Hippo, We Hardly Knew You

Posted by George Hamlin
on Sunday, July 18, 2021

With the exit of Conrail from its electrified freight business in the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is the only U.S. railroad with a significant amount of electrified mileage in the country.  This began when Amtrak inherited the former Pennsylvania and New Haven Railroad passenger operations in the Northeast as of May 1971, and obtained ownership of this trackage as part of the formation of Conrail in 1976.

As a result, Amtrak inherited both redoubtable former Pennsy GG1s, which began service in the 1930s, and the then-new Metroliners.  Subsequently, the passenger carrier has acquired new electric locomotives, with mixed results.  Obtained to accompany the new Budd-built Amfleet passenger cars in the mid-1970s, the E60Cs were unable to live up to their potential, and finished their passenger service careers pulling the long-haul trains that transited the Northeast Corridor, albeit at somewhat lower speeds.

The next iteration, the AEM-7, based on the Swedish Rc4 electric locomotive, was far more successful.  In addition to hauling Amfleet cars at speeds they were designed for, the “Toasters”, as they were nicknamed, also eliminated the original Metroliner MU (multiple-unit) equipment, some of which were converted into cab cars for push-pull services, and continue in service today, principally on Amtrak’s Philadelphia-Harrisburg “Keystone Service” route. 

Subsequently, Amtrak converted the Metroliner service into a fixed-consist set of cars powered by locomotives on each end.  While this product has proven to be successful in terms of generating ridership, it should be noted that the development was longer than planned, and included the fact that additional width had been added to the cars, which limited the capabilities of the tilting mechanism installed in what became branded as the Acelas.

In conjunction with the Acela development, Amtrak also ordered a small (15 units) fleet of HHP-8 electric locomotives to supplement the AEM-7 fleet until their wholesale replacement could take place.  These powerful (8,000 horsepower) locomotives resembled double-ended Acela power cars; at least in their original iteration, they bore “Acela” titling and emblems near the cab doors at each end (note that by 2012, as seen in the opening photo -- Northeast Regional train 193 at Metropark, New Jersey, September 5, 2012 -- these decorative elements have disappeared). 

They quickly acquired nicknames, reflecting individual views of their shape; “banana” was heard initially, but didn’t seem to catch on to any great extent; “Hippo”, referencing their HHP-8 designation at Amtrak, seems to have persisted.  I think that you could make a case for “football” (the American version) if you considered the idea that it had been sliced longitudinally. 

Alas, their Amtrak careers would prove to be relatively short; “low reliability” was the complaint generally mentioned.  Thus, on June 18, 2016, the day Amtrak ran an excursion to honor the retirement of their older siblings, the AEM-7s, all of the carrier’s remaining Hippos were stored out-of-service, not quite fifteen years from their entry into service. 

To borrow a musical term, however, the Hippos had a coda following Amtrak’s cessation of their use.  Maryland’s rail commuter authority, MARC, acquired six HHP-8s for use on what they term the “Penn Line”, operating on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor between Washington, DC as far north as Perryville, Maryland.  My last sighting of one was last year, during the “Covid Summer” of 2020, operating afternoon rush-hour train 532 on June 29, as seen below; “ridden hard and put away wet” seems to be a reasonable description of this tired iron horse, in any case. 

(Photos by George W. Hamlin; title adapted from the John F. Kennedy biography Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye)

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