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Rail buffs get close to classic steam engine at NC Transportation Museum

Hundreds of train buffs lined the rails at the N.C. Transportation Museum on Thursday for a chance to photograph an iconic steam engine before it leaves the state this weekend.

The Norfolk & Western Class J 611, one of the last steam engines ever built, is well-known among train enthusiasts worldwide and widely considered a mechanical and visual specimen. On Saturday, the engine is scheduled to return to Roanoke, Va., where it was built in 1950, after a year-long restoration at the transportation museum in Spencer.

Before its departure, the museum gave dedicated fans a chance to spend $250 each to get close to the freshly painted locomotive. They came from across the country and the world to see the engine run around the grounds through recreated scenes from its original service in the 1950s.

“It was probably the best steam passenger locomotive ever built,” said Jim Wrinn, 54, editor of Trains Magazine. “It’s known the world over.”

Yoshitaka Matsuo, 52, of Tokyo took a 20-hour flight to see and photograph the engine. The train has long been of special interest to him, and he said he had been looking forward to the opportunity to see it since 1994, when the engine made its last excursion run for the Norfolk Southern Railway.

“The steam locomotive, it looks nice. It’s different from diesel or electric locomotives,” Matsuo said. “I’ve been waiting to see her.”

The pronoun is important; almost none of the fans in Spencer referred to the engine as “it.”

“You hear all those noises that she makes, she’s a living and breathing thing,” said Erik Nygard, 55, of Raleigh, who as an employee of the North Carolina state parks system had the chance to serve as a host on one of the passenger cars pulled by the engine 20 years go.

Seeing the train run again brought those memories back for Nygard, but the nostalgia ran deeper. The train is iconic of its era. On one pass through the grounds, two classic cars came to a stop on either side of the engine, for a photo that could pass for the 1950s.

“It’s the closest thing you’re gonna get to a time machine, I think,” said Adam Horgan, 26, of Burlington, Mass., who came to North Carolina just to see the J 611.

Despite the all-ages appeal of reliving the past, some rail fans expressed concern that they as a group are getting older, posing problems for the future of steam engines like the J 611.

“It’s a dying breed, people rebuilding these things,” said Zac McGinnis, 30, a firefighter in Dunbar, W.Va., who volunteered on the restoration team. “Now you have to have the younger generation step in, while these guys that have done it can still teach us.”

The restoration of the J 611 was done at the N.C. Transportation Museum because its roundhouse, itself a landmark, is large enough for the enormous engine. The museum was built on the grounds of Spencer Shops, an old Southern Railway repair facility.

The effort to fund the restoration was led by the Virginia Museum of Transportation. Norfolk Southern Railway, which in 2010 began a program called 21st Century Steam that runs steam locomotive excursions on its rails, donated $1.5 million to the restoration effort.

Those who missed Thursday’s event still have a chance to see the J 611 before it leaves North Carolina. The engine is scheduled to depart around 7:45 a.m. Saturday, and crowds are expected in Spencer and along the route to Roanoke. It also has three upcoming scheduled excursions in Virginia, for which tickets are available, as part of 21st Century Steam.

Matsuo plans to follow the train to Roanoke before he flies back to Tokyo on Sunday, setting up by the side of the tracks for a few more photos.

“I love to see steam locomotives,” he said. “I’m very happy to see her.”

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