F-units aren't Forever?

Posted by George Hamlin
on Sunday, November 17, 2019

Since their regular-service advent in the 1940s, one could have been forgiven for thinking that the statement above might not have been true.  Those of us that can be classified as “Boomers” (in the non-railroad sense of this word) grew up with them and their ubiquity; for us, they have always been part of the North American railroad/railway landscape, so it would have been a waste of time to contemplate that this might turn out to be correct at some point in our lifespans.

However, as indicated by Dan Cupper in his November 12 post on the TRAINS News Wire, “Norfolk Southern has put its A-B-B-A set of executive F unit locomotives up for auction”.  While this set of cab units was a relatively recent (2006) entrant into the ranks of F units still operating, their impending demise in their present form is certainly not welcome news to most railfans.  For the moment, however, we can continue to enjoy the Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern examples, but they don’t frequent NS territory. 

In the May 1965 issue of TRAINS, the cover story was “F means freight”, subtitled “When streamlining was synonymous with tonnage”, and featured a montage of seven of the EMD cab units on the cover, all in what now are classic paint schemes.  (Interestingly, none of the railroads, as well as EMD itself, exist today using the names depicted.) 

To put this in perspective, The Magazine of Railroading, as TRAINS then styled itself, was still warming to the idea of significant coverage of the nuts-and-bolts of dieseldom; the first “all-diesel” issue had appeared three years prior in May 1962. Indeed, the  F-unit article (number six in the magazine’s “Our GM scrapbook” series) noted that the lead cab unit of demonstrator set 103 of what became the FT model, was already a museum piece at the National Museum of Transport in St. Louis, and in the field, the “second generation” of dieselization was well-established, featuring higher horsepower; hood units; and increasingly, turbocharged prime movers.

The last production F unit in North America, an FL9 “dual-mode” (to use more recent terminology), was manufactured in 1960, and this type was intended specifically for passenger service.  These locomotives, all of which were acquired by the New Haven, also differed from the B-B wheel arrangement on all the other F-unit models, utilizing a B-A1A configuration to accommodate axle-load limitations on the New York Central’s Park Avenue viaduct en route to New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.

Returning to recent events, enjoy the photo (above) of the NS OCS (Office Car Special), operating as NS train 956, deadheading the equipment back to Altoona, Pennsylvania from Augusta, Georgia.  What had been NS 4270, now truncated to the three-digit 270, leads on April 16 as it passes what was the N&W depot at White Post, Virginia. Mason Cooper’s Norfolk & Western’s Shenandoah Valley Line indicates that this building dates from 1950.  While this could be considered the heyday of the F unit, they would not have been seen routinely at this location since the N&W didn’t have any F units until they acquired those of the former Wabash in a 1964 merger, and in any case, I don’t recall any regular usage of cab units in this territory even following that event.

Re-numbering and reducing the number of digits is a time-honored practice in railroading, particularly for equipment that will be leaving the roster in the near future, and/or when the arrival of new/rebuilt power that needs to occupy the former number series arrives.  A steam-era example:  the B&O’s mighty EM-1 2-8-8-4s were renumbered from 7600-7629  to 650-679 late in their careers; for an engaging look at the 670 in 1957, see page 268 of Don Ball, Jr.’s Portrait of the Rails, if you have access to a copy.

No, F-units apparently aren’t forever, even though it may have seemed that way for many years.  And E-units aren’t everywhere anymore, either.  There are a pair of FL9s now in Texas, of all places; don’t neglect to get your photos while you can.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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