Ticket to ride? Taking stock of Norfolk Southern's 2016 excursions …
OK, now we know what NS s 2016 excursion schedule for Norfolk & Western Class J No. 611 looks like. Thank you to NS for seeing the value in getting steam out on the main line once more. While compact the window of opportunity is a slim eight weeks from early April to early June the steam schedule is filled with some great classic steam excursion trips behind the biggest steam locomotive in excursion service in North America. There are some exciting changes this year, but first, let s talk about what makes each one of these trips worth riding.
April 9, Spencer-Lynchburg. You can t ride north of Greensboro in daylight so take advantage of this rare opportunity. Amtrak and N.C. Department of Transportation trains zip along the 40-something miles of the former Southern main line but the real trip is north of Greensboro, across through Danville, across White Oak Mountain (think of the folk ballad Wreck of the Old 97 ) and into Lynchburg. It s a nice long-day trip that makes you feel like you ve been somewhere.
April 10, Spencer-Asheville. If you have never taken the trip on the S-line go now. This is the first time on this route behind 611 in 22 years and a rare routing at any time. Between Old Fort and Ridgecrest, the tracks snake and weave their way into the Blue Ridge across cuts and fills, and across bridges and through tunnels. The Southern Railway route takes 13 route miles to cover a straight-line distance of 3-miles. It is like a model railroad come to life. In April, the trees will just be budding. Spoiler alert: N.C. Transportation Museum at Spencer is my home museum (2016 marks 30 years of volunteerism there for me), and I know that No. 611 needs an assist on the 2.2 percent grade between Old Fort and Ridgecrest with 20 cars. She always has required helpers here. The folks back home tell me that if all of the preparations can be made in time to have them ready, you ll see the museum s Southern Railway E8/FP7 combination (Nos. 6900 and 6133, respectively) running as helpers both days. Wouldn t a little green and gold look good behind Tuscan red and gold?
April 23 and 24, Greensboro-Roanoke. This is tentatively schedule to run via Hurt, Va. If so, the opportunity to ride a portion of the former Virginian Railway is the lure here. It s an incredibly scenic ride down the Roanoke River. It s also remote there are few towns and roads so you re pretty much out there, just you, the steam train, and the land.
May 7 and 8, Roanoke-Lynchburg in the morning. Roanoke-Walton in the afternoon. Here you have the hometown locomotive on hometown rails on the two major grades for which it was well known. Classic engine on its traditional and classic routes. Both Blue Ridge and Christiansburg grades are legendary in the annals of railroad history. They re there to put No. 611 to the test on each trip.
June 4 and 5. Manassas to Front Royal, Va., once on Saturday, twice on Sunday. I can t personally vouch for this one, but it is a former Southern Railway secondary line that has been rebuilt into a major freight corridor. Short but with a significant climb in each direction, it s another winner of a trip. Now for news that make the trips worth riding now even more than ever. Trey Davis, vice chairman of the Forward 611 committee, says that changes are coming to the train in 2016. Riders will notice these amenities on the Virginia Museum of Transportation trips out of Greensboro, Roanoke, and Manassas:
First class and dome cars will be placed toward the front of the train this year, providing those in the domes with a better view of the locomotive and scenery.
Heavy hors d’ouvres for first class and dome passengers on all trips, as well as breakfast and lunch on all-day trips.
The addition of chairman’s class, composed of two special cars on the rear of the train, which will feature premium service and unique food offerings.
Separate merchandise and food service cars, as well as seat-side sales of limited products, for convenience.
A complimentary meal will be included for coach passengers on all-day trips.
VMT is working to make opportunities on each trip for guests to get photographs of and with the locomotive.
So there are plenty of reasons to ride an NS trip this year. Remember the trips are unique so go and ride them while you can. And if you re chasing, think about buying a ticket or making a donation to make sure there is a 2017 season. See you trackside, or better yet, on board!