Sunday the 5th started out with the same mess of me being unable to get out of bed, and once I did, I felt a somber tone over the whole day. Todays two excursions would be 611's last for 2016, and there is lots of murmuring and speculation on whether 611 will run again in 2017. The importance of documenting todays trip (and simply being a part of the experience at all!) weighed heavily on me. So much so that when I arrived at Broad Run for my first shot, framing the passing train next to the ruins of the old mill, I realized I had left my phone at home. An hour of foul language and harried driving later, I pulled into the parking lot at Manassas just in time to catch the rear of the train backing down Main 1 (after pulling forward of the Moore interlocking on Main 2 and crossing over), which had been slightly delayed due to a medical emergency on the Amtrak Northeast Regional that used the station platform before the excursion. Some folks were a bit puzzled that I was taking video of the boarding of the train, but in my mind, every bit of the trip needed documentation.
I headed out to Gainesville and captured the train rolling through classic under-construction suburban Virginia, caught it at Marshall with less than a minute to spare, and then got a nice long-shot of the whole train coming into Front Royal alongside Happy Creek Road, where my friend Paul and I paced the train last year (click here for that video). Chatting with some fellow railfans at this spot, we were alerted to a MASSIVE thunderstorm system, the bottom of which would graze over Front Royal. This is the moment when 611 would shine the brightest.
Once the tracks cross over Happy Creek Road leaving Front Royal, they begin a few miles of grade up to the crest of Linden Hill. Last year, we paced 611 at full speed to the grade crossing, then zipped ahead just in time to see it go by (no time for camera setup) at the Linden road interchange with I-66. This year, I watched 611 slip her drivers right in front of me on the rain-soaked hill, and it took at least 10 minutes for the 22-car excursion consist to get from that grade crossing to where I was planted with camera at Linden. A fellow railfan I met at Delaplane had told me about the footbridge over the crest of Linden Hill, and I'll never stop kicking myself for ignoring his advice. By the time 611 reached the top of the grade, the train had slowed to a crawl. All the safety valves were popping, and the big engine was practically on hands and knees, ever so slowly marching up the hill. The talent of the engineer on this run is unbelievable, and even though I didn't get a video there myself, I highly recommend searching "611 Linden Hill" on YouTube, as this is a performance not to be missed. If this was 611's last public run for a time, she sure put on one hell of a show to remember!
Following behind the Trains Magazine jeep, I got back on I-66 and returned to Delaplane to get another zoom shot through the S curve. The train had easily picked up all its speed after the hill, and roared through to the delight of nearly a hundred onlookers. At Manassas, I found that the mesh fence on the bridge over the tracks was too tight for my video camera, so I placed that off to the side while I took a straight-on still shot of 611, which ended up being one of the best pictures I have ever taken:
I disobeyed a variety of traffic laws to get myself behind the same industrial building as Wednesday in time for 611 to reverse down to the depot. Once the engine was parked, I moved down to the South end of the yard at Manassas to wait for the train to pull in, park, and reload the tender. It was at this time that the storm system reached our location, and myself and a few other railfans did our best to avoid getting drenched as we waited for the J. Of course, just as the train came into view (and the Crescent passed) some families with children showed up. The parents were especially unattentive, as their kids were climbing around on the train tracks (nevermind in front of our cameras!) and it took some stern words from us nerds to get the parents to understand we have been waiting for TWO HOURS in the rain to get our shots; we're gettin 'em, so get your kids outta the way!
611 parked the coaches on one of the yard tracks, then put on a classic show pulling forward of the switch ladder and grade crossing, then reversed down to the house track, where an excavator mounted on the coal gondolas reloaded the tender and a water truck topped off the canteen car. I am told by a reliable source that 611 consumed 10 tons of coal on each trip out to Front Royal and back. Factor in time spent sitting around in between excursions, and boy that tender was empty!
A very late NS 35Q rolled past in the sunset, as though the day hadn't already been filled with excellent railfanning. I picked up a burrito on my way home and had a very satisfying dinner, glad I was able to witness the performance of a true thoroughbred of steam.