Rail fans have long hoped to see the Virginia Museum of Transportation's historic Norfolk & Western Class J 611 steam engine roll down the tracks again under its own power.
On Friday, the museum announced that it's organizing a study to find out what it will take to get the 611 fully operational.
Called "Fire Up 611!," the study isn't a guarantee that the engine will actually be fired up. The committee will look not just at what repairs and upgrades the 611 might need, but also at what sort of financial strain a restoration would put on the museum's day-to-day operations.
If bringing the beloved streamlined 611 — which was built in the Norfolk and Western Railway's Roanoke shops — back to life turns out to be feasible, the transportation museum will have to put out a call to the international rail community to raise the funds, museum Executive Director Bev Fitzpatrick said. The engine is considered the most modern steam locomotive in existence.
A volunteer team of steam engine enthusiasts has stepped forward to conduct the study. They include Atlanta, Ga., software consultant Cheri George, Birmingham, Ala., historic rail equipment restorer Scott Lindsay and Roanoke rail safety consultant Preston Claytor, all of whom volunteered on the 611's crew during the interval when Norfolk Southern used it for passenger excursions, from 1981 to 1994.
The museum is launching a fundraising campaign to pay for the study's expenses, museum public relations director Peg McGuire said. Should the task of getting the 611 operational prove to be out of the museum's reach, the funds will go into an endowment to pay for the locomotive's upkeep as an exhibit.
The 611 has been housed at the museum since 1962 and was officially the city of Roanoke's property from 1982 — when it was given as a centennial gift by the Norfolk Southern Corp. — until April 2012, when city officials gave the engine to the museum. That move also helped clear the way for the museum to consider a restoration.
"It just all came together at the right time," McGuire said.
Claytor and Lindsay first started talking about what it might take to revive the 611 after a speech given by Norfolk Southern CEO Wick Moorman in September 2011 at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga. He was there to announce the launch of 21st Century Steam, a program that offers train excursions pulled by restored steam locomotives. The 2013 schedule features two excursions from Roanoke on March 16, powered by a Southern Railway 2-8-0 #630 built in 1904.
During his speech, Moorman said Norfolk Southern would consider operating the 611 if the Virginia Museum of Transportation could make it rail-worthy. "Scott and I began a dialogue shortly after," Claytor said.
The biggest obstacle from a mechanical standpoint will likely be the 611's boiler, which no longer meets federal safety code standards, Lindsay said.
If the 611 can be upgraded to exceed federal standards, it would be an ideal candidate for the 21st Century Steam program, Claytor said. "Now is the time to study this formally."
Fitzpatrick, Trains magazine editor Jim Wrinn, National Railway Historical Society Roanoke Chapter President Jeff Sanders, Norfolk & Western Historical Society President Ron Davis, museum board president Ken Lanford, board member Will Harris and History Society of Western Virginia Executive Director Jeanne Bollendorf complete the 10-member team.
The museum's other major steam attraction, the N&W Class A 1218, isn't in as good shape. It was in the middle of being rebuilt when Norfolk Southern decommissioned it, and was instead spruced up so it would make an attractive museum exhibit, Lindsay said.
Most of the 611's mechanical parts, on the other hand, are in good shape. A lot of meticulous work went into preserving all of its parts, George said.
The committee is expected report its findings to the museum in about a month and a half. All of its members seemed excited about the possibility of new generations witnessing it in operation firsthand.
"The locomotive is to the steam community what the New York Yankees are to baseball, or better yet what the Virginia Tech football team is to Virginia Tech," Claytor said.
The 611 "has a lot of fans," George said. "They'd love to see it run."
Friday's announcement ended with the bellow of the 611's whistle, which caused museum volunteer Charles Hardy to jump up and cheer.
Hardy, 63, said his entire family has worked for and been a part of the Norfolk & Western railway system. He pointed to the 611. "That is the greatest engine in the world. It's awesome to think that once again it's going to run again," he said. "This is mom's best apple pie."