The Powhatan Arrow 5-27-17: N&W 611 Excursions out of Roanoke

N&W 611 charges upgrade alongside Norfolk Southern train 29G.

N&W 611 charges upgrade alongside Norfolk Southern train 29G.

May 27th was another red-letter railfanning day for me. In 2015 and 2016, the group that operates N&W 611 had brought the magnificent J class up to Manassas, VA (near my home) to operate excursions on the B-Line to Front Royal, VA, and back. However, for unknown reasons, this excursion route was excluded from the 2017 season. So, I packed my bags and happily drove the 3 hours to Roanoke, VA, to see the engine in the habitat it was built for!

Saturday would be spent chasing the engine for the full day, and I had purchased a ticket to ride on Sunday morning, followed by more chasing in the afternoon, until I had to head home for work on Monday. For the Saturday morning trip, I caught the train at four locations; Webster, Lowry (in both directions), in between Thaxton and Montvale, and Bonsack. Webster was crowded with people, which made for good conversation while waiting for the train toarrive. Then it was a far race ahead of the train to secure a spot directly over the tracks on the road bridge at Lowry. After the eastbound run passed underneath, I opted to stay and photograph the train from a different angle, and managed to get some practice as NS train 22A rolled through ahead of the excursion. I don't normally run as soon as the engine passes, but in this case, I was anxious to get west of Thaxton to photograph the engine on a banked curve there. I arrived seconds before the crossing activated, snapped my shot, and then ran back to my truck to again race ahead of the train to Bonsack, where I wanted to redeem the reverse curve video shot I bungled last year when my tripod broke. Thankfully the excursion hit a slow order on the way up the grade, so I ended up with plenty of time to wait, but of course, hindsight is 20/20!

Rather than fight with the traffic in and out of downtown Roanoke, I instead opted to head back to the hotel for a short while, then I hit up a local Chik Fil A for lunch. My first choice of spot for the afternoon trip was more overgrown with vegetation than Google Earth had suggested, so instead I opted for a long straightaway where we could see the train coming from miles away.

Next stop was quite a ways away at the Montgomery tunnels, and I had this silly idea that if I got there early, I could beat the crowd. BOY was I wrong! There had to have been at least 150 people there, and one of the locals got so angry she walked in front of peoples cameras when the train came. She also remarked that she would block off the gravel area in front of her house, claiming it was her driveway (although in reality, much more of it was railroad property than she might like to think) and forbid people from photographing the train at that spot. Several railfans kindly informed her that an entirely different crowd would be back three more times over the course of the weekend, and then we all beat a hasty retreat. I made my way to the Ryan Road grade crossing, one of my favorite locations I caught the train at last year, and waited over an hour for the return trip to arrive. I then improvised, trying out a bridge shot I had seen from US 460 on my way west, and then one more grade crossing to top off the day.

I awoke with great excitement on May 28th, which quickly gave way to considerable panic. I had a ticket to ride The Powhatan Arrow behind N&W 611, a lifelong dream come true, but when I went to my truck to drive downtown, I found myself with a completely flat rear tire! Thankfully, UBER came to my rescue, and I arrived at the O Winston Link Museum (formerly the N&W passenger station of Roanoke) with about half an hour to spare. I had splurged for a dome class ticket, and found an empty seat across from a kind man from Canada, who was a railway engineer himself! We were quickly joined by a woman and her nephew (I think) and one couldn't ask for better seatmates. Our car hosts brought breakfast snacks and drinks for us, and gave a briefing about safety and the excursion equipment, and then we were off!

Our excursion took us past the Virginia Museum of Transportation, offering an angle on the equipment displays that one doesn't get by walking around the museum grounds. We then charged up the Blue Ridge grade, with an excellent view of the scenery and the engine from our dome car. "Summit View" was originally built for the Santa Fe, and went through several private owners, including Auto Train, before landing in the hands of Iowa Pacific, who have done a beautiful job restoring the car. I was surprised to find electrical outlets available at our table, and kicked myself for not bringing a charging cable for my phone, which was almost completely dead.

The excursion went by with only one hitch: our engineer seatmate, who was facing forward, observed an automatic signal dropping to red just before 611 passed it, which prompted an emergency brake application from the crew. Backing up to clear the block resolved the issue, and we continued on our way back to Roanoke. After we had turned in Lynchburg, I wandered several car lengths down to Warriors Rest, a commissary car that was being used as a mobile gift shop for 611 swag. I purchased a poster and some candy, then made my way back to my Dome Class seat, noting that many of the coach seats were empty. The 611 group had changed the Monday morning excursion to a Radford trip, same as the afternoon runs, and it was easy to see why, as not many coach tickets had been sold.

Of course, part of the excursion experience was spotting railfans along the way (we of course did our duty and waved back), and we saw many photo lines and vehicle chasers, including a gorgeous pink Cadillac we saw several times. The four hour excursion simply flew by, but the experience was worth every penny. After getting off the train, I joined the throngs of people walking down to view the engine that had just pulled our trip, and not only managed some clear photographs of the J, but several shots of our outstanding rolling stock.

After my long-awaited excursion trip in the morning, I snapped back to reality for the afternoon, and called AAA to add some air back to my tire. They arrived quickly, and I managed to arrive at my first photo spot of the afternoon with time to spare. I was greeted by NS Train 29G, and thankfully I kept my camera rolling for the whole train, as 611 came charging around the curve alongside the rear half of the train! The two trains continued to play leapfrog up the mountain, and given my damaged vehicle, I opted not to chase all the way to Radford as initially planned, but instead sit and wait at a road crossing west of Shawsville, and waited for the return trip. Sure enough, I could hear air hissing out of the tire, which solidified my decision to stay put. Train 50V rolled by, nothing but empty covered hoppers destined for another load of grain out west, and then something peculiar; Hotshot train 201 came VERRRYYY slowly around the corner, and then stopped east of the crossing, shutting of its lights. A bit of investigation on Facebook train groups told me that all rail traffic had been halted around the excursion for safety. Not long after, the steam train returned and gave 201 a hearty wave as they passed. I did my best to get a shot of the train coming into view, then raced backed to my camcorder to pan-shot the engine as it passed. Of course, you can't beat the train, and my failure to pan smoothly is evident.  I then leapfrogged the special one more time, opting to try and get the whole train in shot one more time at the Elliston straightaway. I didn't quite get the whole train in the image, but if I might be so bold as to quote O Winston Link "Oh, what a picture I got!"

I ended up spending the night in Roanoke, as my rear tires both needed complete replacing, and I arrived at the shop too late to have the work done. I had hoped to catch the engine a couple more times in the morning, but I wasn't quite so lucky. Once my tires were replaced, I decided it was indeed time to head home, even though there was one more afternoon excursion to chase. I had captured all the angles I wanted, I had a great time, and most importantly, I finally got a chance to ride behind Norfolk & Western #611 on the famed "Powhatan Arrow!"

As always, please enjoy the pictures above and the video below, thanks for reading!