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According to the Virginia Museum of Transportation, the Class J 611 weighs 494,000 pounds.
Monday, July 8, 2013
Q: With the Amtrak coming to Roanoke, I've read that Roanoke will have to upgrade the culverts underneath the track due to the weight of the engines. Are the Amtrak engines heavier than the old steam engines that traveled over these tracks? It seems like the old steam engines and tenders would have been much heavier than the new engines.
Donald M. Helms, Roanoke
A: First, a disclaimer: By attempting to answer this question, I recognize that I'm treading on dangerous ground. We probably all know a rail fan or two -- people who dedicate their lives to knowing every inch of every model of locomotive that has ever run the rails. To those of you who fall into this category, please go easy on me as I'm sure I'm about to type something that won't be perfectly correct in describing your beloved steam and cinder-belching machines.
Also, while I'm going to answer your question about the weights of old and new trains, in terms of the new construction that's required before Roanoke can host Amtrak trains, the heft of the locomotives isn't the issue.
According to folks at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, the Class J 611 weighs 494,000 pounds. When you add a 387,000-pound fully loaded tender (what the non-locomotive literate among us might call a coal car) the total comes to 881,000 pounds.
Amtrak trains can be pulled by a variety of locomotives, but the GE Genesis P42DC is a diesel that's commonly used on the Northeast Regional between D.C. and Lynchburg. It has a weight of about 270,000 pounds, which is, as you surmised, significantly lighter than the behemoth 611, though it would take two of these modern diesels to equal the power of a J Class steam engine.
If the only thing holding back rail service to Roanoke were the weight of the machines, there would seem to be no need at all to put in a new culvert. But it's more complicated than that.
The passenger platform will be downtown, not far from the Campbell Court bus station. Unless there is an additional wayside track for the passenger train, freight traffic will be impeded, something that the folks at Norfolk Southern try to avoid since it costs them money. Adding the extra track will require a longer, stronger culvert, and that's why the federal, state and city governments will pony up an estimated $6.1 million to bring passenger service to the Star City.
On a side note, I'd like to take this chance to plug the transportation museum's "Fire Up 611!" campaign to restore the 611 to service as an excursion train. I had the great privilege of riding its brother, the Class A 1218, on one of its last journeys under steam power before it went off to be serviced, only to have it then be the victim of the end of funding for the steam excursion program once run by the railroad. It was shipped back to Roanoke, a shell of its former self.
I gained a whole new appreciation for the sheer power these behemoths can generate, and I sensed the soul of Roanoke as the powerful machine pulled us along the tracks to Chattanooga. As we traveled I couldn't help but feel the presence of all of the men who crafted these beautiful machines, and a kinship with everyone who'd experienced a similar journey in days gone by.
In my humble opinion, the day that J 611 steams away from the new passenger platform downtown will be a banner day for the city.
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