After driving down to Roanoke the night before, I could hardly sleep. In spite of the delightful adequacy of our Quality Inn hotel room, I was all too excited for a full day of nothing but chasing Norfolk and Western #611 through the Blue Ridge Mountains, storming up and down the grades the J's were built to conquer. After a quality breakfast session with the waffle machine and bacon tray, my mother and I set out for the first spot of the day. My mom won't be in town when 611 comes up for the June excursions, so this trip to see 611 a month early was part of her Mothers Day present.
At Villamont, I found quite a few other steam enthusiasts (as well as a very friendly dog!) seeking to get one of the 611 money shots. The old N&W Color Position Light signals at Villamont are slated to be removed by 2017, and there were plenty of folks running in at the last minute to capture the excursion train passing between these soon-to-be-gone relics. Unfortunately, so many people showed-up last minute that the railfans next to me began screaming at people to get out of their shot! Why anyone would think they could get a clean shot of 611 at such a potent spot is beyond me, but I ended up having to cut the audio from my video so nobody else has to hear the shrieks of angry nerds.
After Villamont, we made a brief navigational error, which meant we arrived at Forest, VA with barely a minute to spare. 611 blasted through past train 29G, waiting in the siding for the single-track main to be clear. As soon as the Pullmans on the rear had disappeared around the corner, the intermodal train roared to life and snaked past the crowd of railfans with barely an extra honk on the horn. This crowd was much more pleasant, and made for great conversation while waiting for 611 to finish turning on the wye. More misfortune bubbled up, this time in the form of poor focus on mom's DSLR I was borrowing. Only the return shot of the 611 came out well enough to include in the video.
They say that misfortune usually comes in three's, and this was certainly the case for me on this day, although the final insult was relatively minor. We skipped a planned stop at Irving, VA, as I wasn't sure we were far enough ahead of the train to set up the camera in time, and spot #4 got scratched out in favor of the S-curve I noticed on our way to Villamont. I staked out my spot along the tracks and began setting up the tripod, one leg of which promptly broke apart, as the leg-lock mechanisms (which are likely older than me) gave up the ghost. I managed to keep the tripod level through the zoom shot, but afterwards we made our way to the local K-mart in search of duct tape As a stagehand, I certainly felt foolish that I didn't have my usual roll of gaffer tape in my truck, but a lunch of proper Southern food at Chik-Fil-A calmed my nerves.
After lunch, we made our way to spot #5, which presented a couple of challenges. There are two separate right-of-ways heading Southwest from Roanoke, and for a few minutes I was positioned at the wrong one. A passing coal train on the further set of tracks tipped me off to double-checking my work, and a "no public acccess" sign from the local water department seemed like it was going to foil my plans (Google Earth did not specify that this road wasn't accessible!). Thankfully, some other railfans had found a pile of old crossties alongside the tracks, and were more than happy to share their spot, with great conversation too! An empty autorack train passed, and I didn't think to ask the train number until much later. This would also be the only runby of the day without any whistle action!
Driving along Route 460, there was a constant cavalcade of train chasers, all pulling on and off the highway in a great hurry. Realizing that we were further ahead of the train than I had bargained for, I managed to pick out a spot from the highway, and navigated to it in a manner of seconds. I believe I boxed one railfan in, whom I apologize to if he's out there reading this. We could hear 611's stack talk echoing off the rock walls from miles away. That, combined with the old crossing bell, an enthusiastic whistle sequence, a smooth pan/zoom and a friendly wave, made this my favorite video clip of the day!
Moving along, we caught a runby of the train on flatter grounds at Christiansburg, along railroad street. We then moved to the final scheduled stop of the day at Vickers, which was An. Absolute. Madhouse. The old coaling tower still stood tall and proud over the mainline, and the local sheriff was out attempting to police the parking of what must have been at least 100 railfans. More nice people, including someone considerate enough to ask if anyone was shooting video (an enthusiastic "YES!" from several, perhaps as frustrated as myself from earlier experiences with loud geeks) and observed that we should all keep quiet once the train was nearby. Some folks next to me had the poor sense to set up ON the tracks, so they were ESPECIALLY surprised when 611 came around the corner on the near track, rather than the far track it had used for previous excursions. A mad shuffle to get out of the way ensued, and I felt like I was a bit too close for comfort, even though a man next to me was even closer! Somehow, in the mad dash to vehicles, we made it out before the road got severely clogged, and I opted to improvise for one more shot.
A rather unusual crossing signal stands along a private road in Elliston, VA. It includes two lights, which remain lit constantly, until an approaching train trips the crossing circuit and shuts out the light. This is a fail-safe, so that if there's a power outage or other disruption, the crossing will by default display the "danger" indication. Norfolk Southern manifest #15T arrived to demonstrate this unique crossing signal, complete with a Canadian Pacific locomotive and friendly engineer in the lead! My plan was to pan away from the odd signal as 611 passed in front of me. The first couple of railfans attempted to stay out of my camera view, but it soon became apparent that this was another sought-after shot, so I gave in and included them in the clip. This would be my last view of 611 for the day, as the excursion would soon arrive in Roanoke and tie down for the night. Getting in and out of downtown was a tall order, especially with a long day of chasing already done, and a 3+ hour drive home ahead of us. We drove off, still able to hear that glorious steamboat whistle from miles away. The smoke and steam dissipated, and hours later the sun set as we passed by my usual railfanning spot in Gainesville, where train 13R was waiting in the siding for a meet. Despite the camera troubles and small frustrations with fellow rail enthusiasts, this was a truly excellent day of chasing trains. I look forward to repeating the process when the Queen of Steam comes practically up to my backyard for a set of weekend excursions, and to chasing down many more of these incredible beasts for years to come!