Norfolk & Western Class J No. 611 will steam again – if the money is there

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NW 611 Last run 12694 Kings Mountain
No. 611's last run at Kings Mountain, N.C., in 1994.
Steve Glischinski
ROANOKE, Va. – Famed Norfolk & Western Class J No. 611, one of the most famous 4-8-4s in American railroad history, will steam again — if a $3.5 million fund raising campaign is successful. The Virginia Museum of Transportation announced today its intention to return the iconic Roanoke-built locomotive to excursion service.

“We are pleased to say that we can Fire Up 611! But the time is now and it will take 611 fans around the world to stoke her fire,” says Beverly T. Fitzpatrick, Jr., executive director of the Virginia Museum of Transportation. “Today we are kicking off the official capital campaign.”

The Fire Up 611! Committee determined that $3.5 million would be needed to return the locomotive to service. The costs include a complete mechanical restoration of the locomotive, a shop maintenance facility and support to develop the excursion program.

Ultimately, the goal is to raise $5 million so that No. 611 has an endowment to keep it running for years. “The Virginia Museum of Transportation does not have the resources to fund this project alone,” Fitzpatrick says. “We are asking her fans across the globe who want to see her run again to be a part of this important capital campaign. Her appeal extends to people everywhere who value heritage, craftsmanship and the thrill of bringing an American icon to life.”

The inspection and restoration would take place at the North Carolina Transportation Museum roundhouse at Spencer, N.C., pending the conclusion of a formal agreement with North Carolina Transportation Museum Foundation. Work would be done by a combination of paid contractors and experienced volunteer labor. “We are lucky that the guys who did this work in the 1980s and 1990s were in their 20s and 30s then,” Preston Claytor, chairman of the Fire Up 611! Committee tells Trains News Wire. “While they are older, we can still use these guys.”

Claytor says the goal is to have enough money to see the project through before rebuilding work begins. “We have to feel we can make it go without negatively impacting the rest of museum operations,” Claytor says, “because museum operations simply can’t bankroll the locomotive.”

The Virginia Museum of Transportation must reach its fundraising goal by Oct. 31, 2013 for the locomotive to join NS’s 21st Century steam program in 2014. “If her supporters bring No. 611 back to life, NS will be eager and excited for this incredible part of rail history to join the 21st Century Steam Program,” says Norfolk Southern spokesman Frank Brown. “The return of 611 would represent a great opportunity to celebrate our heritage while educating a new generation about the critical role railroads play in today’s economy.” Currently the 21st Century Steam Program includes Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum’s Southern Railway 2-8-0 No. 630, and the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Railroad Historical Society’s Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 No. 765.

Claytor says the committee feels that having the locomotive running next year is a realistic goal. “We feel very confident, especially with the work that was done in the late 80s and early 90s, about what we will have to do and what we won’t have to do, says Claytor. We are the real beneficiaries of the work that was done in the 1980s and 1990s. Realistically it needs some engine truck work, and it needs the form 4 (federally mandated inspection), and of course all the other things that must be done after this much time has passed, such as air brake work. But with the right amount of volunteers and labor and some good luck, six months is very realistic,” he says.

As far as mechanical condition, Claytor says one area that would need attention is the wheels. “The wheels are approaching the end of their useful life to where they would not be FRA compliant,” Claytor says. Replacing the wheels was work that was planned over the winter of 1994-95 that was never conducted with the end of the original NS steam program. “One of the main mechanical focuses will be to put new wheels on the locomotive,” he says. At the same time all the wheel bearings will be inspected. All N&W J class locomotives were roller bearing equipped.

The new shop would be built on the museum grounds in Roanoke, but it could be a year to 18 months before it is constructed. It will include one track with a drop pit, while another will be just rails and concrete. The building will be designed to handle other purposes such as special events, where tables and displays could be set up as needed.

When the locomotive isn’t undergoing maintenance, it will not remain in the shop but be put on display at the museum, although it may swap display positions from its current location so the J is more prominent, Claytor says. “We would prefer to keep it closer to the main displays as opposed to people having to go over to the shop to see it, where they can get up close and touch it as opposed to just looking at it through glass,” he says.

One nod to the 21st Century will be the return of a twin seal beam headlight the engine had when it was returned to operation in 1982. Claytor says the original single bulb headlight the engine was built with is too dim to allow crews to see adequately during night operations.

N&W built No. 611 in its Roanoke shops in 1950, and the engine was in regular service until its retirement in 1959. It was placed on display in Wasena Park in 1962 and withdrawn in 1981 for overhaul and mainline excursion work for Norfolk Southern from 1982 to the conclusion of its steam excursions in December 1994. NS announced its return to a limited excursion program in 2010 and trips began in 2011.

No. 611’s fans are invited to visit to learn more and to donate to the Fire Up 611 Capital Campaign. They can also visit the Fire Up 611 Facebook page, YouTube, and Twitter feed (#fireup611).
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