Welcome back old friend; I have missed you

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Southern No. 630 rolls on the NS main line at Chattanooga, Tenn., on one of the first trips of NS's new 21st Century Steam program.

Ears pinned back, Southern No. 630 rolls at 40 mph on Sunday on the NS main line at Chattanooga, Tenn., on one of the first trips of NS's new 21st Century Steam program. Photo by Jim Wrinn

 

I saw something I thought I'd never see last week: A steam train rolling down the Norfolk Southern main line with the company's CEO, a slew of vice presidents, and guests on board. That feeling of amazement actually began before the first wheel moved. As we strode to board Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum's Southern Railway 2-8-0 No. 630, Mark Manion, NS's vice president of operations, walked next to me and, with a smile, remarked that it was a great day it was for a train ride.
 
Wow. Here's a rebuilt 1904 freight hog, but the guy in charge of operations is excited (as he should be!) I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. The train didn't go far or fast, wasn't long (three cars), but it spoke with the authority of a double-stack train barreling across the country: This railroad likes what it does and the history that made it.

It is not required for a railroad to enjoy being a railroad. It's not even required for a railroad to appreciate its history. All that's required of a railroad is to move freight and earn a profit doing so. But it sure does feel good to see a railroad achieve a point in its existence where it feels competent about serving its customers and doing something more that says, "Hey, this was a cool business back then, and it's a cool business today." That's especially important at a company like Norfolk Southern, which does so many things well. NS without a steam program is like Budweiser without the Clydesdales or Goodyear without the blimp.

When NS dropped its steam program in 1994, it had forgotten why it was running steam excursions. The train was overexposed. It had lost its potency. Wick Moorman said Friday he wants the new steam program to be more like Union Pacific's, with more purpose and fewer outings. He says the main focus will be employees, customers, and the public. But of course, anywhere the train goes, the public will see it and know that NS is more than just another railroad company that ties up the local grade crossings from time to time.

On Sunday, when the last of four public trips between the museum and CT Tower in downtown Chattanooga was in the home stretch, NS's Bob Saxtan pulled out on 630's throttle and had her pegged at 40 mph in no time. At that moment, she was a fine old horse in an effortless gallop, ears laid back, heading for the finish line. This time, though, it's the beginning, not the end.

My time with the steam program dates back to 1966, when my dad took me to see Southern 4501 on its first trip across the system. It continued until the day of the last run in 1994. It's been 17 years, but it's great to see it return. NS needs new friends, who will become employees, shareholders, and believers in railroading.
Welcome back old friend. I've missed you.

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