The Bluegown Blog

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By alicebg, Jun 1 2017 07:14PM

Lately, thanks to my model railroading activities, I have been doing a lot of reading and video watching about the Norfolk & Western railroad. The N&W is famous for being the last major steam road to hold out against the diesel onslaught, not succumbing until 1960 (US roads were officially 'dieselized' by 1957). It's HQ of Roanoke, Virginina, became a mecca for steam enthusiasts and photographers in the 50s, not least O Winston Link, whose night portraits of the N&W in action have passed into popular legend. Link, among others, was documenting not only a dying way of railroading, but the passing of an age. However, if one studies the N&W, the most striking aspect is the road's modernity. If you ever wanted to know what late 20th-century steam railroading might have looked like, or even 21st-century steam, Roanoke provides the best model.

It is commonly supposed that the N&W retained steam so late because its major commodity was coal, and it was anxious to keep the good will of the industry as well as exploit a local and easily-attained fuel. However the truth is a little more complex. Fundamentally, the N&W deployed a fleet of modern, technologically-advanced steamers that were every bit as good as - if not superior to - first- and second-generation diesels. By all late 50s measurements the N&W was economically the match of any other railroad, even those that had committed completely to the diesel locomotive. What kept the N&W a steam bastion was not nostalgia, but the sheer quality of its equipment.

Rare for a steam railroad the N&W had, by the mid-50s, achieved a high degree of standardisation. Indeed, its final steam fleet essentially consisted of just five types: three of them were cutting-edge designs of its own making; the other two were refinements of classics that had stood the test of time.

The most familiar of the road's locomotives was its premier passenger power, the mighty class J (above right). Designed and first produced during the Second World War, in its final form the J was a beautifully-streamlined 4-8-4 that was capable of hauling heavy passenger trains at speeds of 80mph and over. Like many N&W designs, the J bucked prevailing wisdom by being noticeably low-drivered for a passenger type, and it employed refinements such as roller bearings and lightweight rods. One of those calssic designs that still looks futuristic today (the last J, no 611, operates in excursion service), the J was a masterpiece that ran as good as it looked.

for their fast freights, the N&W again thought outside the conventional steam box. Their class A (above left) was an articulated 2-6-6-4 that combined the best elements of the Mallet and the 'Super Power' concepts. The result was a perfect blend of speed and power - a freight design fully capable of turning its wheels to fast, heavy passenger trains, much as the Union Pacific's 'Challengers' did out west.

To be furthered....

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