N&W J class (1941)
Norfolk and Western #611
The Norfolk and Western Railway's J class steam locomotives were a class of 4-8-4 locomotives built by the railways East End Shops located in Roanoke, Virginia between 1941 and 1950. The first batch, numbered 600 to 604, were built in 1941–42 and were delivered streamlined. In 1943, 605–610 were delivered without shrouding and lightweight side rods, due to the limitations on the use of certain materials during the war; they were classified J1. When N&W showed the War Production Board the reduced availability numbers because of this, the Board allowed the J1s to be re-fitted as Js with the lightweight rods and shrouding in 1944. The last batch, 611–613, were built in 1950, all streamlined. The Js were built and designed completely by N&W employees, something that was uncommon on American railroads. The class should not be confused with the much earlier J class of 1903. The total cost for building 611 was $251,544 in 1950 (equivalent to $2,441,000 in 2015).
The first J's had 275 psi boilers, 70-inch (1,778 mm) driving wheels, and roller bearings on all wheels and rods; after about 1945 boiler pressure was raised to 300 psi (2,100 kPa). Calculated tractive effort was 80,000 pounds (36,000 kg) – the most powerful 4-8-4 without a booster. The 70-inch drivers were small for a locomotive that was to pull trains at over 100 mph (160 km/h). To overcome this, the wheelbase was made extremely rigid, lightweight rods were used, and the counterbalancing was precise. As delivered, the Js had duplex (two) connecting rods between the primary (second) and third drivers, but in the 1950s Norfolk and Western's engineers deemed these unnecessary. 611 and at least one other Class J were rebuilt with a single connecting rod. The negative effect of the J's highly engineered powertrain was that it made the locomotives sensitive to substandard track. Its counterbalancing and precision mechanics were so modern that it was joked that the J's top speed was only limited by the nerves of the engineer. While on loan, number 610 hauled a 15-car 1,050-short-ton (950 t; 940-long-ton) train at speeds in excess of 110 mph (180 km/h) over Pennsylvania Railroad's "racetrack", the Fort Wayne Division (a section of flat, straight track).
The class Js pulled the network's prominent passenger trains, such as The Powhatan Arrow from Cincinnati to Norfolk (Cincinnati to Portsmouth for No. 611), The Pocahontas, and The Cavalier, as well as ferrying Southern Railway's Tennessean, Birmingham Special and The Pelican between Lynchburg, Virginia and Bristol, Virginia. Despite their power and speed, the class Js were among the most reliable engines, running as many as 15,000 miles (24,000 km) per month, even on the mountainous and relatively short route of the N&W. There is one notable accident in the J class's service history, when on January 23, 1956, No. 611 derailed along the Tug River near Cedar, West Virginia while pulling the The Pocahontas. It was determined that the engineer ran the engine at an excessive speed around a curve and its high center of gravity caused it to flip on its side. Number 611 was repaired and restored to passenger service within a year.
In the late 1950s, N&W began purchasing first generation diesel locomotives, experimenting with fuel and maintenance cost. They leased several sets of EMD E6s, E7s, E8s from the Atlantic Coast Line and Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroads. The diesels proved to be cheaper in maintenance and fuel cost, but several were required to equal the power of a steam locomotive. In 1958 and 1959, the railroad ran several Farewell To Steam excursions, with 611 pulling the last one in October 1959. While many of the locomotives went to the scrap lines, 611 was preserved. This was in part due to its superb condition after its 1956 derailment and subsequent repair, and also in part to the efforts of photographer O. Winston Link, who offered to purchase 611 himself rather than see it scrapped.
Preservation and excursion service
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Due to the efforts of several men, including Link, engine 611 was saved. The locomotive was donated to the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, in 1960, where it sat dormant for two decades.
In the early 1980s, Robert Claytor, president of Norfolk and Western in its last months, had his eye on 611. His brother, W. Graham Claytor, once president of the Southern Railway, was in charge of Southern Railway's Steam Program. This program had been around since 1966 with Southern Railway 2-8-2 4501, sending steaming ambassadors system wide. Robert Claytor envisioned a similar program for the N&W. He made a lease with the museum, and in 1981, 611 was sent to Southern Railway's Norris Yard Steam Shop in Birmingham, Alabama for an overhaul.
In 1982, 611 emerged under steam, with the only change being a dual beam headlight instead of the single bulb lamp it carried in the fifties, and effectively wound up replacing another locomotive, Southern 2716, which had its excursion career ended during the restoration of 611 due to firebox problems. Norfolk and Western and Southern Railway had by this time merged into Norfolk Southern; this now doubled the amount of track available for 611 to tour. 611's first trip was a ferry move up the Southern into Lynchburg, Virginia, and then over N&W home rails to Roanoke for a ceremony. In 1984, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers named 611 a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark and it has since been added to the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record. Between 1982 and 1993, 611 would make appearances at several of the National Railway Historical Society conventions, and even double-heading with locomotives such as the restored Nickel Plate Road's 587 and 765 locomotives, and Frisco 1522.
On Sunday, May 18, 1986, 611 was at the head of an Norfolk Southern employee appreciation train from Norfolk, Virginia, with Robert Claytor at the throttle. One of the passenger cars failed to negotiat a switch on the main line through the Great Dismal Swamp, causing it and 12 other cars of the 23 car train to derail. Many of the nearly 1000 employees and their family members were injured; some of the more seriously injured had to be airlifted to hospitals in nearby Norfolk for treatment.
The derailment prevented the use of the main line for freight traffic for some time. This derailment brought a wave of change to the program, including the retirement of many of the older passenger cars. Despite rumors, the program continued, welcoming another locomotive, former Norfolk & Western 1218, a simple articulated 2-6-6-4. The two continued to pull the systems' trains, with 611 even participating in a triple-header with N&W 1218 and Southern Railway 4501, until 1994. In September of that year there was a switching accident in Lynchburg, VA, involving the passenger cars of an excursion consist that 611 was to pull the next day. This damaged several cars, causing a shortage and the consequent need for more cars. A month later, NS executives terminated the steam program due to rising insurance costs, increasing cost of maintenance, and low spare system capacity. The last steam excursion was on December 3 from Birmingham, Alabama to Chattanooga, Tennessee and back, pulled by 611. The next day 611 set off on a three-day trek home to Roanoke. 611's last official day of being under steam was December 7, 1994. Between Salisbury, North Carolina and Roanoke, 611 displayed black flags on the run. That evening, upon arrival at Shaffer's Crossing in Roanoke, its fire was dumped for the last time in the 20th century.
Post excursion service
In 1995, 611 was put back in the museum, now known as the Virginia Museum of Transportation, under a new train shed. In 2003, a major renovation of the railyard brought a bigger train shed (The Robert B. Claytor and W. Graham Claytor Jr. Pavilion), and 611 was joined by twice former stable-mate, 1218. Both locomotives sat at the museum until May 24, 2014, when the 611 was towed to the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, NC, for restoration.
As one of the last, most prominent, and most distinctive locomotives assembled in Roanoke, No. 611 often serves as a symbol for Roanoke and its railroad history. It is also depicted on the Commonwealth of Virginia's "Railway Heritage" license plate.
On April 2, 2012, The City of Roanoke officially donated both 611 & 1218 to the Virginia Museum of Transportation.
Second restoration and excursions
In 2011, the Norfolk Southern brought back their steam program, under the name 21st Century Steam, leading to speculation among some about a possible restoration of 611. On February 22, 2013, the Virginia Museum of Transportation announced that they were forming a committee to conduct a feasibility study with the goal of returning the 611 to active service. The committee is known as "Fire Up 611."
On June 28th, 2013, the "Fire Up 611" committee announced that 611 would be restored to operating condition in time for Norfolk Southern's 2014 steam excursion season, if $5 million was raised by October 31st, 2013. Number 611 would be restored at the North Carolina Transportation Museum roundhouse in Spencer, NC. The sum of $5 million was sought: $1 million for locomotive restoration, $2 million for a dedicated maintenance shop in Roanoke, and the balance for an endowment and other items. Restoration requirements included repairs of the engine truck, the preparation of a tool car and an auxiliary water tender, application of new safety appliances such as in-cab signals and an event recorder, installation of new flues, boiler work, hydro and fire testing, test runs and inspection and repairs of the tender, running gears and air brakes. However, the hoped-for amount was not reached, and the locomotive remained at the Virginia Museum of Transportation.
On November 22nd, 2013, Norfolk Southern announced that they were donating $1.5 million of the proceeds from an auction of a Mark Rothko painting to the Fire Up 611! campaign. In February of 2014, several key appointments were made by the Fire Up 611 committee to the locomotive's mechanical team. The following month, a formal agreement was made with the North Carolina Transportation Museum for restoration. On April 1st, 2014, it was announced that after raising $2.3 million, the locomotive would move to North Carolina on May 24th, 2014. 611 arrived in Spencer on May 25th and took part in the Streamliners at Spencer event the following weekend. Restoration work on the 611 began on June 2nd, 2014. Restoration was done with the help of volunteers, including several from the Age of Steam Roundhouse. Due to the generally good condition of the locomotive, restoration was complete within a year.
On March 31st, 2015, 611 was fired up for the first time in over 20 years for a test fire, and on May 9th, it ran under its own power as part of the first round of post-restoration testing On May 21, 2015, 611 made a brief test run from Spencer to Greensboro, N.C., pulling the "Powhatan Arrow" passenger cars. On May 30, 2015, 611 pulled its first excursion from Spencer, North Carolina to Roanoke, Virginia.
The locomotive was scheduled to run several excursions during the summer of 2015.
The first set of these excursions (3 trips) operated by the Virginia Museum of Transportation, Fire Up 611, and in coordination with Norfolk Southern, was hosted on the former Southern Railway B-Line (East/West) from Manassas, Virginia B0.0 to Riverton Junction B50.9 (Front Royal, Virginia) on June 6th and 7th, 2015. This included a climb up the Linden grade, a grade over 1% for more than 3 miles in either direction.
The second set of excursion (2 trips) were scheduled for June 13th and 14th, 2015 from Lynchburg, Virginia to Petersburg, Virginia. This is a 260 mile round-trip on the former Norfolk & Western main line historically served by the Class J locomotive.
The third set of excursions and last announced for 2015 were scheduled for July 3rd through 5th. This event included 3 morning trips from Roanoke, Virginia to Lynchburg, Virginia over the historic Norfolk and Western Blue Ridge grade. Also offered were 3 afternoon trips from Roanoke, Virginia to Radford, Virginia which will traverse both the Montgomery tunnel and the Christiansburg grade. Both follow former Norfolk and Western mainlines that were historically served by the Class J locomotives.
As of July 6th, the 611 was put back on display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation along with its cousins 1218 and 2156, as there were no further scheduled excursions that summer. Starting in January 2016, the 611 will have its wheels and axles replaced at the Norfolk Southern Shaffers Crossing Locomotive Shop based in Roanoke. It is expected to return to steam in April of that year.
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N&W #611 underway on a fan excursion near Valdosta, Georgia, April 6, 1992
On 23 May 2015, #611 sits on the turntable at the North Carolina Transportation Museum, between back-and-forth runs around the facility.
- Llanso, Steve. "Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 "Northern" Type Locomotives". Steamlocomotive.com.
- "Derailment of Steam Excursion Train Norfolk and Western Railway Company Train Extra 611". NTSB.gov. National Transportation Safety Board. May 18, 1986.
- "History of the Class J 611". Fire Up 611. Retrieved 23 May 2015.
- Claytor, Preston. "Fire Up 611". Retrieved 28 February 2013.
- Norfolk & Western Class J No. 611 will steam again – if the money is there" June 28th, 2013, retrieved June 28th, 2013.
- "Norfolk Southern supports restoration of historic locomotive through sale of Rothko painting," Nov. 22nd, 2013, retrieved November 22nd, 2013 http://www.nscorp.com/content/nscorp/en/news/norfolk-southernsupportsrestorationofhistoriclocomotivethroughsa.html
- "Steam Locomotive - Norfolk and Western Class J #611." Virginia Museum Of Transportation Steam Locomotive Class J 611. Web. 2 June 2015.
- Allen, Mike "Historic engine 611 to get its old steam back" The Roanoke Times, April 1st, 2014, retrieved April 1st 2014 http://www.roanoke.com/arts_and_entertainment/historic-engine-to-get-its-old-steam-back/article_69f8e278-b93a-11e3-b156-001a4bcf6878.html
- ASME National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark #94 - N&W #611
- 611's Historic American Engineering Record Page
- N&W Class J 611 - Virginia Museum of Transportation