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New Amtrak policy threatens the future of 611 excursions

Policy bans trips by special trains

ROANOKE, Va. – The future of one of the Roanoke Valley's biggest tourist attractions could be at risk.

A new Amtrak policy, banning trips by special trains, is threatening to put the brakes on excursions by the beloved 611 steam engine.

The company is allowing some exceptions, but it's not clear yet whether the Virginia Museum of Transportation, which owns the 611, will be granted one of those exceptions.

Since the 611 returned home, it has drawn hundreds of thousands of people and millions of dollars to the Star City.

"It’s just like having a rock star in town," Catherine Fox, vice president of public affairs for Visit Virginia's Blue Ridge, said.

Fox said the steam queen excursions' economic impact is between $4.5 and $7 million. 

"It puts Roanoke and this region on the map where it may not have been," Fox said.

The new Amtrak policy change could do away with all that.

"Nobody ever expected that there might be a decision that might change the opportunity to run 611," retired Virginia Museum of Transportation director Bev Fitzpatrick said.

Before retiring at the end of last year, Fitzpatrick led the charge in restoring the 611 and bringing it back to Roanoke. He said he was optimistic when he found out they would fall under Amtrak’s rules this year, with the recent return of passenger rail service.

"One of the things that we were looking for under Amtrak was to move to some places where people had not had the opportunity to run it," Fitzpatrick said.

Now he's worried it might not run at all. The impact of that, he said, would stretch far beyond the museum.

"That’s hurtful to the museum but when you look at $4.5 to $7 million, that's pretty hurtful to the Roanoke Valley as well," Fitzpatrick said.

He's hopeful Amtrak will recognize that impact and make an exception to keep the 611 chugging along.

"This thing made Roanoke the Alamo of steam. So our hope is that we'll still have some opportunity to run it but only time will tell," Fitzpatrick said.

The transportation museum’s current director, Lisa Sphar, gave 10 News the following statement: “With regards to Amtrak’s announcement on March 28, we are closely monitoring the situation and continue to work with our partners in the industry to review all options available for continuing operations. We remain hopeful, and continue to plan for 611's future.”

About the Author:

Jessica anchors 10 News on Saturdays and Sundays at 6 and 11 p.m. You can also catch her reporting during the week.