Chasing NS' Norfolk & Western heritage unit across home rails

Posted by Samuel Phillips
on Wednesday, February 13, 2013


 With Norfolk Southern’s announcement of Norfolk its 20 “heritage fleet” of new diesels in March 2012, I immediately thought, "I have to catch the N&W engine (NS 8103) on former N&W rails and the VGN unit (NS 1069) on former Virginian rails."  Since I reside near some of the most well-known and famous sections of the former Norfolk & Western, I have an affinity for that railroad and anything related to it. Thus, catching the N&W heritage unit on home rails was high on my list.

 After a few months of tracking the unit and having little success at capturing it, my day finally arrived on July 28, 2012, as No. 8103 led an eastbound coal train across home rails. It was a surprise encounter — I was not expecting its presence in the area, nor was I out hunting it, but after I saw it leading, the chase was on!

The chase: Willowtown, W.Va., to Salem, Va.

The day started out with blistering heat and abundant sunshine, along with the usual hazy conditions associated with summertime in southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia. Heavy NS traffic pounded the old Norfolk & Western Roanoke–Bluefield main line during the morning and early afternoon hours, as a mixture of time freights, intermodals, and coal trains constantly permeated the hollows of West Virginia.

Mid-afternoon gave way to an approaching line of severe thunderstorms and a major dip in traffic. As I began thinking about moving west, I heard the Princeton Deepwater District dispatcher — the old Virginian — give a train of eastbound loads permission to depart Princeton, W.Va., and be governed toward Roanoke on former Virginian rails. Hearing that, my gut told me to hang around and at least see what the power was before moving west, so I did.

As the train approached Oakvale, W.Va., a thunderstorm slammed the area with heavy rain. I decided to pass up shooting the train and settle for watching it go by, just to see the power. Soon, I heard the sound of full dynamic braking permeating the air as the loads, train No. 768, descended the 1.5% grade from Princeton, and then a headlight began shining through the thick fog. The train got closer, and I began to make out what appeared to be a deep blue color on the lead motor. "This can't be the N&W engine, can it?" I mumbled to myself. Sure enough, Norfolk & Western heritage 8103 paraded by my car in a heavy rain.

From this point on, all I could say was, "The chase is on!"

My first stop was the hamlet of Willowtown, W.Va., just east of the Christiansburg/Princeton Deepwater District junction. With light rain falling, 768 rounded a sharp turn and glided past a set of classic Norfolk & Western color position light signals. The milepost on the signal denoted 342 miles west of Norfolk, Va., via the old N&W main line. At this point, the whole train was off the Pocahontas Division and on the Virginia Division, with crew on board an inter-divisional one allowed to operate on both divisions. Sometimes, trains will stop at P-D Junction for a crew change when non inter-divisional crews are involved.

At Glen Lyn, Va., under a 10-mph speed restriction, 768 passed the massive trackside coal-burning power plant. A string of empty coal cars lined the main after being unloaded by the plant’s own switch engines.

Before the Norfolk & Western–Virginian merger of December 1, 1959, both roads served this power plant, though VGN did so from the hillside situated behind 768 and the plant itself. Directly behind me and timetable east, the Virginian crossed above the N&W and the New River on a massive steel bridge. When built in 1909, under the supervision of Colonel William Page, the viaduct was the world's largest bridge with concrete piers.

The segment of the former Virginian between Narrows and Kellysville was abandoned in the early 1970s, when the Virginia Department of Transportation acquired permission to construct route U.S. 460 on the railroad right-of-way. In return, the state provided N&W with money to build a connection from the Christiansburg District to the former Virginian at Narrows, and a connection between the P-D and Christiansburg Districts at Kellysville. Even 40 years after the abandonment, the old concrete piers still are visible at Glen Lyn as one looks across the New River.

Clearing the 10-mph slow order, the engineer on 8103 began notching out the throttle to get the heavy coal drag up to track speed, and soon the train was clipping along at 35 mph. Within 15 minutes, it would bear down on the quaint community of Narrows, Va., where I set up again to capture it.

Heavy rain had just cleared and a layer of fog hung on the top of the mountain as 768 roared into Narrows, where the beautiful mountains surrounding the scene all but “shout” this is “Norfolk & Western country.”

Eastbound coal, grain, ethanol, and heavy manifest trains usually hit the former Virginian at the Narrows connection because of the more gentle grades on the Whitethorne District, 0.6%. apposed to 1.6% on the old N&W. However, owing to trackwork, 768 kept to the former N&W all the way to Roanoke. This meant it would stop to attach a set of helpers at Walton, Va., at the bottom of Charleston Grade, near Christiansburg.

After completing a meet with westbound empty coal train No. 821, our coal loads proceeded  east, popping out of the Pembroke, Va., tunnel, where picturesque cliffs loomed above the engine. The sun was finally beginning to come out as the line of thunderstorms exited the area.

In the 1960s and 70s, Norfolk & Western downgraded its infrastructure, one result being that the portion of the Christiansburg District between Walton and Pearisburg was single-tracked.  Two exceptions are passing sidings at Pembroke and Belspring, Va., roughly 10 miles east. The rest of the district is double track.

At Milepost 295, just after stopping to acquire helper locomotives on the rear of the train, 768’s two big GE's on front throttle up to get moving up the 1.6% toward Christiansburg,. The old N&W coal dock made for an interesting backdrop as the train moves through the hamlet of Vicker, Va., in late-afternoon backlighting.

Beautiful late afternoon light illuminated the picturesque valley of Shawsville, Va., as 768 dropped down the eastern slope of Christiansburg Mountain, the engines whining in full dynamic braking mode. A curve just behind me marks the steepest part of the westbound assault from Elliston to Christiansburg. If a westbound is going to stall out, it will do so here.

My last stop was in the beautiful community of Wabun, just west of Roanoke. The sun was beginning to set behind the hills and the towering mountain behind the train caught the last rays of light as 768 eased through another slow order just outside Salem. Another 20 minutes later, the train will be in Roanoke, where this crew will be relieved by another. This crew had been on duty for 10 hours now, and will have put in a full day of work before stepping off the lead motor.

Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed my second blog. Be sure to check back next month for another installment, and leave your feedback about this one in the comment section below. – Samuel Phillips

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