Perhaps most impressive the N&W's J Class with the precision with
which they were built. The locomotives had been engineered so well with
their counterbalancing nearly perfect that they could easily reach
speeds of 90 mph on the N&W's rugged main line. However, after
World War II N&W #610 performed and even more impressive feat. When
tested on the Pennsylvania Railroad's Fort Wayne Division, the
railroad's flat and straight main line through Indiana, the locomotive
reached speeds over 110 mph! Unfortunately, Norfolk and Western 611 and her sister Js had a relatively short operating life carrying the railroad's most prestigious trains like the Powhatan Arrow, Pocahontas, and Cavalier.
By the 1950s the N&W was testing diesel locomotives and even with
all of the efficiencies that railroad was able to achieve with steam,
operating diesels was still more efficient even though it did require
more of them to pull a train. By the late 1950s most of the N&W's
steam fleet had been retired.
If it was not for the efforts of preservationists and Mr. O. Winston Link, all of the N&W's Js would likely have been scrapped. As a gesture of goodwill Norfolk and Western 611 was donated to the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke in 1960. Here, this machine of precision engineering sat for more than 20 years on static display until the N&W contemplated a steam program in the early 1980s, just prior to its merger into Norfolk Southern. Then president Robert Claytor, brother to the Southern's former president W. Graham Claytor, gave the go ahead to lease N&W 611 from the museum in 1981 for a complete overhaul.
Work was completed at the Southern's Norris Yard Steam Shop in Birmingham, Alabama and N&W 611 was again under steam in 1982, the same year N&W and Southern disappeared into Norfolk Southern. The 4-8-4 was used much in the same manner as Union Pacific's #844 and #3985 as part of that railroad's steam program, for promotional events and in general excursion service. In 1987 Norfolk and Western 611 was joined by sister #1218, a 2-6-6-4 articulated locomotive that was built in 1943 by the N&W (as part of its Class A steamers) for use in regular freight service.
With now two large steam locomotives in its program the Norfolk Southern was a celebrity in the railfan community and a fascination to the general public when the steamers appeared in operation on excursions or fan trips. However, the NS steam program was sadly short-lived. Norfolk and Western 611 had the unfortunate luck of having cars in its train derail twice, once in the spring of 1986 and again in the fall of 1994. No one was killed in either accident but with rising insurance costs NS management decided to end the program shortly thereafter.
Interestingly, sister #1218 was having overhaul work performed when the decision was made, so she was literally thrown back together and returned to Roanoke to be put on display with the #611, where today both remain. Incredibly, however, Norfolk Southern again decided to restart its steam program in the summer of 2010 (which lasted through 2015) using locomotives (leased) from the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (two Southern steamers, a 2-8-2 and 2-8-0 along with a former Army 2-8-0). After this announcement many long wondered if either #1218 or #611 would be a part of this new program. The idea of operating #1218 is unlikely, at best, due to its current condition and being partially gutted inside, missing many components (resulting from the never-completed overhaul).
However, the long-awaited idea of operating #611 came to light on
February 22, 2013 when the Virginia Museum of Transportation announced
that it had created the Fire Up 611 Committee to launch a
feasibility study to look at potentially operating the locomotive once
more. The panel is made up of some
of the best minds from the railroad industry, preservation, and steam
locomotive fields. After three months of study it was determined that the full restoration of #611 would move forward. The museum projects the plan will cost $3.5 million for the locomotive's overhaul and construction of a permanent maintenance shop facility. The hope was to have the necessary funds in place by October 31, 2013 with the full restoration requiring another six months and the locomotive operating by 2014. Funding for the maintenance shop could not be secured in time but the locomotive was brought back under steam in the spring of 2015. To learn more about the current phase of the project please click here to visit the new Fire Up 611 website.
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Norfolk & Western
J Class #611