On May 31, thousands of people flocked to Western Virginia railroad tracks to watch the historic Norfolk and Western J Class 611 steam engine chug and puff into Roanoke in a display of pageantry and hometown pride unrivaled in recent memory. Rail fans spent thousands of dollars on tickets to ride behind the restored locomotive.
The Virginia Museum of Transportation spent more than $1 million to reactivate the engine and make this singular event happen. However, the details of a possible repeat performance are, for the moment, as murky as coal smoke.
“We are excited about the prospects, but we have not heard from Norfolk Southern about any kind of schedule,” said museum Executive Director Bev Fitzpatrick.
The 611 left the museum in May 2014 for a restoration in Spencer, North Carolina, after sitting dormant for 20 years. The goal was to have the engine running in time to join Norfolk Southern’s 21st Century Steam excursion program, which offered rides on classic steam trains.
The Fire Up 611! fundraising project met its deadlines. The museum estimates that 10,000 people came out to greet the 611 when it returned to Roanoke, and 80,000 more lined the tracks as it traveled home from Spencer. About 10,000 rail fans paid to ride the 611-pulled trains in June and July, and 200,000 more people came out to see the engine make its rounds. Transportation museum officials assert that the 65-year-old engine drew enough spectators and passengers from in and out of state to spur about $1.5 million in tourism dollars spent in Roanoke and between $4.5 million to $7 million statewide.
The venture was without question a success. “The year the museum had was the best in 53 years,” Fitzpatrick said.
Yet there have been some wrenches tossed into the works that have to be removed before repeat performances are possible.
For one thing, the 21st Century Steam program is over. Begun in 2011, the program was conceived with a five-year life span, Norfolk Southern public relations director Susan Terpay wrote in an email. “We’ve fulfilled the program’s goals, and we are scaling back now.”
The railroad giant will not operate any 21st Century Steam excursions for the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum or the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Railroad Historical Society in 2016. Both organizations were running excursions in the program before the Virginia museum joined.
“We have advised our third partner, the Virginia Museum of Transportation, that we will work with them, if they can meet financial and operational requirements, so that they can run 611 in Virginia and the Carolinas in 2016,” Terpay wrote.
Charles “Wick” Moorman, the Norfolk Southern board chairman and CEO who pushed for the 21st Century Steam program — and the 611’s inclusion in it — has retired from both positions. The discontinuation of the program is not tied to Moorman’s retirement, Terpay wrote.
No schedule exists yet for any 2016 excursions. “We’ve had ongoing discussions with Norfolk Southern and we hope to have something to announce after the first of the year,” Fitzpatrick said.
What’s certain is that the 611 is getting a new set of four front wheels, a need identified while the engine was being renovated. Fitzpatrick said the museum has budgeted up to $200,000 for that upgrade, which is under way.
There’s also more fundraising to do. The museum wants to build a climate-controlled maintenance facility and shelter to house the three historical steam engines on display there now: the 611, the Norfolk & Western Class A 1218 and the Norfolk & Western Class Y6a 2156. (The last is on loan from the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis for five years.)
“We have 1 million in the bank ready to go,” Fitzpatrick said. The museum aims to raise an additional $1.5 million to add a third bay to the building. “We’re trying to make sure this is done in a first-class way.”
Construction can’t begin, though, until Amtrak solidifies plans for the facilities it will need to bring passenger rail to Roanoke. The original proposal to have Amtrak trains picking up passengers in Roanoke in spring 2017 has run into a snag over the design of the boarding platform. Federal authorities have recommended a 4-foot-high raised platform to allow level boarding in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, while the project team in Roanoke prefers a low platform with lifts for wheelchairs. Project officials said a level boarding platform isn’t compatible with tracks that are also used for freight cars. A design team is now revisiting the higher platform and the two concepts will be compared in the new year.
The 611 could not be used with a standard raised platform, Fitzpatrick said. “If you build a normal high level platform, the 611 could not serve it because of width.”
Bethany Wolfe, manager of policy communications and administration with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transport, said that the ongoing study of the proposed platform includes an analysis of whether or not it can be constructed to accommodate the 611.
“No matter what they do, our hope is that the 611 will be able to use that platform,” Fitzpatrick said.