Old School

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, August 2, 2021

Even when I shot this photo of NS train 973 coming by the signals at Stanley, Virginia on May 29, 1993, my conclusion was that this set of NS EMD SD40/-2 locomotives, while second-generation “classics”, was not that far from needing to be assigned a “sell-by” date.  I was happy to get the shot, in any case.

Now, you’ve got to remember that both of the Norfolk Southern’s components that merged to form the modern NS in 1982 were the last major roads to acquire significant fleets of diesels with high short hoods, long after most other roads opted for the better visibility offered by “low nose” motive power.  For that matter, the operation of diesels long-hood forward offered even better collision protection for the operating crew than even a high short hood, and both the Southern and N&W utilized this paradigm; remember the “hammerhead” SD45s, with their flared radiators leading the way?

By the early 1990s, even so-called “standard” cabs were becoming passé, due to the widespread use of “wide/safety” cabs, pioneered in Canada starting in the mid-1970s.  On the NS, however, at this time there was no need for the word “standard” with respect to locomotive cabs; all of them were the same; the only question being whether the short hoods were full-height or not.  In 1993 on the NS, wide/safety cabs on the roster were still a few years in the future; I wouldn’t photograph one until Halloween 1996.

The lead locomotive, 1624, was the highest number amongst NS-predecessor Norfolk & Western’s “straight” SD40s.  With a delivery date of mid-1971, it had now been in service for over two decades.  Behind were the 6122 and 6123, the newer “Dash-2” version of the SD40 that began showing up on the N&W in 1975; the twenty year mark was in sight for these two, as well. 

But then, none of this should have been all that surprising.  The N&W was, in many ways, a very traditional railroad; check out that CPL (color position light) signal that the locomotives are passing for further evidence.  Originally reflecting the Pennsylvania Railroad’s ownership of a significant portion of the N&W’s stock, they had been installed originally as PRR-style position lights, complete with “unicolor” (i.e. amber) bulbs.  Post-1950s, the N&W had advanced to the tri-color version, similar in some ways to the system utilized by the Baltimore & Ohio.

So now, where are we, almost thirty years later than the photo?  Some things remain the same.  For starters, it’s possible to view the Stanley CPLs any time you want; come on down to the Shenandoah Valley to see them, since they’re still there, performing the same function they were in 1993.  (Mercifully, at least for signal aficionados, PTC (Positive Train Control) has not come to the Shenandoah line south of Front Royal, Virginia yet.)

More amazingly, not only are there still diesels on the NS roster in the 6100 series, but they are former N&W units bearing their original numbers.   Not all made the cut for extensive modernization, but the 6122 is still on the roster (, complete with PTC capability, air conditioning and an electronic handbrake.  Unfortunately, you probably won’t see one of the 6100s leading a road freight, but at forty-six years of service, the investment in them has proven to be outstanding,

So, if my 2021 self somehow had met the 1993 version, he might well have offered the advice that “old school” is both relative, and, in some cases, premature, as well.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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