The Motive Power Survey had a great run

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, April 24, 2020

Alone among major railroads at the time of the 1950 Motive Power Survey, Norfolk & Western remained committed to steam. Two of the road's homebuilt masterpieces, a class Y6 2-8-8-2 and a class A 2-6-6-4, lift a coal train up Blue Ridge Grade east of Roanoke, Va. Jim McClellan
This week I was digging back into my old bound volumes of Trains and headed for the April 1950 issue, 70 years ago. In there I found an early example of what would become a staple of the magazine, the annual Motive Power Survey. I’m sure many of you remember the series. 

In this case the story was “The Locomotive in 1949.” It was a doozy, a 4,500-word example of great journalism straddling the end of the steam locomotive and the blossoming of the diesel. My editor, Rob McGonigal, thought enough of this article to include it in Classic Trains’ latest special edition, More Trains of the 1940snow available

Readers of that April 1950 story were in good hands because the author was David P. Morgan, then an associate editor destined to take the top job three years later. Predictably, given Morgan’s abiding passion for steam, he began the survey by putting the reader at Norfolk & Western’s Shaffer’s Crossing engine terminal in Roanoke, launching off into a roundup of how “isolationist” N&W was sticking with steam. With its estimable fleet of J-class 4-8-4s, A-class 2-6-6-4s, and Y6b 2-8-8-2s, it was an easy call for N&W to make. Roanoke was still “the unchallenged Citadel of Steam” is how Morgan put it.

Elsewhere, DPM had to dig a little deeper for good steam news. And there was some. Louisville & Nashville squeezed improved performance out of its exemplary M-1 2-8-4s by switching to a better grade of coal. Baltimore & Ohio put out a press release bragging about the on-time record of its passenger trains, although it did not note that the top performer, the Cincinnatian, was pulled by a 4-6-2. Chicago & North Western was completing what, to me, was an astounding move, the substantial rebuilding of its 1929 H-class 4-8-4s with new frames, roller bearings on all axles, Boxpok drivers, lightweight rods, and improved lubrication. 

Good steam news was hard to come by in 1950, but one bright spot was Chicago & North Western's project to rebuilt its class H 4-8-4s into H-1's, one of which passes St. Francis tower on its way south from Milwaukee. Bill Wight
But most of the story was consumed with diesel news, and the big winner, as you might expect, was Electro-Motive. Orders for diesels were down at Alco-GE, Baldwin, and Fairbanks-Morse, but EMD was running at a comparatively full tilt, switching from F3 and E7 units to its new F7 and E8 models at its La Grange plant and cranking out switchers (plus the new GP7 road-switcher) at its Cleveland factory. “The combined EMD output hit a comfortable eight units per day; it will rise to nine when a subsidiary in Canada dedicates its London (Ont.) plant,” wrote Morgan.  

Not that EMD’s competitors were simply treading water. “Big GM could only awe its rivals; it did not scare them off,” the author added. Thus, we saw Fairbanks-Morse score points with Milwaukee Road with its 2,400-h.p. C-Line cab units, and New York Central put in an order for them. Over at BLW, the company touted both a 3,000-h.p. “4-8-8-4” centipede unit and its four-unit, 6,000-h.p. shark-nose freight diesel. Alas, steadfast Baldwin customer PRR was the only big buyer.

Then there were the outliers of 1949, machines that made impressions all out of proportion to their ultimate impact. Morgan reported on Union Pacific’s tests of the first gas-turbine No. 50, which generated an impressive 4,500 h.p. but drank up vast quantities of Bunker C to do it. Chesapeake & Ohio continued to tinker with its 500–502 series of M-1 steam turbines, although for not much longer. Destined to have longer careers were the 800-class electrics that went to the South Shore Line from GE, built originally for Russia then diverted for domestic use. “The onetime grassroots interurban . . . was on the record as being more than pleased with its ‘loyalty test’ motors,” said Morgan.

By far the dominant diesel builder in 1950 was Electro-Motive, which replaced its E7 passenger unit with the porthole-sided E8 the previous year. EMD
As fascinating and variegated as the motive power scene was at that moment, Morgan was obligated to be objective. For steam fans of the day, his story was a buzzkill. As the editor put it, “in 1949 the steam locomotive was a dead issue.” 

But the diesel age beckoned like a bright sunrise, and DPM’s Motive Power Survey would be there to chronicle it. Ahead were many more stories of first-generation diesels, EMD’s second generation, Alco’s early-1960s comeback attempt, the U-boat invasion of GE, all those early iterations of Amtrak power, plus a whole lot more. 

The series would showcase some of the magazine’s most formidable bylines. Morgan was the champ, of course, putting his name on the survey 20 times and proving beyond any doubt his extraordinary versatility. But close on his heels, with 14 bylines, was my longtime colleague J. David Ingles, whom many regard the dean of diesel writers. Not to mention three other heavyweights, including Jerry Pinkepank; author of the first Kalmbach Diesel Spotter’s Guide; Greg J. McDonnell, editor of today’s Locomotive annual from Trains; and the late Paul D. Schneider, as passionate a diesel fan as I’d ever met.

There would also be memorable headlines, many with DPM’s penchant for alliteration. Remember “It’s Dungarees for the Diesel,” from May 1953? Or “How High the Horsepower” from September 1966? Or how about that poke-in-the-eye “The Power Behind the Pointless Arrow,” an Amtrak analysis by JDI from December 1975?

Baldwin, a distant third to EMD and Also-GE in sales, sent a set of its new 'Sharknose' freight units on a demonstration tour in 1949. Russ Porter collection
The Motive Power Survey ended in 1992. I’m obligated to acknowledge that I’m the one who killed it. It was around the time I became the magazine’s editor, and my rationale was simple: locomotive news and analysis ought to be in the magazine every month, in some form, and I felt too much of it was being banked for that once-a-year mega-story. A few of my friends howled at me — Schneider chief among them — but to be honest I don’t recall much objection from the general readership. 

That doesn’t take anything away from the Survey’s long, productive, influential run. Like so many things in Trains, its journalism had a direct effect on some readers’ careers. Exhibit A would be Mike Iden, who retired in 2018 after a long career in motive-power management with Union Pacific and Chicago & North Western. 

Mike grew up in Milwaukee as a Trains reader and says the Motive Power Surveys were always his favorite thing in the magazine. Even now, decades later, he recalls specific insights he got from the stories. His memories can get very granular: 

“I can still recall reading about Atlantic Coast Line buying the first six-motor high-horsepower units, the Alco C628, then the SD35 and U25C, albeit in small numbers. The article helped me understand that more motors can convert horsepower to more tractive effort at lower speeds, but that six motors won’t outpull four with the same horsepower once you get the train above the adhesion limit speeds, typically about 15 mph.” This guy was headed for the right career!

Mike thought enough of the Surveys to produce a tribute to them in a 22-page retrospective he wrote for McDonnell’s Locomotive annual of 2015, analyzing the 50 years of development since Morgan’s “The Common Denominator: 2500 h.p.” in Trains’ August 1965 issue. “I wanted to expand on DPM’s ‘common denominator’ theme, and although it was 50 years prior, it was a very good but broad multi-element commentary on motive power.”

I think Morgan would be pleased to know all that. From the moment he became the editor in 1953, one of his highest priorities was to do right by the diesel, so that Trains could attract a new generation of fans even as older readers threw in the towel after steam. The Motive Power Survey was a big part of that strategy.  

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