BIRMINGHAM — When is the last time you rode on a passenger train? If you're like most people in this day and age, the answer is probably "never."
And even if you had, chances are the train probably wasn't pulled by a working antique — a steam locomotive.
But railroad buffs, and those who are simply curious, will have a chance to ride behind a restored Southern Railway steamer, on tracks that have not seen passenger service for decades.
Norfolk Southern Railway, which is the corporate descendant of the Southern, will run steam passenger excursion trains this Saturday and Sunday as part of its "21st Century Steam" program.
Two trips will run each day: one each morning to Parrish, along the main line that goes to Sheffield; and another each afternoon to Wilton, a community southwest of Montevallo at the junction of two Norfolk Southern lines.
The trains will be pulled by engine number 630, a Consolidation-class steam engine which is owned by the Tennessee Valley Railway Museum in Chattanooga. That engine was built in 1904 in Richmond, Va. and ran in regular service for Southern until 1952. It was sold to a short-line railroad in Tennessee, and then repurchased by Southern in the late 1960s for use in a new steam-excursion program. That program was based out of shops at Norris Yard in Irondale, which became a mecca for railfans anxious to see some of the last remaining steam locomotives still in operating condition.
The 630 ran until the demand for more excursions required larger locomotives. It was leased to the museum and ran there for several years until it wore out. TVRM then embarked on a 10-year restoration program, which was completed last year. During that restoration, Southern — by then Norfolk Southern after a merger with other companies — dropped its steam program because its regular freight business was booming, and sent its remaining steam engines to museums elsewhere. (Rising liability insurance costs played a part in the shutdown.)
But Norfolk Southern decided to resume the program two years ago, using the 630 — the last remaining operable steam engine of its predecessor railroads. This weekend's 21st Century Steam trains are the first in metro Birmingham since the resumption.
The morning excursions to Parrish will travel the Norfolk Southern line which goes through Brookside. It will then go just south of Dora.
All four trains will depart from the site of the long-demolished Terminal Station in downtown Birmingham, which was used by several railroads which now comprise Norfolk Southern. The site is the vacant gravel lot alongside the Red Mountain Expressway, north of Second Ave. North. Tickets are $45 each for adults, $35 for children ages 3-12. Children under 3 who do not occupy a seat are free.
For more information or to purchase tickets online, go to the 21st Century Steam website.