As Time Goes By, Again

Posted by George Hamlin
on Thursday, November 24, 2022

Helper locomotives, often used as pushers, have a long, and ongoing history on the former Pennsylvania Railroad main line west of Altoona, Pennsylvania.  In the early post-World War II era, there was a group of early EMD F3 units that were delivered as class EH-15 specifically for helper service in this territory.  Later, the Pennsy’s Baldwin “Centipede” diesels, which proved to be unsatisfactory in their original role as passenger train power, were operated as helpers based in Altoona.  (For more information about this type of locomotive, see:

Well-known railroad author Don Ball, Jr., in his 1980 book America’s Railroads: The Second Generation, describes a 1962 visit to the Altoona/Horseshoe Curve area in the hopes of seeing the Baldwin beasts, only to be surprised, and disappointed, that they had been supplanted by Alco RSD-12 hood units.  From today’s perspective, I suspect that some readers would have been happy to have seen and/or photographed the latter!

In more recent times, a fleet of SD40-2s in “Dress Blue” took on this task during the Conrail era.  When the Norfolk Southern obtained this portion of Conrail, the practice continued, with only a change in paint scheme, to the NS’s black and white attire.  More recently, newer, more powerful types have been assigned to this service.

Until the summer of 2021, the diesels used here were often serviced at the locomotive facility at Cresson, Pennsylvania, as seen in the photo above, taken on May 8, 2009.  Pictured at the right is SD80MAC 7205, acquired by the NS at the time of the “breakup” of Conrail in 1999.  This 5,000 horsepower EMD product was acquired only by Conrail, in 1995/96.  At the time of Conrail’s division and acquisition by the NS and CSX, the SD80s were assigned to both NS and CSX, although the NS eventually obtained the entire fleet by making a trade with CSX. 

To the left in the photo is NS 6304, an SD40E.  This type is the result of a rebuild program begun by Norfolk Southern in 2008 based on the SD50, albeit with only 3,000 horsepower.  As of 2020, following the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Norfolk Southern elected to retire the SD80s.

Today, these duties have been taken over by the NS’s SD70ACU class.  These locomotives are rebuilt SD90MACs acquired by NS from the Union Pacific.  Visually they are identical to the SD80MAC.  In addition, the NS chose to number the ACUs in the 7200 series beginning where the SD80s ended, so the average observer might logically conclude that nothing has changed.

The song referenced in the title contains the lyrics “…you must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss”; in the helper locomotive world, that could well translate into “a shove is still a shove”.  I suspect that the need will continue as long as rails climb into the mountains west of Altoona.  I do wonder whether it’s still too early to anticipate when the NS fleet of General Electric AC44C6Ms, themselves the result of a rebuild program, will be assigned here.  However, EMDs have been in charge for quite a while, and I suspect that will continue well into the future.  And visually, only the cognoscenti will know if SD70ACe’s take over from the ACUs.  Time will continue to go by, however…

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