ROANOKE, Va. — In its second homecoming for 2023, Norfolk & Western steam locomotive No. 611 tied down for the winter at Roanoke’s Virginia Museum of Transportation by around 11 p.m., on Nov. 7. This comes after a nearly 2-month stay at the Buckingham Branch Railroad as part of the Virginia Scenic Railway’s fall excursions.
The J-class 4-8-4 operated 30 trips of the Shenandoah Valley Limited in addition to a test run, VIP special and “In Cab Experiences,” according to Zac McGinnis, social media coordinator and member of the locomotive engine crew. While a broken flexible staybolt temporarily sidelined the locomotive on Oct. 28 [See “Flexible staybolt repair made on N&W No. 611…” News Wire, Oct. 31, 2023], No. 611’s performance along the short line was both exceptional and a showstopper.
The operations between Goshen and Staunton, Va., set the stage for multiple firsts for the locomotive: The first fall excursions through the home state of Virginia since 1994; the first time that No. 611 operated at speeds, on grades, and through freight/passenger traffic since the final year of Norfolk Southern excursions in 2017; and the first time it operated up to a half-dozen consecutive weekends since the 2015 restoration. The latter contributed to one of the most challenging aspects for both McGinnis and the crew: “Working outside in all types of weather and then traveling to and from the hotel in Staunton (50 mins away) each day.”
Against the backdrop of a demanded schedule and challenges faced, it’s all a worthwhile endeavor with rewarding highlights for McGinnis in the form of “seeing and hearing our passengers making memories, smiles, and posting their fun experiences/stories in person and on social media. Our youngest passenger was 8 weeks old, a couple got engaged in front of the locomotive, we had guests worldwide – United Kingdom, Canada, and Ethiopia, for example — and also the outgoing support from the community.”
A 6:11 p.m. whistle salute on Nov. 5 marked the conclusion of the 2023 Shenandoah Valley Limited. The following day saw the excursion consist switched out as some of the cars were destined for other passenger operations while No. 611 was coaled and serviced for the ferry move to Roanoke, according to McGinnis. The locomotive, along with the auxiliary tender, tool car, N&W coach No. 537, Southern Railway lounge Crescent Harbor, Santa Fe dome No. 501, and Illinois Central observation Ponchartrain Club departed Goshen in the morning of Nov. 7.
“We at VMT couldn’t ask for a better railroad [Buckingham Branch Railroad and Virginia Scenic Railway] to partner with,” McGinnis said. “Their leadership from top to bottom was top notch and every employee took pride in making this the greatest experience possible. We’ve learned a lot [this was basically a build-from-scratch operation] during this excursion season and think we’ve built a great foundation moving forward. We’re hoping this can become an annual event as well as expand on operations and experiences in the future.”