Norfolk and Western J Class


The J Class of the Norfolk and Western Railroad was a late-era model, bringing modern features to this popular steam locomotive. Other features included a feedwater heater, automatic stoker, and more Timken roller bearings to reduce wear and tear on the moving parts of the locomotive. Added bearings were also found in the axles, main rods, valve gear, and wrist pins. Listed below are some of the notable features of the J Class.

N&W’s late entry into dieselization

The late entry into dieselization of the Norfolk and Western Railroad was notable in two ways. During the steam era, N&W operated some of the world’s best locomotives and enjoyed widespread recognition. It was known for its strong financial performance before the switch to diesels, and its long coal trains carried a record tonnage. But as steam became more expensive and unreliable fuel, the railroad changed direction, turning to diesel power. After the merger with the Virginian Railway and acquiring other railroads, the company changed its fleet to diesel power.

Modelers of the N&W have suffered from the hard reality of the commercial marketplace. There are few model makers of this railroad, and there are only a few available at any given time. Still, more excellent models are available. The Norfolk & Western Historical Society has partnered with several manufacturers and has developed prototype models that can be purchased through the N&W Commissary. These books contain detailed photographs, historical information and a timeline of N&W’s late entry into dieselization.

Home-built 4-8-4 steam locomotives

The N&W was in need of more powerful steam locomotives to run its trains, so they built three custom-designed 4-8-4s known as the “Northern” class. In an effort to create a more powerful locomotive, they researched nearby railroads and studied them. These new locomotives were streamlined, and N&W took delivery of them in 1941. They were built to haul heavyweight diners, and offered 73,500 pounds of tractive effort.

The J class was the most advanced type of passenger locomotive produced during the period of steam on U.S. railroads. The locomotives were built in the Roanoke, Virginia, shops and achieved speed ratings of 140 mph, making them world-class steam locomotives. The N&W used these locomotives until the late 1950s, and some of them have survived in museum collections today.

Alco-Westinghouse’s improved model

The modernization of the Norfolk & Western J class has been a long time coming, as the company has had trouble keeping pace with its diesel counterpart. The Norfolk and Western fleet includes several Class J locomotives that pulled a number of prominent passenger trains, including the Powhatan Arrow, the Pocahontas, the Cavalier, the Tennessean, and the Pelican. These locomotives were also used on Southern Railway routes. They were leased by the company and bought a small number of first-generation diesels in the late 1950s.

Lionel’s rendition

The replica of the legendary Norfolk & Western J class locomotive, known as the “No. 746,” was released in 1957 and continued to be made until 1960. The locomotive was a faithful replica of the “real thing”, but Lionel never produced matching passenger cars, so this locomotive model remained an unofficial “replica” that has not been matched to any of its counterparts. Lionel also made no other models of the class, only freight sets and Military & Space sets with matching locomotives.

After Cohn sold the Lionel company in 1963, Lionel suffered a major loss. In order to make the company profitable, it introduced true wireless train control. By the 1990s, however, Lionel was in a shaky financial state and had to sell off its traditional line. In spite of the shaky economy, Lionel’s J Class line continued to sell well.

Restorations of N&W J Class locomotives

The only surviving Norfolk and Western J Class locomotive is No. 611. These locomotives were designed to pull passenger trains between Norfolk and Cincinnati, Ohio, as well as routes to Bristol, VA. The J Class was extremely reliable, and it was not unusual for these locomotives to pull nearly three million miles before retiring. Regardless of the type of route they pulled, they were known for their reliability and good looks.

The Roanoke shops built 14-J Class steam locomotives between 1948 and 1982. The Roanoke shops were responsible for producing J-611, which served as a steam locomotive on the Norfolk and Western Railway. When the railroad retired from steam, the locomotives served as passenger excursion trains across the eastern United States. After more than a decade of excursion service, the Virginia Museum of Transportation acquired the locomotive.