A moment with J.D.I.’s diesel

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, October 22, 2020

B&O 3802, the GP38 the late J. David Ingles selected as the 'all-American diesel' in 1982, is in the B&O Railroad Museum's shop for a 92-day inspection recently. Kevin P. Keefe
The scene was a spacious, well-equipped locomotive repair shop. A GP38 straddled an inspection pit, its Chessie System colors of blue, yellow, and vermilion gleaming under bright lights hung far above. It was surrounded by a hum of activity as mechanics went about putting the engine through its 92-day inspection. Soon they’d wrap up their work with signatures on the engine’s FRA Form 6180 blue card. The diesel would thrum to life, then back out the shop doors, ready for another assignment. 

Was this 40 years ago at Cumberland Shops, our Geep ready once again to grind up Sand Patch on a coal train? Or Wyoming, Mich., where it might go back to hauling automobile frames to Detroit?

As a matter of fact, it was just last week, October 13, inside the repair shop of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum. There, I caught up with B&O No. 3802, better known as “the all-American diesel,” as the plaque on its frame says.

Trains paid to have plaques applied to No. 3802 commemorating its celebrity status in 1982. The originals vanished decades ago, but replacements were part of the unit's restoration. Kevin P. Keefe
The 3802 also might be called “J.D.I.’s diesel,” because, in fact, J. David Ingles is the reason the unit has been enshrined. With a lot of us still feeling the sting of losing our friend and colleague — J.D.I. passed away October 4 – I couldn’t pass within a few miles of Baltimore on a family road trip last week without stopping to pay my respects.  

The 3802 is a great memorial to Dave. His nearly five decades as a staffer for both Trains and Classic Trains magazines cemented his reputation as the nation’s leading diesel locomotive writer. 

Retiring Trains Editor David P. Morgan said it himself when, in the July 1987 issue, he announced Ingles’ promotion to editor-in-chief. “I would wager that Ingles could, given a bare room, desk, chair, blank tablet, and ballpoint pen, list 80 to 85 per cent of [U.S. diesels] by road, colors, model, series, and builder. In, say, 36 hours,” Morgan wrote. “He is, then, the living contradiction of those who declared that the end of steam would be the end of our avocation.”

'J.D.I.'s diesel' stands over the inspection pit in the B&O museum's shop. Kevin P. Keefe
Ingles put all that expertise and passion to work in 1981 when he tackled perhaps his most audacious assignment: crunch thousands of numbers and dozens of Class I rosters to identify the “average” American diesel out of a national fleet of somewhere around 29,500. Months of research went into the project before Dave zeroed in on the 3802. The results showed up in his story “A Census of American Locomotives,” which constituted the magazine’s 34th annual motive power survey in the November 1982 issue.

In his own matter-of-fact way, Dave boiled down his criteria to a few simple conclusions. What made the B&O GP38 typical? Certainly, the railroad itself made a difference. In 1981, the B&O was approximately dead center among what were then the “Big 12” Class I railroads. With its 5,208 route-miles B&O was close to the national average of 5,104. Its roster of 975 locomotives was similar to the U.S. average of 800 units. The median age of diesels was more difficult to discern, but Dave determined that the 15-year-old 3802 — built in 1967 — again fit the bill.   

Beyond that, the 3802 had other common attributes: 2,000 horsepower, 16-cylinder prime mover, two-axle trucks, a low nose, dynamic brakes, and Electro-Motive lineage (in 1982, 85 percent of the U.S. fleet was EMD!). The only outlier J.D.I. cited was the fact the 3802 was heavier than the usual GP38, reflective of its use in coal trains, plus the fact it had a larger 3,600-gallon fuel tank.

B&O 3802's bright Chessie livery still looks fresh 12 years after Trains underwrote the unit's restoration by the museum. Kevin P. Keefe
Dave’s spotlight on the 3802 made it something of a celebrity. Writer Greg McDonnell wrote what I’d call a definitive piece on the unit in the September 1997 all-EMD issue of Trains, back when the 3802 was playing out its service days on CSX’s Canadian Division. As quoted by Greg, the shop foreman at Sarnia pretty much summed up the GP38’s appeal: “For the money — in dollars per miles — it’s one of the best engines GM ever built.” 

J.D.I. obviously agreed. He concluded his 1982 story with a bit of wry advice: “Keep an eye out for 3802 — it’s so typical it’s easy to miss.”

You won’t miss it at the B&O museum. The engine sparkles in its early 1970s Chessie paint, which it received afresh in 2008, paid for in part by that year’s annual $10,000 Trains Preservation Award. Since then the 3802 has seen regular use hauling museum passenger trains, switching equipment around the property, and participating in the annual “Diesel Days” in August. 

“We recently replaced all the fuel injectors in it,” says Dwayne McCoy, superintendent of operations. “Other than that, it’s been a nice-running locomotive for us.”

That plaque on the 3802’s frame doesn’t credit J.D.I. for the locomotive’s all-American status, it simply names Trains magazine as the designator. And I’m sure that was fine with Dave. He wasn’t particularly interested in getting credit for himself. Throughout his 49 years on the staffs of Trains and Classic Trains, he was always all about the magazine. 

But I knew what I was thinking as I headed for the museum’s shop door and took one more look at the 3802: “That’s J.D.I.’s diesel.” 

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