Norfolk Southern’s heritage units sure are gorgeous, but they need nicknames; also the story behind 8099’s odd suffix

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Eastbound Norfolk Southern train 38Q passes through serene countryside at Atkins, Va., on March 23, 2012 with Southern Railway heritage unit No. 8099 on its maiden run in revenue service leading the train. Jonathan McCoy photo

OK, first a confession. I admit that I am one of the legions of fans who are now officially in love with Norfolk Southern’s new heritage units that are appearing like spring wildflowers across the East.

Norfolk Southern’s black-and-white Thoroughbred paint scheme, which dates to 1983, is classy, hides coal dust and grime well, and doesn’t fade too quickly. The railroad is well run, but it needed of a splash of color, and that’s what Norfolk Southern’s 19 units honoring predecessor railroads will do in spectacular fashion. They’re rolling history lessons for employees, fans, and those new to railroading as work or play.

Now that the first two heritage units, Conrail- and Southern-painted ES44s from General Electric, are out and about I find myself wanting to see them in iconic locations for their predecessor railroads.

In a conversation with Senior Editor Matt Van Hattem this week, we agreed that the places to see the Conrail unit would be on Pennsylvania’s Horseshoe Curve and Rockville Bridge, as well as Berea, Ohio, just west of Cleveland where Big Blue’s busiest east-west mainlines met to create an “X” shaped system. (A trip along the Hudson River would be great, too, Matt says with the joy of a child anticipating Christmas morning, but that part of Conrail now belongs to CSX.)

I’d give a week’s salary to be in my home state of North Carolina to watch the Southern unit on the Loops near Old Fort, which use 13 miles of track to ascend the Blue Ridge in spiral staircase fashion. The green and gold unit already made it to another unique Southern Railway location, Natural Tunnel in Virginia, earlier this week, and an appearance on the magnificent Rat Hole, between Cincinnati and Chattanooga, would likewise result in a state of bliss.

Sharp-eyed fans have already noted that 8099 has a small “K,” appended to its cab number. And rightfully so. It follows the fashion of all Southern locomotives from about 1972 onward until the last pre-merger units were delivered, a set of B30-7As in Spring 1982.

I checked with Bill Schafer and Dick Kimball, both NS retirees who know the company’s history well, and they report that the check letters were Southern’s solution to prevent transposition of digits when keying movement information into the company’s computer system. They think that Jerry Durand in the company’s management information systems came up with the system, although nobody knows for sure. He later went on to become NS’s assistant vice president for management information systems.

The check code system featured 10 letters, and you came up with the right code like this: Take the first number, double the second and fourth numbers; if the second and fourth numbers doubled are two digits, add those numbers together (ie, 9+9 = 18, make it 1+8=9). Then add the sums from 1 + 4 (with the doubled second and fourth digits). Finally, pick the next break point number by tens (10, 20, 30, 40) and take the difference.

For 8099 that’s 8 + 0 + 9 = 17. Double the last 9 for 18, but because it is two digits, add them to get 9, and add everything together for a sum of 26. The next break point is 30, so the difference is 4. The corresponding numbers and letters were as follows: 0 = A; 1 = F; 2 = H; 3 = J; 4 = K; 5 = L; 6 = R; 7 = T; 8 = W; and 9 = X. So for 8099, the proper letter is “K.”

I like 8099’s K. Maybe that’s what we should call the 8099 — Kay? Every special locomotive needs a nickname. If so, does 8098, the Conrail unit, become Connie, and 8100, the Nickel Plate Road unit that debuted last night, Nikki?

Have fun, everybody, watching for these special locomotives. With 19 of them roaming a 20,000-mile system, it should be fun to see how often they meet, run together, or just enliven the railroad scene on the Thoroughbred of Transportation. If you get lucky to catch one, upload your photos to our NS heritage unit gallery.

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Also, see Art Director Tom Danneman's blog: BNSF: It's time for heritage locomotives

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  • Will there be a Pennsy  5-striper? What about one for the original NS?

  • Yes, but will the Penn Central unit be Penny, or Wormy?

  • Okay, I'll pick off the obvious ones....C of G is "Georgia", Virginian is "Virginia" or "Ginny", Penn Central could be "Penny" or "Penelope", Erie Lackawanna would be "Pheobe", and the Savannah & Atlanta would need to be "Vanna".  If the N&W unit were to be tuscan red, I'd suggest "Pocohantas".

  • Nick names are perhaps a nice idea in some ways, but the excitement of seeing long gone imagery in a modern setting is all the satisfaction needed. Your pure excitement speaks well above the din of nitpickers and others still stuck in wanting even more fantasy revivals. (although the idea of all the NS and UP heritage units lined for a photo shoot is my personal favorite "what if")

  • This is real awesome But its the story of my life never where the action is

  • Original NS unit could be called "Nora".

  • I've noticed they have placed names on the NS PR43C units although I'm not sure who they are named after.

  • Norfolk Southern should be praised for introducing heritage color schemes.  Of course NS didn´t need to start such a program to "apologise" to railfans like Union Pacific did in view of UP´s big trade-mark blunder a few seasons ago as well as the big Texas "bust" in the S. Texas petroleum alley.

    Both Norfolk & Western and Southern Railway had proud heritages when the NS was formed.  The heritage color scheme program is the best public relations tool that NS could have created to publicly show that desite being a well managed transportation corporation does remember its past with pride.  

    Great going Norfolk Southern, you deserve an A+!

    Joe Toth

  • Well put, Joe

  • RE:  The CONRAIL  engine,  Don't go hanging any sissy name on it

    just call it MY BLUE HEAVEN!!

  • Regarding the K letter with Southern Railway heritage loco # 8099. I wrote to ASK TRAINS as to why Norfolk Southern did not continue the check code letter on it's locomotives and never got a response.

  • Great idea to have a 'nickname' for each one.  And, I like the choices.  I think that if they keep at least one heritage unit of each legacy rail company always rolling, the "never forget our past" will be ingrained in the employees, customers, and fans.

  • Does the Conrail Gevo have a nickname

  • HiIron - I did see a GP35 in NS paint @ Grand Jct. TN post-merger and it did have a check-digit, but was the only one I saw.  

  • The Heritage fleet is beautiful. Where can I get an 8x10 0f each loco.  I would like to see other railroads do this same t5hing to honor past fallen flags.

    Great job NS, I really like what you have done.

Norfolk Southern’s heritage units sure are gorgeous, but they need nicknames; also the story behind 8099’s odd suffix