Tale of Two Generations

Posted by George Hamlin
on Thursday, July 16, 2020

Once, they called it the “Little Giant”.  Run by “Super Railroad” proponent John W. Barriger between 1956 and 1964, the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie benefited from the growth of the steel industry in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania region, and when its customers’ industry went tilt, the P&LE  followed it on a downward trajectory.

During the early post-World War II era, the P&LE, like most other railroads, began to dieselize in earnest.  Oddly enough, its oldest diesels were a pair of Fairbanks-Morse H-10-44 switchers built in 1946; two others followed in 1948.

Interestingly, as of the “first generation” of diesel power, the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie was heavy on local/switching locomotives rather than road power.  (After mentioning the wonderful Alco PAs that hauled the railroad’s passenger trains, the rest of this discussion will confine itself to freight locomotives, although there were still a pair of Geeps rostered for the weekday commuter runs as late as 1985.)

According to Jeff Wilson’s Guide to North American Diesel Locomotives (Kalmbach Books, 2017), the first generation switchers numbered 92, and included Alco S-2 and S-4 models; the EMD NW2 and SW9; and the aforementioned H-10-44.  Road units consisted entirely of 35 EMD GP7s.  In addition, there were 5 Alco RS-3s on the roster that could have handled both tasks.  For that matter, although they were the de facto road power, I suspect that the Geeps handled switching tasks on occasion, also. 

This preponderance of switchers, essentially in a three-to-one ratio with the road units, is indicative of the amount of traffic originated or terminated on the P&LE, as opposed to “overhead” or “through” business.  On the pre-Conrail version of the railroad, no point on its route “system” was more than 64 miles from company headquarters.  Pittsburgh was a hopping place, rail traffic-wise in the 1950s, and the railroad was prepared to meet the needs of its customers.

Fast-forward to the mid-1960s; North American railroads were well into what became known as the “second generation” of diesels.  The P&LE opted for 22 General Electric U28Bs to take over the road tasks; each locomotive had almost twice the horsepower of the GP7s that they eventually would replace.  On the switching side of the roster, 65 locomotives of two types (SW1500 and MP15DC) were acquired to replace the older power; of course, the MP15DCs could also be utilized in road service, if needed.  Later, additional road power, some acquired used, in the form of GP38s and GP38-2s (27 total), were added to the roster, changing the road/switcher balance considerably. 

In this June 14, 1985 shot of P&LE road power outside the railroad’s shop in McKees Rocks, across the river from Pittsburgh, both the U-boats and Geep 38s are present.  And while the shop building, proudly displaying the company name is indicative of the heavy-duty nature of the P&LE’s infrastructure in the past, I doubt that many were still referring to it as the “Little Giant”.  In another seven years, the P&LE will no longer exist, although its mainline trackage in the vicinity of Pittsburgh is now owned by CSX.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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