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Fifty shades of blue: How Conrail’s paint scheme changed from brown to blue

Posted by Matt Van Hattem
on Friday, June 01, 2012

NS heritage unit with Conrail paint

 Norfolk Southern’s first heritage unit, ES44AC No. 8098, proudly wears Conrail’s blue paint and trademark “wheels-on rails” logo. Photo by Norfolk Southern

It’s June 1, 2012, and 13 years ago to this day, Conrail was dissolved, split among Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation. (The name still lives on, however, in a unique switching and terminal operation that you’ll learn about in the October 2012 issue of Trains magazine.)
 
This year saw a pleasant surprise with the introduction of Norfolk Southern’s gleaming blue Conrail heritage unit, the first of the new locomotives to wear the paint schemes of NS predecessors.
 
Looking at photos of the new engine, I’m reminded again how fortunate we are that Conrail never adopted the original color scheme planned for the railroad: brown!
 
That’s right. Many things changed between the planning for Conrail and the railroad as we came to know it. For instance, early versions of the railroad’s name used a capitalized “R”: ConRail — perhaps a more accurate shorthand for its formal name (Consolidated Rail Corporation), but certainly less elegant written out, especially on the nose of a locomotive.
 
But the brown. Egad! That might have been too pitiful a color for a railroad determined to dig itself out of a morass of rotting track, red ink, and low morale. Granted, brown probably better reflected the mood of the time, an era when some thought railroading was in a death spiral.
 
Thank goodness, instead we got Conrail’s “Premier Blue.” (That’s the name author Don Ball Jr. cites in a book on America’s second-generation railroads. Trains magazine called it a royal blue, while Diesel Era magazine labels the color medium blue).
 
Whatever the name, the vibrant blue injected a shock of color into Northeast railroading’s blanket of Penn Central black and the drab green found on Reading and Jersey Central engines.
 
Conrail’s first annual report spoke of its planned “blueprint to profitability,” and the blue paint on its engines could be considered a visual embodiment of that ambitious idea — a locomotive-sized corporate mission statement.
 
As the company turned itself around, those blue locomotives that thundered by were a colorful wagging finger to the naysayers who had believed the industry’s best days were behind it.
 
But how did it happen? Whose idea was the blue?
 
Seeing the Norfolk Southern unit made me want to find out. So I got in touch with some former Conrail employees who had seen the railroad through thick and thin. They offered other names, people who reached back 36 years for answers.
 
Dick Hasselman, Conrail’s first vice president of operations, credits a consulting firm working with Edward Jordan, the railroad’s first chief executive officer, for the choice of paint scheme and Conrail’s distinctive “wheels-on-rails” logo. “I believe Ed Jordan handled this decision without consulting [president] Dick Spence or anyone involved in running the railroad — so I think that the blue color, as well as the Conrail logo and typeface, were all decisions made by the consultants Ed hired,” Hasselman says. “I do know that Spence advocated for brown boxcars (which was not done).”
 
Larry DeYoung, who joined Conrail’s marketing department in 1978, has a Conrail Style Manual prepared by the consultants, covering every detail of the “Conrail look,” and how it would appear on everything from cabooses to signs, stationery, and business cards.
 
“The consultants presented Conrail top management and public affairs people with two options: blue and brown,” DeYoung says. “The brown was based on the UPS and Pullman experience: it holds up well in adverse environments. The blue was chosen, as the story was related to me by PR folks, because it was a complete break from all predecessor roads (the brown was deemed too ‘PRR-like’), and the blue was unlike the colors of any of the major Class Is of the time.”
 
Still, DeYoung says, that decision came shortly after “conveyance day,” April 1, 1976, so some early logos and lettering (including “ConRail”) and a few non-standard paint schemes slipped through.
 
“The car shops kept working with what they had,” DeYoung says,” and cranked out cars in PC green and EL maroon with CR stencils pieced together from what they had on hand.” DeYoung even recalls seeing some ex-Pennsylvania Railroad cabooses assigned to Pennsylvania Power & Light unit coal trains, wearing what might have become the system’s “Conrail brown,” a rich brown with imitation gold lettering.
 
Trains magazine ran an eye-catching color photo by John C. Benson in its August 1976 issue showing the first Conrail locomotive to wear the “dress blues:” GP40 No. 3091, still carrying its former New York Central road number, but looking pristine after emerging from the Collinwood shop in Cleveland on May 20, 1976. The caption said Conrail’s locomotives and cabooses would wear blue, while freight cars would wear “traditional red oxide” (boxcar red) and covered hoppers would be painted gray. The railroad hoped to have 170 of its 5,000 locomotives clad in blue by the end of 1976.
 
However, the color we know as “Conrail blue” has actually changed over time. The initial blue was a Dupont acrylic lacquer paint with a high amount of volatile organic compounds. And in photos, that early blue appears more turquoise than the later version, which seems to have a richer hue.
 
John Samuels confirms the color shift. He began working with Conrail as a consultant in 1976 and joined the company two years later, becoming assistant vice president of industrial engineering.
 
However, Samuels says the paint alone was not solely responsible for the early lighter blue shade. The original paint would blanch when exposed over time to the sun.
 
“Laboratory tests found that the original CR blue paint began chalking after only about one year of service, compared to our desire to have a locomotive paint job last eight years,” Samuels says. “The premature chalking caused many complaints, which ultimately led to Imron paint.”
 
Imron was a low-volatiles paint, but one that required special equipment to apply. “Conrail did not have the mixing equipment required to blend the Imron base solids and hardener prior to spraying. So after doing extensive sun testing of both paints, Conrail chose to specify the Imron paint as standard,” Samuels recalls.
 
“We built a locomotive paint booth at Altoona to both meet EPA standards and spray the new Imron paint, which was a slightly darker blue, but kept its color much better over time.”
 
At least one veteran Conrail painter at the Altoona, Pa., shop (now run by Norfolk Southern) remembers the switch to Imron as taking place in the late 1980s or early 1990s, says shop employee Lex Parrish. “A couple of years later, they started top-coating the Imron with clearcoat,” he adds.
 
Even after the shift to Imron, the solid blue and the white vinyl lettering and “can opener” logo remained standard, although subtle changes occurred along the way. Some of the General Electric B40-8s built in 1988 wore a special “labor management” nose decal, and in 1989 Conrail’s numberboard background color began a shift from black to white. Then in 1990, the railroad began adding a white reflective frame stripe to new and repainted engines.
 
All of this was a prelude to the more dramatic visual changes of the 1990s. In 1991, the railroad’s second order of GE C40-8W widecabs arrived on the property adorned with “Conrail Quality” lettering. The idea was to promote a corporate-wide Continuous Quality Improvement program adopted in 1989, a time when many U.S. companies were implementing some kind of total quality management initiative.
 
Older engines also received the Quality lettering on the nose and sides. “The side print was for the public, but the nose print was so Conrail train crews could be reminded of our Quality efforts by seeing that on the nose as they passed each other,” Samuels says.
 
The final paint variation was perhaps the most striking: 30 SD80MACs built by EMD in 1995-96 came with a sweeping “white smile” treatment on the nose — a unique scheme confined to a unique locomotive model. (Only Conrail received SD80MACs.)
 
“The different paint job was done to make sure both the train crews and repair forces knew the locomotives were different,” explains Samuels, who was vice president of mechanical when Conrail placed the order with EMD. “The SD80MACs were Conrail’s first A.C. units, first 5,000-hp, 20-cylinder engines, and they had EMD’s radial truck design. Conrail used them primarily in coal service on routes that had tight curvature.”
 
Still, for its General Electric-built heritage ES44AC No. 8098, Norfolk Southern chose the “classic” look from the 1970s and 1980s (albeit with the white frame stripe), and painted the engine at the same Altoona, Pa., shop that once coated thousands of locomotives in Conrail blue.
 
“All the lettering and logo work was made in-house just for that unit,” says Lex A. Parrish, in Norfolk Southern’s Juniata shop in Altoona. “The heritage unit was painted with Dupont Imron N3136HN white and Dupont Imron 99T-42P blue, and then clearcoated.”
 
Norfolk Southern has painting diagrams for Conrail locomotives from the SD40-2 era on, adds Allen Rider, manager of locomotive engineering in Atlanta. “I probably sent Lex a painting diagram for a C40-8W, although they have a fairly large library of drawings themselves [at the shop],” Rider says.
 
The heritage unit decals were built new to conform to the modern ES44AC’s burly contours. “I would have liked to have done the SD80MAC scheme (some call it the ‘raccoon scheme’) but decided not to because it didn’t represent a typical Conrail locomotive,” Rider says. “Same logic applies to the Conrail Quality scheme.”
 
Conrail’s June 1, 1999, dissolution makes it the youngest railroad to receive commemoration in Norfolk Southern’s heritage unit program (where did these last 13 years go?).
 
In fact, before the heritage program began, NS had 15 or so ex-Conrail locomotives still in their blue paint with NS patches and numbering. Conrail’s brief 23-year lifespan exceeds that of Penn Central (8 years), which will be getting its own black-painted heritage unit later this month.
 
For those who watched Conrail triumph over insurmountable odds and demonstrate railroading’s incomparable value to U.S. transportation, the sight of Norfolk Southern’s new, blue heritage unit is an inspiration. (Thank goodness, it’s not wearing Conrail brown.)

Conrail brown caboose

Conrail brown? Perish the thought! This ex-Pennsylvania Railroad caboose in Conrail’s brown scheme is actually a rare find. The car, previously assigned to Pennsylvania Power & Light coal trains, is seen at Massillon, Ohio, on April 18, 1993, on local freight CA04 that originated in Canton. Photo by Reggie McKee

Conrail GP30s

Two GP30s in the early blue shade lead symbol freight SEPY (Selkirk-Potomac Yard) south along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor at Bowie, Md., on Nov. 18, 1981. Photo by Alex Mayes

Conrail SD50s

Two SD50s in the richer Imron blue paint hustle an eastbound RoadRailer train across the Little Conemaugh River at Summerhill, Pa., on Feb. 9, 1998. Photo by Alex Mayes

Conrail C40-8Ws

Two C40-8Ws at Summerhill, Pa., show off the “Conrail Quality” scheme, while bringing freight PIAT (Pittsburgh’s Conway Yard-Altoona) east on July 20, 1996. Photo by Alex Mayes

NS Conrail heritage unit in service

Norfolk Southern’s Conrail heritage unit looks right at home on the point of a coal train. Photo by Norfolk Southern

 

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Also, see Editor Jim Wrinn's blog: Norfolk Southern's heritage units sure are gorgeous, but they need nicknames; also the story behind 8099's odd suffix

Art Director Tom Danneman's blog: BNSF: It's time for heritage locomotives

 

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