TRAINS 611 chase guide: Manassas-Front Royal, Va. June 4 and 5, 2016

Posted by Dave Crosby
on Monday, May 23, 2016

The first weekend of June may prove to be the last chance to ride behind famed Norfolk & Western 611 in 2016.  The weekend will see three round trips depart from Manassas, Virginia for Front Royal, some 51 track miles to the west. 

These half day excursions – one on Saturday, two on Sunday – allow for a weekend of chasing AND riding.  At less than four hours, they are also the perfect bite-sized excursion, appealing to those who may not want to spend all day on a train.

Excursions will traverse Norfolk Southern’s “B-Line” to Front Royal over an undulating route that allows for decent photography throughout the day at various locations.  To put the contours of the B Line into perspective, the 51 miles travelled by the excursion takes only 45 miles by automobile.  The B-Line, which has seen considerable upgrades in recent years, parallels Interstate 66 for most of its route.  A high volume of priority traffic now uses the line, in fact this is the reason only one excursion is offered in the morning on Saturday.  On Saturday afternoon all traffic yields to high value intermodal trains. 

While the 70 mph speed limit on I-66 will allow chasers to put some distance between them and the 611, most of the desirable locations in the small towns that dot the railroad are several miles from the interstate itself.  This will mean much slower speeds on back country roads and township streets with traffic lights and stop signs.  Don’t expect to get more than one or two locations in between Manassas and Front Royal. Some words of caution for photographing the train at the extreme ends of the excursion route: Traffic comes to a virtual standstill in Front Royal and Manassas – both having sizeable populations which turn out in force o watch the 611 roll into town. 

In Manassas there is only one underpass in the vicinity of the 1914 former Southern Railway (now Virginia Railway Express) depot.  All other access points are at grade crossings and when the 20+ car excursion train pulls in to load or discharge, downtown Manassas is essentially cut in half.  Avoid the immediate area around the station at train time, or prepare to sit in virtual gridlock.  There is a wye several blocks south of the station where the B-Line begins its meandering route west to Front Royal.  This is a good place to watch the 611 get under way.  Otherwise the railroad passes through several miles of unremarkable suburbia as it works its way through Manassas, Haymarket and Gainesville.   For the natural scenery, head into the countryside and small towns west of the metro area.

I would also not recommend following the train into the heart of Front Royal.  My suggestion:  Find a place along Happy Creek Road on the East side of town to watch the excursion roll in, then leave for your first eastbound location of choice as soon as you see the markers go by.

In between Manassas and Front Royal are a number of small towns where the right of way is readily accessible: Linden, Markham, Marshal, Belvoir and The Plains are all located on or near Virginia Route 55.  These towns are where some of the best photo opportunities lie.  Be mindful of varying speed limits though, as local law enforcement will be out in force.  When parking along rural roads, be sure not to block any driveways and keep a lane of traffic open.

If you intend to ride or chase Saturday’s excursion, be aware that the 22nd Annual Manassas Railway Heritage Festival will be taking place near the depot, further complicating traffic patterns.  The festival is worth a visit though, and is a great way to spend the afternoon after the 611 is parked for the day.  Local vendors, exhibits and special short rides on Virginia Railway Express equipment are featured.  The best way to reach the festival is to take the Grand Avenue underpass (just west of downtown) to Prince William Street.  Make a left onto Prince William Street and follow signs to the depot.  There is a large parking garage next door to the station, which was to use in 2015.

When I rode and chased the 611 in 2015 I was pleasantly surprised by the friendly nature of just about every railfan I met trackside.  As a whole, the group was both safe and courteous, respecting private property and keeping a reasonable distance from the right of way.  The only cringe worthy moments I witnessed can be accredited to local townspeople who came out to be part of the excitement.  They are generally not aware of how fast the 611 travels, how quiet it can be and most importantly how wide it is.  Many times I witnessed railfans politely advise those who were ill-informed that there they were, in fact, in harm’s way. 

I sincerely hope the feeling of good will continues through these final excursions of the 2016 season.  We are all ambassadors of the steam program in a way.  Please be aware of your surroundings, and what the people surrounding you are doing.  Leave the safety vests at home.  You’d be surprised how the general public assumes anyone in a yellow vest is employed by the railroad in some capacity.  Besides looking ridiculous, “safety yellow” (or orange) sticks out like a sore thumb in other people’s photographs.  Also, if you have an air horn attached to your truck, please resist the urge to blow it, this show isn’t about you.  An unexpected horn blast can startle even the heartiest soul and/or ruin someone’s audio.  Finally, if perhaps an excited child (or adult for that matter) shouts while you’re taking video, explain nicely how you’re trying to record sounds – it’s a foreign concept to most non-railfans. 

How we treat the general public, and each other, reflects on Norfolk Southern, the 611 crew and our fraternity as a whole. 

Be safe and see you there!

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