Sunday, May 24, 2015

In training

For more than 30 years, I thought I had the best job in the world.

I mean, I was a sports writer, for crying out loud. I got to go to games. I got to meet famous athletes. I got to write about them. And I got paid for it. What could be better than that?

Driving a vintage train locomotive, perhaps?

"Do you have the best job in the world?" I asked the friendly man sitting at the controls of the gigantic Spirit of Roanoke, the absolutely beautiful art deco-ish Class J No. 611 Norfolk and Western Railway steam engine that just completed a year of restoration — its second such career overhaul — at the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer.

I (center) am dwarfed by the magnificent elegance of Class J No. 611
"Yes," replied engineer Sandy Alexander without a second wasted in thought. "This is a great job."

No doubt. The No. 611 is one of only 14 Class J engines ever built by the Roanoke Shops, and is now the only surviving locomotive of its kind in the world. In the world, mind you.

And it's in Spencer.

But not for long.

On Saturday, May 30, the engine returns to the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, VA, under its own power. That means something like the equivalent power of 5,100 horses will race through Lexington sometime between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.

Turns out Sandy Alexander really does have the best job in the world.
The bullet-nosed 611 with the Tuscan stripe is 65 years old, just a year older than I am. (My claim to fame here is that I have yet to need one restoration, much less two). If you notice, I keep mentioning that the 611 is a "steam" engine, which might seem a bit odd given that the first generation of the more economical diesel engines were coming into vogue by 1950, when the 611 was built for $251,544. (The current restoration, by way of contrast — and inflation— cost somewhere between $750,000 and $1 million, much of it through donations).

But much of the trackage of the N&W ran through the Appalachian coal country of West Virginia, something that required both the incredible power and the anthracite patronage of the Class J vehicle. The N&W actually built two more Class J engines before going diesel in the late 1950s.

The Class J series is said by those who should know to be the most reliable and precisely engineered of steam locomotives. There must be something to be said for a 65-year-old locomotive that might still be the state of the art in steam rail travel. Back in its day, one of the Class J engines hauled 15 cars at 110 miles per hour on a test run on a straightaway in Pennsylvania.

What? You mean we had high-speed rail in the 1950s?

But by any measure, the Class J is a strikingly beautiful piece of machinery that somehow manages to exude subtle art, unbridled manifest destiny and wistful nostalgia all at once.

Yeah. Train engineer is the best job in the world.

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