Victor and Vanquished

Posted by George Hamlin
on Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Now that Amtrak has celebrated its 40th anniversary, with the 50th not that far away, it’s hard to put into perspective the positive vibe that the arrival of the SDP40F into the fleet produced in the railfan community in the early 1970s.  Put it this way: since then, two whole generations of diesel motive power (the F40PH followed by the Genesis series) have come onto the roster. 

On the electric side, the E60 was supplanted by the AEM-7, which was replaced more recently by the ACS-64; replacements for the Acela are now on the way, as well.  There also have been side excursions (think P30CH, P32BWH and HHP-8) that turned out to have only a modest impact, and with the exception of the P32s, are now also history.

Amtrak now has also become a real, operating railroad, with its own trackage, at least in the northeastern part of the U.S.  Real railroads replace their motive power fleets over time, as discussed above.

As both the 1960s and the privately-operated intercity passenger train wound down, however, passenger locomotives in the U.S. and the concept of a “future” seemed to be an unlikely pairing. There were modest forays into adaptation of then-current freight locomotive designs, in terms of the SDP35/40/45, and the U28/30CG. However, few of these types were ordered, and even some of the roads that did partake relegated this equipment to secondary services, although I have to admit that the pictures I’ve seen of Big Sky Blue SDP40s on the Empire Builder make me wish that our paths had crossed, hopefully when I would have had my camera with me.

Very late in the game, EMD’s FP45 appeared on the scene, and, via the visual magic of the Santa Fe’s “Warbonnet” paint scheme, even this, essentially a box on rails, managed to get the (positive) attention of rail enthusiasts.  Only 14 FP45s were built, however; 9 for the ATSF and the remaining 5 for the Milwaukee Road, where they appeared in the livery worn by the UP’s “Cities” streamliners, which the MILW had handled since the mid-1950s. 

Clearly, these acquisitions were stopgap measures necessary to replace the oldest remaining passenger power (generally EMD E units) as the soon-to-be freight-only private railroads stumbled along awaiting the exit of passenger service from their profit and loss statements and balance sheets.

For that matter, the newest and best of these ‘interim” measures, including all of the FP45s, remained with their original owners, and were not transferred to Amtrak.  The newly-minted “National Railroad Passenger Corporation” (Amtrak’s official name) had to make do with what was still serviceable of the remaining E and F units.  From an aesthetic standpoint, this wasn’t all bad, but no one believed that they could carry on much longer.

Thus, the order for, and entry into service of the SDP40Fs allowed fans of intercity passenger service to be able to exhale; life would go on, with modern, state-of-the-art motive power (essentially SD40-2s) up front.  Sure, they probably could be converted to freight units if Amtrak were to take the path expected by a number of politicians and industry observers, i.e. to act as a vehicle for getting the railroads out of the loss-making passenger business, followed by its elimination after a decent interval, but these locomotives were new, shiny and because there was a fleet of considerable size, this at least gave the appearance that life as we knew it would continue.

Which brings us the photo at the top, at Washington, DC’s Ivy City engine facility on February 16, 1975.  A decade or so previously, this scene would have featured colorful E units from the ACL, B&O, C&O, RF&P, Southern, and possibly the SAL, in a literal “north-south” meeting point on the national railroad system.

Now, look who has taken over, resplendent (well, eye-catching anyway) in Amtrak’s initial “bloody nose/pointless arrow” paint scheme.  Relegated to the sidelines visually is a single Amtrak E unit, although to use current terminology, TBT (truth be told) there is a set of four green and gold Southern Railway E8s out of sight to the left, since the Southern has elected not to participate in Amtrak at this point.

Alas for the “new kids”, however, their triumph will be relatively short-lived.  Somewhat akin to the story of “Tootle”, of 1950s “Little Golden Books” fame, some of the SDPs will not be able to stay on the rails no matter what, and will be traded back to EMD on more sure-footed F40s (and eventually, a few to the Santa Fe in exchange for switchers).

Today, only a single, non-operable example of the SDP40F, formerly Amtrak 644, resides in Ogden, Utah.  Two major North American railroads, the CN and UP, still roster E units, albeit for executive/special services.  Other examples, including the Illinois Railway Museum’s 1940 Burlington E5; North Carolina Transportation Museum’s Southern 6900; and Bennett Levin’s pair of “Pennsylvania” E8s still burnish the rails on occasion.  There are a number of other Es preserved and displayed around the country, including an E3 acquired by the ACL in 1939 at the North Carolina Museum.

Who in 1975 could have predicted this outcome?

Photo by George W. Hamlin

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