Enjoying the Ride

Posted by George Hamlin
on Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Let’s be honest: who wouldn’t have been envious of the individual standing between the 611’s cab and tender on the fine late-spring afternoon of June 1, 2016, as NS train 956 deadheads the locomotive and passenger equipment to Manassas for upcoming weekend excursions, as seen here south of Calverton, Virginia on the former Southern Railway’s Washington-Atlanta main line?  Note that the title is not posed as a question.

For that matter, it’s very possible that the 611 itself is enjoying the trip, as well, and possibly musing about what amounts to its third career.  The first, of course dated from its birth in 1950 until its initial retirement in 1959.  After many years in a park in its home city of Roanoke, the newly-formed Norfolk Southern sent it to be refurbished in the former Southern steam shop (yes, such an entity did exist as of the early 1980s) in Birmingham, Alabama in 1982.

Following this, it performed capably over much of the NS system for 12 years, visiting places far beyond the former N&W Cincinnati/Columbus-Norfolk main line where it had spent its earlier career.  On December 7, 1994 another “day of infamy”, at least in the rail enthusiast community of that time, it was retired to museum display in Roanoke for a second time. 

Were the “canteen” between the tender and the first car and the PPE (personal protective equipment) bright yellow vests not visible, it would be easy to imagine that this scene depicted the 611’s initial, revenue-service life in the 1950s, not the twenty-first century.  Perhaps on this day there had not been a Southern passenger diesel available at Monroe, Virginia, north of Lynchburg, and the J-class was pinch-hitting on the Birmingham Special heading for Washington, DC.

Yes, I suspect that there might have been technical difficulties in actually doing this, but it should be OK to dream in arrears. Had this been the case, I doubt that the 611 would have made it past the vicinity of the Alexandria yard, much less all the way to Washington Union Station, however.

Following another well-deserved rest, the 611 was retrieved from its status as a stationary museum exhibit once again in 2014, sent to the North Carolina Transportation Museum’s facility at Spencer, North Carolina, to be restored, and pulled numerous excursions in 2015 and 2016, as well as a more modest schedule in 2017 and 2018.  Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2019 it ventured offline to run on the Strasburg Railroad in the “Pennsylvania Dutch” countryside of the Keystone State.  In the fall of 2020, it was fired up for events at the North Carolina Transportation Musuem.

Would it be too much to hope that others will yet have the chance to enjoy the ride the fellow in the yellow vest is enjoying here?  Or at the least, to give those of us watching from trackside this kind of view of somebody having the time of his or her life?  It likely won’t be easy, and probably will require significant funding, but we can hope so.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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