© Railway Wonders of the World 2012-23  |  Contents  |  Site Map  |  Contact Us  | Cookie Policy

The Norfolk & Western Railroad

Collieries in the Pocahontas Field contribute 62 per cent of the Norfolk & Western’s coal-carrying trade



GIGANTIC COAL TRAIN ON THE NORFOLK AND WESTERN RAILROAD. The train is made up of forty 100-ton cars, and is drawn by a mammoth “Mallet” locomotive.

THERE are many railways in different parts of the world which are essentially dependent upon the bulk movement of minerals — coals, copper and iron ore — for their revenue; the passenger and general freight business is relatively insignificant. Such a system is the Norfolk and Western Railroad with its 2,000 miles, which intersect the rich coal-fields of the North American state of Virginia. The gravity centre of this business is the extensive Pocahontas field, where 86 collieries, distributed along some 30 miles of the road, contribute about 62 per cent, of the total coal-carrying business. Furthermore, the railway has a complete monopoly in the movement of coal passing to, and coke coming from, a round 2,000 coke-ovens. Broadly speaking, this traffic moves in two directions. The one is westwards to gain the Great Lakes and to serve the central western towns and cities through communicating lines; the other is eastwards to the Atlantic seaboard, a haul of 400 miles. At the latter terminal special facilities have been installed to load a 5,000-ton collier in two hours.

This network of steel, in common with many others, is handicapped by one weak link, about 30 miles in length, where the configuration of the country offers some features adverse to economical working — heavy grades and curvature. The men who plotted the road, upon penetrating the coal-bearing mountains, were baffled by the manner in which the shaggy humps crowd together. There is only one narrow rift, which Nature had pre-empted for the waterway. The situation was aggravated by the ridge, forming the “Divide”, running athwart the line.

In pegging the location the pathfinders were influenced by the traffic conditions which ruled at the time. But the provision of railway facilities stimulated mining and coking within a confined area, virtually occupying all the land not acquired for the railway right of way. In the course of 10 miles through the most difficult section there are 54 main-line switches or points communicating with the railways of the collieries as well as numerous crossings. As the main line is only a single track, the movement of the loaded and empty vehicles is an intricate task.

POWERFUL TYPE OF MALLET (2-6-6-2 CLASS) formerly used on the Norfolk & Western Railway

POWERFUL TYPE OF MALLET (2-6-6-2 CLASS) formerly used on the 30 miles’ Vivian-Bluefield section of the Norfolk & Western Railroad. Ready for the road, with 15 tons of coal and 9,000 gallons of water, this locomotive weighed 400,000 lb., and developed 73,000 lb. tractive effort. Two engines hauling and one pushing were required to move a 3,250-ton train over the 1 in 50 banks at 7 miles an hour.

This congested traffic centre is known as the Vivian-Bluefield section of the Pocahontas division, the two points lying on the western and eastern slopes of the “Divide” respectively. In this zone the heaviest traffic has developed, while the eastern movement of the coal is called upon to face the heaviest banks. Leaving West Vivian, 392 miles from Norfolk on the Atlantic seaboard, the train has a climb at 1 in 100 to North Fork, about 5 miles; thence at 1 in 67 for a little more than 5 miles to Ennis. Now comes the steepest rise at 1 in 50 for 5 miles to Ruth, the summit-level. Through the succeeding 2½ miles to Cooper the going is in favour of the train, the descent being 1 in 43. The climb is resumed; it is easy for 9½ miles because it is only 1 in 250, but then there comes another burst of 1 in 83 on the 3-miles’ run to Bluefield, which is the divisional point.

The grades are not the only harassing factor. Throughout this distance the line describes a meandering course, because it parallels, in turn, Elkhorn Creek and the Bluestone river — the only way out of the mountain-locked coal country. Sixty per cent, of the line laid between West Vivian and Bluestone is made up of curves, ranging in radius from 337 to 1,910 feet; at only two points is it possible for the vehicle at the tail of the train to be seen by the driver from his locomotive.

The difficulties presented by the steep grades and sharp curvature are crowned by the tunnel leading to the summit-level. This bore, the Elkhorn Tunnel, is 3,100 feet in length. Having been built in accordance with the engineering practice of thirty years ago, it is narrow. It is driven through a coal-seam and follows the slope of the coal, with the result that a steady ascent at 1 in 62 is encountered from one end to the other. This shaft acts as a bottle-neck, because, as it is only single line, while the rest of the division is double-tracked, it has to cope with both up-and-down traffic; the volume of this traffic, moved in the two directions, is governed by what can be passed through the tunnel.

For about twenty years the influence of the tunnel upon the railway’s fortunes was not materially observed. Up to that time train-loads, while increasing, permitted the use of locomotives of relatively low power, but at last it became necessary to introduce the “Consolidation” type. Although the latter class grew steadily in size and power, they did not exceed 200,000 lb. in weight. At the end of 1906 the railway had 540 of these units in operation, exclusively engaged in the coal-handling business. Increasing coal output necessitated the employment of trucks of greater capacity, which in turn imposed a demand for bigger locomotives. So in 1910 there came the “Consolidation” weighing 260,000 lb., with a tractive effort of 52,000 lb.

Before the latter was brought into service the operating department had perforce to realize the severe brake which the Elkhorn Tunnel exercised upon traffic. The locomotives attached to the heavy train and confronted with the long pull up the hill with its ruling grade of 1 in 50, were compelled to go all out, and as the hard pull against the collar continued through the tunnel the last-named became choked with steam, smoke and gases. After a train had passed an appreciable interval had to elapse to allow of the dissipation of the obnoxious atmosphere before the next train could be sent through.

This intolerable situation led to the introduction of a forced draft system of tunnel ventilation. The bank of smoke, steam and gases was driven ahead of the train by the ventilating fans, but this expedient did not completely overcome the difficulty. The tunnel was extremely wet, through the condensation of the steam, so that the locomotives became subject to severe slipping, and sometimes were stalled.

The railway made another advance in its locomotive power by the adoption of the “Mallet” compound. The first of these was brought into service in 1910. In practice the heaviest types of “Consolidation” were placed at the head of the train and the “Mallet” at the rear, the pusher being dropped at Bluefield. Ten of these units were acquired and proved so successful that larger and more powerful engines of this class were added to the fleet.

The success of the “Mallet” led to another modification of the operating system. The “Consolidations” were withdrawn from the service upon this section, and the “Mallets” left to handle the traffic up the grade to Bluefield and beyond. This revision became necessary owing to the persistent increase in the quantity of coal to be moved to the coast, and the introduction of larger cars to clear it from the collieries. In 1906, when the first of the heavier “Consolidation” fleet were brought into operation, the company had 11,756 vehicles of 50-tons’ capacity. During this year the gross business eastbound was 279,933,339 ton-miles, and the whole of this traffic was carried on a paying-load basis; that is to say, all trains were fully loaded.

The “Mallets” were monsters of the 2-6-6-2 class, equipped with superheater and mechanical stoker. With 15 tons of coal and 9,000 gallons of water in the tender, they weighed, ready for the road, 400,000 lb., and developed 73,000 lb. tractive effort. In the hope of being able to satisfy traffic requirements for some years to come, 160 of these powerful units were acquired. However, the coal traffic continued to increase, until the railway had to adopt steel gondola cars carrying 100 tons (American) net. These are among the largest and heaviest cars ever designed for service. Owing to the success attending their use, they have become standardized for the road, and the present fleet exceeds 33,000 in number.


BALDWIN-WESTINGHOUSE 270-TON 3,000-HORSE-POWER ELECTRIC LOCOMOTIVE ON THE NORFOLK AND WESTERN RAILROAD. Two of these electrics-one hauling and the other pushing-move a train of 3,250 tons over the Elkhorn grade of 1 in 50 at a speed of 14 miles an hour.

This development exercised the inevitable repercussive effect upon motive power. Larger and more powerful locomotives had to be acquired. Those of the new class — 80 of which were built —measure 101 feet 10 inches overall, weigh, light, 523,000 lb., and have a tractive effort of 104,000 lb.

These massive powerful units, twenty-four of which were detailed to the service between West Vivian and Bluefield, were called upon to handle a loaded train, weighing 3,250 tons, up the five miles of the Elkhorn grade with its maximum rise of 1 in 50. One was coupled to the head of the train while two were placed at the rear as pushers. Even with this enormous cumulative engine power the movement of the traffic was difficult. It was found impossible to ascend the bank at more than 7 miles an hour, while the troubles were increased directly the tunnel was reached. Although the latter was equipped with the powerful forced-draft ventilating system its limiting cross-section reacted against the use of three “Mallets” to move the train through the tunnel. The second pusher had to be dropped, leaving the train to two locomotives over the most trying section — the wet-rail stretch through the bore.

The drivers had to advance very slowly to avoid fouling the bank of smoke and gases belched from their engines, which was slowly driven ahead of them by the ventilating fans. Indeed, they often had to pull up to avoid the obstacle. Then, in restarting, further troubles became manifest. The drenched rails precipitated violent slipping and, if the leading locomotive happened to grip and get away before its consort at the rear, the effort exerted proved too much for the couplings; the train broke in two, and contributed to further delay and difficulty in maintaining the service. Twenty minutes was the time allowance for travelling through the shaft, but, frequently the negotiation of the 3,100 feet through the ridge took from thirty to forty minutes.

Topping the summit, with its following downward run of about 2½ miles, the locomotives were able to obtain a swing up the succeeding 5-miles’ rise at 1 in 250, only to be pulled up about half-way to allow a further string of trucks to be attached, thus bringing the weight of the train up to 4,000 tons. The journey was resumed; the two “Mallets” sufficed to handle the load over the remaining distance to Bluefield, whence the road “Mallet” — the pilot — continued the journey to the coast; the grade with only one exception did not exceed 1 in 200 throughout the 360 miles.

It will be seen that the use of the third locomotive was confined to assisting the train from Eckman as far as the west portal to the Elkhorn Tunnel, a run of about 11 miles. If the conditions were favourable its one crew could complete three round trips a day, each averaging 3¾ hours.

The return journey from the coast was with a dead load, when the train averaged from 75 to 100 empty vehicles, hauled by a single locomotive as far as Bluefield. Here a second engine was attached to the head of the train; double-heading was adopted in preference to utilizing the second engine as a pusher to permit more efficient handling of the air-brake down the bank of 1 in 50. Upon reaching the station where the break-up of the train commenced — delivering empty vehicles for dispatch to adjacent collieries — the pilot engine was detached and sent round to the rear end to shunt the vehicles dropped at this point. The two engines then continued the run to the next centre of distribution, when the cycle of operations was repeated. All shunting was conducted from the rear by the leading locomotive until the whole train had been discharged, when the two engines were free for their next round of duty.

Although the coal traffic is the most important phase of the business conducted by the Norfolk and Western Railroad — it approximates 24,000,000 tons a year — the ten or twelve heavy coal trains have to be moved in accordance with a schedule such as will permit the running of four through passenger, eight local passenger, and eight mixed freight trains. It is the movement of the heavy tonnage mineral trains in the congested zone without delay to the other services, which imposes such a severe tax upon the operating department. Due provision has to be made for the unexpected when handling trains of such length and weight.

The coal traffic attained such proportions that the question arose as to how far the retarding influences of the Elkhorn Tunnel might be mitigated if not wholly eliminated. The obvious solution was the discovery of a new route for the line, or the driving of a second tunnel through the ridge so that up-and-down working throughout the length of the mineral zone might be maintained. Both were ruled out as impracticable owing to the enormous cost involved.


A TWO-LOCOMOTIVE TRAIN ON THE ELKHORN GRADE OF THE NORFOLK & WESTERN RAILROAD. The train consists of two Baldwin-Westinghouse 270-ton electrics, and twenty-five gigantic 130-tons six-axle coal-cars. The inset shows one of the latest type of coal-carrying cars mounted on two six-wheeled bogie trucks.

In 1910, the limitations of steam operation reached, the question of electrifying the tunnel and its difficult approaches surged to the top, and the Norfolk and Western Railroad decided to convert to electricity the 30 miles between Vivian and Bluefield, including the tunnel.

A power-house of 30,000 kilowatts capacity was erected at Bluestone, 11 miles from the eastern end of the transformed section, whence the alternating current, stepped up to 44,000 volts, is transmitted to five substations, to be broken down to 11,000 volts at which pressure it is fed into the overhead conductor. Although the locomotives draw single-phase current they are driven by three-phase motors, and the adjustment of the energy is completed on the locomotive itself by means of a phase-converter, producing what is known as the “split-phase” system.

The electric locomotive fleet comprises twelve Baldwin-Westinghouse units, each weighing 540,000 lb., and developing 3,000 horse-power, but only nine are on the road at one time. The engines are withdrawn from service for inspection, overhaul and reserve duty daily in rotation. They are of the 2-4-4-2, 2-4-4-2 double-unit type interchangeability. Thus one locomotive may be composed of the front unit of “No. 12” and the back unit of “No. 3” locomotives respectively, coupled together to form, as it were, an additional engine, although the practice is to keep the designed and numbered two units of a locomotive together. Interchangeability, however, is a pre-eminently valuable feature; in the event of a serious mishap befalling one unit of an engine on the road, it can be detached for replacement by the sound unit of another engine standing in the shops, in order to

maintain the service. It is extremely unlikely that the two units of an engine will develop a serious fault at the same time.

The introduction of electric locomotives for working the heavy coal tonnage has wrought a wonderful transformation. In normal service the nine electrics are performing more work than was previously forthcoming from twenty-two of the largest “Mallets”. Whereas three of the latter were required to move the train, weighing 3,250 tons, up the Elkhorn grade, two electrics, one hauling and the other pushing, now suffice for this duty; while the speed up the bank and through the tunnel has been, doubled to 14 miles an hour.

The benefits accruing from electrification were brought home very convincingly before the installation was completed. During the month of June, 1914, the last year of straight steam working, 272 trains, averaging 2,987 tons, were moved over the Elkhorn grade, each by three “Mallets”; the duty demanded 22 locomotives in constant service, these engines completing 21 miles in ten hours, or averaging one round trip of 42 miles every twenty-four hours. Upon the conclusion of the day’s work they had to proceed to the sheds for cleaning and overhaul, such detention ranging from 8 to 10 hours.

During the corresponding month of the following year, by which time part of the electric locomotive equipment had been delivered, a mixed service, i.e. combined steam and electric working, was being operated. Four electrics and ten “Mallets” moved 397 trains, averaging 3,054 tons each, over the grade, the electrics handling 75 per cent, of the tonnage and working 63 per cent, of the mileage during the period in question. The electrics made two round trips, or 84 miles, in n hours 35 minutes — twice the mileage of the “Mallets” in less than half the time.

During the month single electric locomotives handled 45 of these trains, a pusher being used to lend a hand over the steepest banks; while on the return journey the single engine hauled a load of 100 empties. The electrics, however, revealed their superiority in another direction; there was no need for them to pass to the engine sheds upon the completion of the day’s work. It was by no means unusual for them to stay out on the road for fifteen days continuously, being subjected only to a superficial inspection upon the changing of their crews; further, this delay did not exceed in the aggregate 2½ out of the twenty-four hours.


A COAL TRAIN OF FORTY-THREE LADEN CARS CLIMBING THE ELKHORN GRADE. One Baldwin-Westinghouse 270-ton electric is attached to the head of the train, while a second is pushing at the rear. Overlooking the track on the hillside is the 30,000-kilowatts power-station serving the zone.

This experience proved conclusively that six electric locomotives could easily do the work which had previously demanded twenty “Mallets”, and led to the increase of the train loads. Even the heaviest trains, excelling in tonnage anything attempted under steam haulage, do not require more than two locomotives. Upon reaching the foot of the bank the second electric backs on to the rear, giving the help required up the bank and through the tunnel. The summit negotiated, the pusher drops clear ; the train continues its journey with the one engine to the Flat Top yard, where further vehicles are added to bring the total load up to 4,750 or 5,000 tons. The journey is resumed until the foot of the three miles’ pull at 1 in 83 is reached, when a waiting electric trundles along to bear against the tail of the train and thus assists it into Bluefield, where it is turned over to the road “Mallet” for its journey to the coast.

The round trip, Bluefield to Vivian and back, is made in the average time of seven hours, and two such trips constitute an average day’s work for the one train crew. The flexibility of the electric, its power and speed, bestow another advantage — immediate modification of the service according to fluctuations in the conditions. Each electric assigned to pusher duty makes five trips a day up the grade and through the tunnel, and also provides assistance in the distribution of the returning empties among the yards. These units are also available for the assistance of the through passenger and fast freight trains, swinging out of the siding to bear against the rear of the passing train and thus helping it over the bank ahead.

One of the most remarkable results of the conversion to electric operation is the elimination, in the traffic sense, of the “bottleneck” summit tunnel. Whereas the steam-hauled trains were allowed 20 minutes to traverse the 3,100 feet, the electrics clear it in less than three minutes! Such acceleration has keyed up the whole of the traffic movement to an amazing degree; the performance is better than could possibly have attended doubling the tunnel for steam working.

So punctual is the running of the electrics that the officials do not hesitate to allow the electrically-hauled train of maximum weight to enter the tunnel five minutes ahead of a passenger train, whereas, under the former steam conditions, no coal train was permitted to leave Eckman, at the bottom of the hill, less than 20 minutes before the scheduled arrival of a passenger train. If the latter happened to be late, the former was held back and suffered delay.

The men handling these trains, and recruited from the crews formerly in charge of the ponderous “Mallets”, do not hesitate to express their preference for the electric. They emphasize the easier riding and marked freedom from jolting. There is no exposure to weather; the cab is more comfortable, with complete protection against the cold in winter and absence of exhausting heat in summer. There are no delays on the road to take on coal or to pick up water; there is always a clear look-out; running through the tunnel is relieved of gases, steam and smoke; while regenerative braking disperses all worries and anxieties incidental to the air-brake when running down the steep banks. The “fireman” has no arduous work; he has only to attend to the lubricating system, keep an eye on the equipment, and confirm signals.

As a matter of fact, driving these huge machines is so monotonous as to render it difficult for the man at the handle to keep awake. The one speed, 14 miles per hour, is maintained uphill and downhill. This uniformity of speed is due, in the main, to the regenerative braking system. The only permissible variation in the scheduled speed of 14 miles an hour is on the last bank running into Bluefield, where speed, even with the 4,000-ton trains, may be accelerated to 28 miles an hour. It is interesting to remark that, with two electrics moving the train, as much as 8,000 horse-power is required to accelerate up to the running speed; when the fourteen miles an hour is attained the continuous demand upon the power station is for 6,000 horse-power. The unvarying hum of the motors, and the absence of apparatus demanding unremitting attention, as in the case of the steam locomotive, are apt to exercise a soporific influence upon the crew. Two trains did embrace one night owing to the motor-man of one locomotive having been lulled to sleep, and the other on the second train being unable to back up the bank out of the way.

One immediate result of the conversion was the reduction of the operating expenses from 65.9 per cent, to 56.8 per cent, during the initial six months, notwithstanding an increase of 16 per cent, in maintenance charges. During the year 1914, when steam ruled, 132,618 loaded vehicles were moved with 93,625 steam-engine-hours. The maximum number of loaded cars hauled during a single day of 24 hours was 675, representing 51,226 gross tons, and for which 43 engines were necessary. During the first year of electric working 165,689 loaded cars were moved eastwards for a total of 44,112 electric-locomotive-hours. The maximum haul for one day was 59,543 gross tons by 9 electrics! Today 35,000 tons of coal are hauled over the Elkhorn grade during the twenty-four hours.

One aspect of the situation is not without interest. The cost of the electric locomotives, including development expenses and charges incurred to remedy certain mechanical defects after delivery, averaged £20,000 or £240,000 for the fleet of twelve. The “Mallet” steam locomotives, with a tractive effort of 73,000 lb., and scaling 425,000 lb. complete with tender, but empty, cost 4¼d. per lb., or approximately, £7,500 — a little more than one-third of the electric.

As a result of soaring prices of material due to the enormous demand occasioned by the Great War, these figures were appreciably increased, the respective costs in 1921 being £60,000 for the electric and £20,000 for the “Mallet”.


A STRIKING EXAMPLE OF ELECTRIC HAULAGE ON THE NORFOLK & WESTERN RAILROAD. A train of 37 loaded 100-ton coal-cars being hauled over the Vivian-Bluefield electrified section by a single Baldwin-Westinghouse 270-ton 3,000hp electric locomotive at a speed of 14 miles an hour.

You can read more on “Articulated Locomotives”,  “Giant American Locomotives”, “North American Railroads” and “The Union Pacific Railway” on this website.

You can read more on “Mammoths of American  Railroads” in Wonders of World Engineering