I went with my wife, daughter, and father-in-law to the TVRM Railfest on Sunday, September 4, 2011. When we picked up our tickets from the will-call area, I noticed the letter said to park in a shuttle area and to not attempt to park at Grand Junction. We actually had no difficulty parking at Grand Junction so I hope turnout was as good as expected.
As the only railfan in our group, we didn’t spend a lot of time at the outdoor rail exhibits. The petting zoo was a good idea for families to enjoy a non-railroad activity. I enjoyed watching the Missionary Ridge Local depart, led by Southern 6133.
The highlight of the day, and the reason we traveled down from Virginia, was the 2:00p 21st Century Steam Mainline Excursion. Labor Day Weekend featured the first public steam excursions over NS rails since 1994 (almost 17 years ago). The train was mostly full, but not sold out. Frankly it’s more enjoyable when the train isn’t packed as it’s easier for families to sit together, move about, and get some time in a vestibule window. The seven car train was clean and nicely decorated inside with rail pictures and posters. The air conditioning was working great in all of the coaches on a hot Tennessee day. We rode in an NS coach; I hadn’t realized they already had coaches ready to be used in the steam program.
Once we were underway, a TVRM worker came through each of the cars and gave a short talk about safety information and the historical significance of the weekend’s mainline excursions. Additionally, an NS conductor from the regular freight pool offered to answer questions and a lady from NS gave a brief history of the locomotive and provided some information about NS operations and DeButts classification yard. She referred to the excursions as an experiment, but seemed impressed how things were going.
Having only ridden short line excursion trackage recently, I was really impressed by the smoothness of the train at speed. En route, we stopped for close to half an hour due to rail traffic as a heavy rain shower passed by. On our way again, we passed DeButts yard up close and got a good view of the head end of the train as it turned on the wye. There were no delays as we traveled back to Grand Junction at speed. There were plenty of railfans out and about watching us by and we enjoyed a few minutes riding in the vestibule of the last car with a view out the back. After arriving back at Grand Junction, we stayed to watch the 630 back away.
Overall, I thought the TVRM Railfest was a great event and the 21st Century Steam program is off to a fine start. I think NS could take more advantage of the trips in the future by giving out a free “Onboard Times” newspaper containing some history of the locomotive, information about the route, and some articles about the benefits of rail transportation (fuel economy, taking trucks off the roads, creating jobs, etc.). A couple other minor suggestions are to include a photo runby if possible (although I understand that takes up valuable mainline time) and for the engineer to be a little more liberal with his whistle usage. There weren’t many grade crossings on the route, but there were fans he could’ve blown at and I’m sure I wasn’t the only passenger who enjoys the sound.
I’m sure NS’s trips will gain even more attention as they start traveling to cities and towns where steam isn’t a normal thing. Thank you NS and thank you TVRM. Keep up the great work and I look forward to the future of 21st Century Steam!