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The Virginia Museum of Transportation is launching a campaign to get the venerable locomotive operational.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
The iconic No. 611 is a star attraction at the Virginia Museum of Transportation.
Courtesy Norfolk Southern
According to the Virginia Museum of Transportation, the Class J 611 weighs 494,000 pounds.
Friday, June 28, 2013
Three and a half million dollars.
One Norfolk & Western J-Class 611 thundering down the rails again.
The Virginia Museum of Transportation is holding a news conference at 11 a.m. today to announce it intends to make a dream come true for the rail fans who come to Roanoke from around the world to see the 611 steam engine.
The museum is launching its “Fire Up 611!” fundraising campaign with a goal of having the venerable Roanoke-built engine, considered by many to represent the apex of steam technology, operational in 2014 so it can be used for Norfolk Southern’s 21st Century Steam passenger excursion program.
To have the engine ready in time, the museum needs to raise $3.5 million by October, said marketing director Peg McGuire. That goal includes $1 million for the restoration of the engine, $2 million to construct a mechanical shop on the museum’s property where the 611 can be sheltered and worked on, and the remainder for business and marketing expenses. The campaign starts with about $150,000 already in hand, she said.
If the museum meets its Oct. 31 deadline, the 611 will be sent to the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, N.C., for a full restoration. Officials estimate it will take six to nine months to refurbish the engine to meet Norfolk Southern and federal standards.
The campaign won’t just be focused on Roanoke or Southwest Virginia. The 611 “is known worldwide as a mechanical powerhouse,” McGuire said, and the campaign will reach out to the international rail community using direct mail, social media and good old-fashioned word of mouth. The “Fire Up 611” Facebook page already has more than 3,000 likes.
“The rail community is pretty much connected through the Web,” she said. The restoration of the 611 “is already being discussed quite a bit.” With the campaign, museum officials hope to harness that passion, she said.
Dave Stephenson, a member of the Norfolk & Western Historical Society, said Thursday that in online rail fan forums, “The buzz has almost reached a roar.”
Though the October deadline is crucial to putting the 611 on the tracks, fundraising won’t end at $3.5 million, McGuire said. The museum’s ultimately aiming for $5 million, with the additional funds to go toward an endowment that will be used to cover long-term costs of continuing maintenance.
The fundraiser follows on the heels of a study conducted by a committee of rail experts and historians to figure out the costs of restoration and whether enough demand existed to justify those costs.
The team confirmed the demand is there, said Cheri George, one of the volunteers who conducted the study. An Atlanta software consultant, George, 45, was born in Richmond and volunteered on the 611 while it was used for excursions in the early 1990s.
“People remember and love the 611,” she said.
The study involved an online poll to learn what ticket prices rail fans would be willing to pay for a 611 ride. McGuire said ticket prices could range from $60 to $350 for luxury seats, in line with other 21st Century Steam ticket prices.
Committee members also traveled on 21st Century Steam excursions to observe the trips and talk with rail fans about the possibility of bringing the 611 back. Parents and grandparents familiar with the 611 were eager for a chance to take their children and grandchildren on a ride, George said.
The committee also put together a business model designed to keep the museum from running excursions at a loss. It concluded that running the 611 out of Roanoke wouldn’t be practical unless the transportation museum had a facility on-site for maintenance. At present no facilities in Virginia fit the criteria necessary for keeping the massive antique steam engine in working order.
McGuire said it’s not clear yet whether the museum would need to retain a full-time staff for the shop or hire specialists as needed. The museum will be better able to assess that after restoration of the engine begins.
“The long-term view is actually a bigger challenge than just simply getting it running,” said Ron Davis, president of the Norfolk & Western Historical Society and a member of the committee that conducted the study.
Built in 1950, 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.
Discussion of what it would take to revive the 611 began in earnest in September 2011, when Norfolk Southern CEO Wick Moorman announced the launch of 21st Century Steam, a partnership program with the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum that offers train excursions pulled by restored steam locomotives. Moorman said Norfolk Southern would consider operating the 611 if the transportation museum could make it rail-worthy.
“They are so excited for this,” McGuire said of rail fans. “They just are so excited to see her run again.”
For more information about the steam excursions, visit www.21stcenturysteam.com/
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