Amtrak’s Workhorses

Posted by Justin Franz
on Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Amtrak's California Zephyr near Helper, Utah. Photo by Justin Franz.
Cram 800 to 1,000 additional horses and 400 more gallons of fuel into a frame whose height is 10 inches lower than most diesel-electric passenger locomotives. Design a 100-mph machine with a carbody capable of 150-mph speed that must also operate over track of varying quality and with plenty of highway grade crossings. Significantly increase fuel efficiency and reduce polluting emissions. Develop a variation that can operate off 650-volt D.C. third-rail power through New York's tunnels. Explore the alternating current (A.C.) traction-motor option. Implement the latest microprocessor technology for both operating control and maintenance. Oh, by the way, the new locomotive's weight must not increase.

In a nutshell, those were Amtrak's marching orders for a class of locomotive that will haul the carrier well into the 21st century.

That’s how Trains Magazine correspondent Bob Johnston started off his September 1993 story about Amtrak’s newest generation of diesel locomotives, the AMD-103, better known as the P40DC. For more than a quarter-century, the P40DC and its successor, the P42DC, have become the locomotive that comes to mind when most people think of Amtrak. Stand along an Amtrak route from coast-to-coast and it won’t be long before a sleek General Electric passenger locomotive rolls by.

Amtrak's Empire Builder in West Glacier, Montana. Photo by Justin Franz.
The fact that the P40DC and P42DC have become synonymous with Amtrak may come as a surprise to older enthusiasts, particularly people my Dad’s age, who immediately think of an F40PH when they talk about the nation’s passenger railroad. Although I have some vague memories of Amtrak F40PHs leading passenger trains when I was a kid, by the time my home state actually got passenger service (Maine’s Downeaster in 2001), most of the EMDs had been converted to cab cars. In fact, I have more memories of Amtrak F40PHs leading freight trains on the Bangor & Aroostook and Canadian American in the early 2000s than I do of them leading passenger trains.

Need further proof that the P40DC has become Amtrak’s most recognizable workhorse? This past weekend, while walking past a toy store, I saw a wooden Amtrak train set in the window. Along with a loop of track, a depot, and a passenger car came a locomotive: a tiny blue and silver General Electric.

But the end of the P40DC and P42DC era is around the corner. In December, Amtrak announced it was purchasing 75 brand new Siemens locomotives for its long-distance services. The new locomotives are expected to start arriving in the summer of 2021.

Amtrak's Empire Builder in Whitefish, Montana. Photo by Justin Franz.
While it’s likely the P40DC and P42DC will still be roaming the rails for years to come, the announcement that the replacements are on the way should have serious preservationists thinking: Now is the time to start planning to save one of these workhorses. A decade ago, when Amtrak was almost done disposing of the F40PHs that had not been turned into cab cars, preservationists realized that they were behind the ball in saving one of those iconic Amtrak locomotives. Thankfully, at least three have since been preserved.

Preserving a locomotive isn’t a cheap proposition and it’s unclear if a frantic, eleventh-hour fundraising effort (like we’ve seen for other locomotives in recent years) would be enough 10 or 15 years from now when the scrappers are lighting off torches in Beech Grove to dismantle the last P40DC. But if interested parties start planning now, they will have plenty of time and money to cut a check when the last the P40DC or P42DC locomotives are parked on the deadline.

To some, it may seem premature to start talking about rolling one of Amtrak’s workhorses into a museum, but I often think of a quote from Jason Shron, the president of Rapido Trains, who has been heavily involved with the effort to save various pieces of VIA Rail equipment in Canada.

“Too many locomotives built after the 1950s have been allowed to be scrapped because many of our museums are underfunded, but also in some cases there just isn't the same interest in newer locomotives, but that's changing,” Shron told me back in 2014. “Railway history didn't end in the 1950s, it continues and it's important that we keep saving that history, including second-generation diesels.”

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