No more sentimental journeys for Norfolk Southern.
The railway company yesterday said it will end its popular and nostalgic steam locomotive excursion program in December because a boom in railroad freight traffic has left no track space or management time for running special trains.
"We've got a lot of trains out there, and the supervisors need to focus on moving the freight," said James W. McClellan, the company's vice president for strategic planning, in a telephone interview. "The future seems more interesting than the past. It's time to move on. And the future is much more exciting than the past. I couldn't have said that five years ago."
For three decades, the railroad and its predecessor companies -- Southern Railway Co. and Norfolk & Western Railway -- have run special trains around the railroad system in the South and Midwest. The trains carried hundreds of rail fans, schoolchildren and others who wanted to experience again the days when smoke-belching steam locomotives hauled the nation's passengers and commerce.
The late W. Graham Claytor Jr., then a Southern vice president and later president of Amtrak, launched the program in 1964 when he persuaded management to reactivate an old freight locomotive relegated to a short-line railroad in Kentucky. From there, the program spread, adding locomotives and dozens of refurbished passenger cars. An old diesel shop in Birmingham, Ala., was converted into a steam shop.
Not satisfied with the lumbering freight locomotive No. 4501, the railroad rescued two more modern, larger and faster engines from museums to pull longer and heavier trains. One was a sleek, bullet-nosed, maroon-and-black passenger locomotive, N&W No. 611, which once pulled passenger trains at speeds of up to 100 mph on routes running west from Norfolk. The other, N&W No. 1218, was one of the world's largest steam locomotives. For years it had regularly hauled fast freight and heavy coal trains from West Virginia's coal fields through the Blue Ridge mountains to the Norfolk ports.
Bill Schafer, the railroad's director of strategic planning and president of the Southern Railway Historical Association, said the 611 will return to its owner, the Roanoke Transportation Museum. No final determination has been made on the other engines, but "we will not scrap them," he promised.
Word of the impending steam cancellation spread rapidly by phone call and on the Internet and caused anguish among railroad history buffs as well as at Norfolk Southern, where many officers had participated in the program over the years.
In the last few years, business on all major railroads has increased rapidly as truckers and steamship companies turned to the rails for cross-country hauling of truck containers and the Clean Air Act caused a boom in demand for low-sulphur western coal.
"I'm really saddened by it because I really like the steam engines," said McClellan. Schafer said many people had asked him how he felt about the end of steam. His reply: "I tell them all we can do is say thanks for the memories."
Railroad history enthusiasts took the news with sadness but a realization that they have been lucky to see steam for 30 years after the locomotives were generally long gone.
"I think it's surprising and it showed an enlightened corporate policy that Norfolk Southern was able to maintain such an expensive, very highly visible, very popular program for so long," said John Hankey, former curator of the Baltimore and Ohio Museum in Baltimore. "Norfolk Southern has been a good steward of the locomotives they operated."
Kevin Keefe, editor of Trains magazine, said his first thought was "Thanks for 30 years of letting us have a great time on your railroad."
Keefe said the significance of the program may well be that it offered a link with vestiges of a past that is now fading to whatever comes next. "It served almost as a bridge between the first century and a half of railroading and what we hope for in the next century," Keefe said.