N&W #611 operated on the Norfolk Southern Mainline this past weekend. These were public excursions hosted by the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer NC (prior home of the Southern Railway Spencer Shops Complex.) On Saturday April 9th, The train departed Spencer NC for Lynchburg Virginia. On Sunday April 10th, the train departed Spencer NC for Asheville NC. Both routes traveled on the Norfolk Southern Mainline. (Note - Norfolk Southern is a busy Class I, mainline railroad, so allowing a steam powered passenger train to operate is a rare treat).
As much as I like to ride behind steam, I enjoy chasing as well. The tickets for Sundays train sold out extremely fast, so I decided to chase and photograph this weekend. The #1 goal for the weekend was to see and hear #611 climb the "Asheville Loops" near Old Fort NC on Sunday. Everything else would be a bonus. I set out Saturday morning, and headed to North Carolina. The official "FireUP611" Twitter kept me up to date on the trains schedule. I figured I would catch the train in Greensboro NC, and chase it back to Spencer, but since it was operating late, I drove north a bit. I probably could have caught it between Reidsville and Danville, but I wasn't sure of it's location and I didn't want to miss it so I found a nice spot in Reidsville NC and waited. Several families from the town were waiting as well. Waited about 45 minutes or so...but when she came she really put on a show. The photo at the top of this page is one that I captured in Reidsville. The sunset turned the steam red. After she passed through the town, one of the men who came out to see the train in the town turned to me and said "That was epic." I agree!
Well now the chase was on... I managed to just catch her at a crossing a few miles south, but she was moving at a good speed, and I wasn't able to catch up to her for a while after that. I was hoping to see her in Greensboro, as the tracks snake through the city past the historic Southern Depot (now used by Amtrak, a lovely station to visit). But it wasn't meant to be, I missed her. Hopped on the interstate with hopes to catch her in High Point NC (another beautiful train station), and again missed her. By now it was dark, but I wasn't going to give up yet... Thomasville was next. Somewhere between High Point and Thomasville the excursion train had to stop to wait for a freight, that gave me the time I needed to get a good spot in downtown Thomasville NC. In Thomasville, the tracks go right through the middle of a vintage downtown. Seeing #611 steam through the downtown, her whistle echoing off the old buildings was a really neat experience. I'm not a clever enough photographer to be able to capture a moment like that... but the experience was really neat. I took some video on my phone, and while it hardly captures the moment, you can at least hear the 611 whistling and see her pass by in the night.
After Thomasville I decided to drive past Spencer, just to see if the train had arrived... on the way, a group of train fans had set up some camera lighting near a bridge, right next to the road. It was clear they were still waiting for the train, so I hopped out and joined them. (Don't be shy... Train fans know you want to see the train too. Just don't get in the way of their shot, and be mindful they may be taking video and audio of the train as it passes). This was one of the neatest moments of the chase. We were stopped on a side road near the tracks, it was a clear night, the stars were out, and it was very quiet. Here comes #611, her centered headlight shining toward us, with the ever louder "chug-a-chug!" thundering towards us. It was like a scene from a cartoon when all you can see is the headlight, and all you can hear is the steam engine exhaust, and it keeps getting closer, and louder. I'm sure the pro photographers got a great shot... I didn't even try. I just enjoyed the moment.
By now it was getting late, so I passed the Spencer Shops to see if the train had pulled in yet, then checked the Salisbury NC Amtrak depot (trains typically turn on a wye near the depot, and then back in to the yard at Spencer.) I didn't see the train, and I knew I needed some sleep so I headed out of town to Statesville NC.
The 611 was scheduled to depart Spencer at 7 AM the next morning. I also knew hotels in and around Spencer would be sold out, or extremely high priced. So I decided to stay about 20 miles out, in Statesville NC. Statesville was on the NS line towards Asheville. I found a Sleep Inn for $75 a night, which was a great deal. The walls were a little thin, but the room was clean, the bed was comfortable, and the TV had a great selection of channels.
Works for me!
Getting in late, I decided to take my chances and plan on departing the hotel by 8 AM. Sure that's an hour after the scheduled train departure and I was only 20 miles out of Spencer... But I knew the train would likely get delayed coming out of Salisbury, and if it didn't, I could jump on the Interstate and catch up with it. Did this plan work out? Or fail miserably.... you'll just have to read... PART 2!!! (Cue dramatic Music!!!)