When a new locomotive comes to town

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, April 24, 2017

Upholding a long tradition, brand-new Siemens SC-44 Charger locomotive 4611 stands at the Milwaukee Amtrak station after bringing a special test train up from Chicago on April 19. Kevin P. Keefe photo
Last week I found myself driving down Milwaukee’s lakefront to participate in a rite that goes back at least 80 years: the introduction of a new passenger locomotive at the downtown depot.

The city was oblivious, however. There were no news reporters at the station, no politicians, no high-ranking railroad officials. Just me, my friend Craig Willett (a retired Amtrak engineer), a few current Amtrak employees, and a sparkling new example of the latest in motive power, gleaming in the soft light outside the station’s new trainshed.

The machine is the new Siemens SC-44 Charger No. 4611, a high-tech 4,400-h.p. beast destined to supplant some of the aging GE Genesis units found on just about every Amtrak train off the Northeast Corridor. The GEs, all purchased between 1993 and 2001, are showing their age.

The arrival of 4611 in Milwaukee, which was making test runs on routes out of Chicago, couldn’t have been more stealthy. But once upon a time, a new train and a new locomotive would draw a big crowd in this town, especially if it was being introduced by the city’s namesake railroad, the Milwaukee Road.

Standing there, gazing at the Charger, I couldn’t help but think of a famous photo made just two blocks away at the Milwaukee Road’s old Everett Street station on May 23, 1935. In the image, sleek A-class 4-4-2 No. 2 and the cars of the brand-new Hiawatha stand in the sun as visitors line up to peer into the locomotive cab. A uniformed railroad policemen stands guard by the locomotive’s pilot, as if to underscore the importance of the event. 

Some 82 years earlier and a couple of blocks to the north, Milwaukee Road 'Hiawatha' 4-4-2 No. 2 receives visitors eager to see the new passenger locomotive and its train on May 23, 1935. Classic Trains collection
The photograph was featured prominently in Jim Scribbins’ landmark book, The Hiawatha Story, in which the author reported that approximately 138,000 people toured the new train as it made an exhibition tour between the Twin Cities and Chicago. No wonder: the Hiawatha was the nation’s first all-streamlined steam passenger train. In those Depression years, a rakish new train was a welcome sight.

Most of the attention that day was focused on the A, and deservedly so. The Milwaukee’s choice of a 4-4-2 was bold, as described by Scribbins. “The Milwaukee types (as the road described them) were the first streamlined steam locomotives designed as such from origin, the first U.S. steam locomotives in modern times for which speed alone was the governing factor, and the first Atlantics built since 1914.”

Even with a retro wheel arrangement, the four Alco-built, oil-burning A-class engines were up to the job, thanks to 84-inch drivers, the main rod connected directly to the front driver, 30,000 pounds of tractive effort, and use of roller bearings on all axles and rods. Pulling those relatively short early Hiawathas at 100 mph was easy.

Perhaps the locomotive I stared at last week over on St. Paul Avenue wasn’t quite as sexy as the A, but it certainly has an appeal all its own. I, for one, like the increasingly European look of American passenger trains, and this Siemens product has an obvious similarity to the company’s Vectron electric units operating in Germany, Sweden, Austria, and several other countries. Not to mention Amtrak’s ACS-64s electrics in the Northeast, also built by Siemens.

But the Charger also looks and sounds like it has all-American muscle. Its Cummins 16-cylinder QSK-95 prime mover is rated to support speeds of up to 125 mph, even as it meets EPA Tier 4 emission standards.

Soon we should be seeing a lot of these SC-44s on certain parts of the Amtrak system; the first Chargers are scheduled to begin service by the end of this year. Siemens is building 69 units at its plant in Sacramento, all for the Departments of Transportation in Illinois, California, Michigan, Missouri, Washington, and Maryland. Illinois alone accounts for 33 of the new diesels.

By all accounts, the testing is going smoothly. What better source than the engine crew? On the day of my visit, it included Amtrak engineer Eric Larson and road foreman James Guenter. Both gave the 4611 a big thumbs up. Larson said he likes the comfortable ride, the cab ergonomics, and the way the unit gets up to speed “in a flash.”

That “flash” might not quicken the pulse as much as the A-class 4-4-2 of 82 years ago, but any new passenger power is cause for celebration, especially on a quiet morning in downtown Milwaukee.



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