The locomotive everyone loves to hate (updated April 20)

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, April 8, 2011

This morning I got off the Carolinian at Washington Union Station, and on the adjacent track stood four of Amtrak’s P42 locomotives, waiting head to tail, elephant-style, for assignments on trains to Virginia or points south. Walking past them, they sounded like a forest of chattering monkeys (or maybe large, sedentary old dogs) as they burbled, spat, farted, hissed, and popped. What a cacophony! The spectacle made my hard heart soften a degree or two. It occurred to me few people have ever given this tireless machine its due.
Until they began experiencing a rash of turbocharger and traction motor failures this past winter (see Bob Johnston’s account in the May issue of trains), these 200 or so brutes had been Amtrak’s go-to locomotive for the past decade and a half, logging an estimated 2 million miles apiece.
I first laid eyes on a P42 in the mid 1990s as two of them prepared to launch the Auto Train from Lorton, Va. (That's the P42-led Auto Train on this page, bagged by a hotbox detector near Milford, Va., and below that, the southbound Carolinian approaching the Virginia-North Carolina border). How awkward they seemed to me then. In appearance, they are the creation of Cesar Vergara. In 1990, when Amtrak began planning on replacements for its F40PH diesels, Amtrak president Graham Claytor approached Vergara, then the company’s chief designer, and his team for ideas that would give the new generation of locomotive a distinctive visual identity.
What Vergara, working with his people and General Electric, came up with was a distinctive design, all right. Boxy is what I would call it. The front of a P42 looks like an armored tank, those shallow windows the slits from which the weapons officer gains sight of targets. Okay, I am being unfair to this loyal workhorse of a locomotive. But for me, the P42 (GE called this model its Genesis class) took getting used to. I’m still trying, in fact.
Structurally and mechanically, the P42 is impressive, however. This locomotive may look like the Incredible Hulk, but its height is 14 inches less than the F40PH that it replaced, enabling it to easily navigate every Amtrak route. Harking back to the era of Electro-Motive E units, the Genesis employs a one-piece body (called monocoque) that makes it lighter, more aerodynamic, and fuel-efficient than all its Amtrak-era predecessors. It produces more horsepower (4,200) than the F40PH (3,000) while burning 22 percent less fuel.

Vergara, who left Amtrak a decade ago to open his own design studio, is proud of his baby. The P42 doesn't have as much slope in front as he desired; he says he was overruled at Amtrak on that matter. But the design won a Brunel Award, which recognizes aesthetically pleasing railway designs throughout the world, and a Presidential Design Award from the U.S. government. The other thing Vergara doesn't care much for is the current paint scheme adorning the locomotives; he says it makes them look "like beached whales," and I could not agree more.

In 2004, GE came back to Vergara’s design studio to help it fashion a new generation of passenger locomotive. The GE Next Generation Locomotive is one I could easily come to love, should the design Vergara developed ever get built. The back 80 percent of the NGL looks, to my eyes at least, exactly like a P42. It’s the nose that attracts me. Tapered in the manner of a MotivePower MPXpress engine rather than bluntly slanted like a P42, it has attractive qualities that the Genesis locomotive lacks. Visibility was never a hallmark of the P42, but that’s not a problem with the NGL, whose forward windows are noticeably taller and tapered toward the rear on each side. (See an artist’s rendering of the unit here). By the way, Vergara designed the new locomotives now being built for Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad in a partnership between GE and MotivePower. Vergara also designed the new locomotives that South Florida's Tri-Rail is buying from Brookville Equipment Corp., a Pennsylvania maker of mining railroad equipment that has entered the locomotive business.

Cesar says, maybe not entirely in jest, that his goal is to design every new passenger locomotive made in America.  If so, his next opportunity is coming up soon. Amtrak figures the useful life of its locomotives as being 20 years. It recently disclosed that it expects “acquisition activity” for new high speed diesels to begin in fiscal 2012, which begins this September, and anticipates initial deliveries in 2015-2016, when the P42s begin turning age 20. The competition for that order will be ferocious. General Electric’s reputation was helped, not hurt, by the P42, so you have to consider it first among the three contenders, the other two being Caterpillar’s Electro-Motive Diesel and Wabtec’s MotivePower. It’s not out of the question that Cesar Vergara's thumbprint will be all whatever Amtrak ultimately decides to buy. I wouldn’t mind that a bit. Fred W. Frailey

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