The AEM7 has become a classic

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Introduced in 1980, Amtrak's AEM7 enjoyed a 36-year career of high-speed Northeast Corridor service, nearly as long as the celebrated GG1s it replaced. AEM7 945, pictured near Riverside, Conn., in 2000, will soon be an exhibit at the Illinois Railroad Museum. Robert S. McGonigal
A news item last week from the world of railroad preservation brought me up short: an Amtrak AEM7 electric locomotive is headed to the Illinois Railway Museum. The unit, No. 945, is already stored at Amtrak’s 18th Street facility in Chicago, awaiting delivery to the museum in Union.

This will be the second time an AEM7 has gone to a museum. In 2015, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg acquired Amtrak 915.

An AEM7 as a museum piece? It seems like only last week these nimble little Swedish-design units began showing up on the Northeast Corridor — but it was nearly 40 years ago.

I remember standing on the platform at Princeton Junction in those days and for the first time watching one of these compact motors go whooshing past with a long train of Amfleet cars. With its boxy body, ribbed sides, and jumble of resistors atop its roof, it looked every bit “the toaster” it came to be called. It also looked like the future.

Of course, all eras become classic if you wait long enough, and that’s obviously the case here.

Today, in the era of the Acela, it might be easy to forget how desperate Amtrak was for reliable power on the NEC in the late 1970s. The first successor to the famed Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 — General Electric’s lumbering E60 — had already proven it wasn’t up to the task. “The E60 was a disaster,” says Bob Johnston, Trains magazine’s veteran Amtrak reporter. “It punished track above 90 mph and derailed on a high-speed test run.”

So Amtrak went looking for a replacement and up stepped a winning proposal from ASEA, the Swedish electric products company known for its successful Rc4 locomotive, introduced in 1967 on Swedish State Railways. A number of export versions soon made the Rc4 a familiar face in places as disparate as Norway, Austria, and Iran.  

For Amtrak, the AEM7 was the right tool at the right time. The units were short — 51 feet in length, versus more than 79 feet for the GG1 and more than 71 for the E60 — but their compactness belied their power. Never mind the “toaster” moniker. In fact, as the “7” in their designation implied, the AEM7s could produce upwards of 7,000 h.p. and run day after day at 125 mph, a performance superior to the GG1 even in its prime. “Amtrak hit the jackpot with the AEM7,” one Amtrak motive-power official told me. “It proved to be a reliable workhorse.”

Amtrak's intended GG1 successor, the boxy GE E60 of 1975, was not up to the task, and most were retired when AEM7 deliveries were completed. Amtrak GG1 4910 and E60 955 pass near Arsenal tower, Philadelphia, in 1980. Robert S. McGonigal
By the end of 1981, the AEM7 had vanquished the GG1 from Amtrak’s roster. Within a few years AEM7-powered Amfleet consists had displaced the troubled Metroliner M.U. cars from the Northeast Corridor’s premier service.

A total of 65 AEM7s were built in the U.S. via a consortium of EMD/ASEA, along with Budd, which manufactured nearly all the carbodies. Most were assembled at EMD’s historic plant in La Grange, Ill. Eventually Amtrak fielded 54 of the units; 7 went to SEPTA and 4 to MARC.

Over time the fleet went through various electrical upgrades, but throughout it remained a reliable asset for Amtrak, enabling the railroad to effectively double Metroliner ridership from a little more than 1 million annual passengers in 1982 to more than 2 million by 1989. “The AEM7’s performance facilitated the conversion of Metroliners to an hourly premium-priced product, and that paved the way for the Acela Express,” says Johnston. “It was absolutely crucial in Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor development.”

It also set a precedent for Amtrak, which increasingly turned to foreign manufacturers for NEC motive power, represented today by the Siemens ACS64, now a workhorse for Amtrak and just entering service on SEPTA, and the Bombardier/Alstom Acela trainsets.

Amtrak 915, seen at New Haven in 2000, joined other landmark electrics in the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania's collection in 2015. Robert S. McGonigal
So having mostly done its job (a handful remain on SEPTA’s roster), the AEM7 is now a museum piece. At Strasburg, the 915 is displayed outdoors with a number of other important Northeast Corridor electrics, including the last surviving PRR DD1, the original GG1, and an Amtrak E60. Museum Director Patrick Morrison says the 915 someday will join others in a planned roundhouse exhibit.

At Union, the 945 will complement an electric roster that includes PRR GG1 4927; South Shore 803 (a sister to the Milwaukee Road's "Little Joe" motors); Penn Central 4715, a former NYC S-motor built in 1906; Conrail E33 4601, of Virginian and New Haven ancestry; and beautiful, arch-windowed Illinois Terminal 1565.

“We already have a mini collection of mainline electrics, so this fits in with our plans to show the transition of technology,” says IRM Executive Director Nick Kallas. “This one is very much an original, as-built AEM7. And we like the fact it was built at La Grange.”

But don’t plan on seeing 945 in action on Union’s railroad. “Although it has D.C. traction motors, it won’t run on our overhead,” says Kallas.

Whether other AEM7s are preserved remains to be seen. Meanwhile, it’s good to know these two have found a permanent home. Next to a GG1, they may not look stylish. But more importantly, they look successful.

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