in the morning, and the westbounds in the afternoon.  This actually worked well with the other reason that I had chosen to visit this line on Saturday October 14, 1989, which was a steam-powered excursion to Front Royal and return behind the N&W’s A-class 2-6-6-4 number 1218. 

The chase of the 1218 from Manassas to Front Royal was enjoyable, and provided an excellent introduction to countryside.  While the excursion train was parked on the spur into Front Royal, I stayed at Riverton Junction and watched NS train 157 head east, followed by a surprise:  the appearance of one of the first iterations of NS train 233. The power was a pair of Conrail B36-7s; they were followed by a modest contingent of piggyback trailers on flatcars. 

Prior to this, intermodal traffic between the northeast and points south on the NS was handled by separate trains that terminated and originated at Pot Yard.  Now, this traffic was moving between New Jersey and Manassas in a through train, and one with a relatively short run for an intermodal movement.

At Manassas, instead of taking the south leg of the wye at the east end of the B-line, 233 used the north leg, and pulled north of the passenger station on the Piedmont Division main.  Waiting for it was Alexandria-Atlanta piggyback train 221.  Train 233’s power then backed its short consist onto the rear of 221; an EOT was added to the rear, and 221 then headed south.  The two Conrail units then awaited the arrival of northbound train 222 before reversing the process and heading back to Hagerstown as NS 234 a few hours later.

I had several occasions to watch the interchange at Mansassas as the service blossomed; in those days before “three-step” protection, I saw one instance where the addition of 233’s consist to 221 was accomplished in ten minutes total.

Notwithstanding the short consist that I saw initially, train size on 233 and 234 grew significantly, and the combining of trains was moved south to Bristow, to avoid blocking grade crossings in Manassas.  Today, train 211 runs all the way from Croxton, New Jersey to Atlanta, still with some trailers, including those from UPS, but the majority of a typical run’s traffic now consists of double-stacked containers.

Meanwhile, train 221 has undergone both a number change, to 203, and now originates at Rutherford Yard east of Harrisburg.  Both trains still transit Manassas, via the south leg of the wye off the B-line at the Powell interlocking, but there’s no need to exchange traffic any longer.  Also, post-1999, the entire route is Norfolk Southern.  

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