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

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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

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  • Conrail, a phoenix divided, but oh what a wonderful tribute!

  • A nice trip down memory lane, for me.  

    I was involved around the fringes of most of the changes to the paint scheme, including figuring out why the new EMDs and GP-10s seemed to hold up better than the rest of the fleet.  The answer appeared to be better surface prep plus the brand and type of paint.  The acrylic lacquer that EMD used held up well compared to the acrylic enamel that Juniata was using.  The change to DuPont's Imron polyurethane paint was initially resisted because it was much more expensive to purchase and apply.  But, boy, did it hold up well!

    Adding the reflective sill stripe decal was a bit of an adventure, too.  It came pre-masked, but the first unit to get it was C44-8W #6050, and it had already been painted.  Ideally, you'd stick it on the primer, paint, then peel the masking.  But, GE stuck it on the blue, then used some clear coat and small brush to edge seal them.  Juniata tried doing the same, but failed to do the edge sealing.  It wasn't long before water got in the edges and the stripes delaminated.  Live and learn!

    Getting the "Quality" logo on the side took up oodles of our only draftsman's time.  Transforming the logo used on the stationary, etc, to fit on both an EMD and GE locomotive, and still look reasonably well proporitioned, was not a trivial task.  The final result came out fairly well, though.

    The "Q" used in the Quality scheme was not the same as specified in the Conrail Style Manual.  This was discovered accidentally while in the midst of a near disaster.  EMD moved their production from LaGrange to London between their last "standard" Conrail paint job (1989's SD60s) and the "Quality" paint (1993's SD60Ms).  Some institutional knowledge was lost in the move.  The first locomotive they painted had the wrong lettering style.  EMD's CAD drawings used a default instead of the Conrail-specific lettering.  Oops!  On our visit up to London to inspect the sample before delivery, we caught it!  The standard lettering from the style guide provided EMD with what they needed to repaint the locomotive the right way although they did have to come back and ask us which way we wanted the "Q".

  • Thanks, oltmannd, for filling in some more information about the blue. Sounds like you have some good memories of working for Conrail.

  • While the Conrail Blue's certainly iconic and attractive, I think that ex-Pennsy cabin looked pretty nice in brown/oxide/tuscan whatever. It's an attractive shade for locomotives, one reason I became an RI fan in my younger days was how their maroon/brown/oxide motive power looked in the late 60s/early 70s, especially when the yellow accents were added. The bright red to me was a step down, and the powder blue and white had to be the straw that tipped them into bankruptcy.

  • Not all the original Conrail diesels got repainted before the Heritage unit rolled out.  I spotted one (and not in the dead line) in Conway yard last Saturday.

  • Thanks for the clarification about the original Conrail diesels. I wonder how long that one will stick around in blue?

  • I will always have a special spot in my heart for Conrail!!

    I guess that I'm a Conrail Blue Blood.

  • I will always have a special spot in my heart for Conrail!!

    I guess that I'm a Conrail Blue Blood.

  • Interesting.  That "Conrail Blue" sure looks a lot like Jersey Central "Blue Comet Blue!"  Shows the Conrail people had good taste!

  • Matt,

    Nice piece of research and story. Normally, this might be put in the "interesting trivia" file.  However, the story of Conrail is one of people pulling all the stops to make it a success. How much more difficult would it have been if the most prominent visible part of the company would have been a drab brown?

    Jay

  • Thanks, Jay.

    I have a lot of respect for what the people of Conrail accomplished over its 23 years.

    And as a stockolder who held onto the shares till the end of the bidding war, I owe them a big "thank you"!

  • Call me a Luddite, but I still think three major railroads in the Eastern US was a better idea.  Whatever the case, the welding together of Conrail into a good, solid railroad against all odds will forever be inspirational to many of us.

  • Thank goodness the Conrail Blue came to be. I can't imagine referring to a well known and appreciated railroad as "Big Brown."

    "Big Blue" just has a ring to it.

    Thanks for the research Matt. It showed the conflicts that went on at the top and some of the hidden secrets that helped bring about a brighter future for American railroading.

  • Glad you enjoyed the story. I feel fortunate that the employees who witnessed Conrail's proud history were willing to share it with me.

  • Matt,

    Thanks for the trip back in time.  Back then, I was working for Excelsior Truck Leasing, a Penn Central subsidiary that became part of Conrail in April 1976.  We provided all of the maintenance vehicles for PC in green and yellow (Hirail).  

    Early in 1976 we got the order for the first Conrail vehicles to be in brown for non-hirail vehicles.  We ordered the chassis and painted the body to match it in the specified color at our ETL paint shop in Conshohocken. (now the SEPTA shop)  I wish I had a picture of it to share today.  It was so ugly I called the Conrail transportation manager, Charlie Hunt.  He came out to look at it and agreed it was pretty bad.  It wasn't like the UPS brown at all. Even then I was a railfan and told him I couldn't imagine how awful the brown would look on a locomotive.

    We were told to hold off on ordering and painting any more trucks.  Several weeks later we got the new paint color, the nice blue I still enjoy today.  The story I got at the time was the wife of a Conrail VP had a 1960s era Fiat that had a nice shade of blue.  I'd be curious to see when your sources said the change to blue locomotives was made.

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