Gotta Love the Rock

Posted by George Hamlin
on Friday, December 16, 2022

The Rock Island, or, more formally, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific, certainly wasn’t among the largest U.S. railroads.  As a native of the Midwest, although it extended as far as New Mexico, the majority of people in the United States probably had no personal exposure to it, with the exception of freight cars passing through their home territories in interchange service.

The one significant geographic distinction that this welterweight pugilist had was that it alone operated a relatively direct north-south route in the central United States, ranging from Minnesota to Texas via Kansas City.  With regard to the use of the word “Pacific” in its title without bothering to actually lay down rails to the west coast, it shared that distinction with many other contenders, including, probably most egregiously, the Cincinnati, New Orleans and Texas Pacific, which served only one (Cincinnati) of the four geographic entities listed in its official title.

Of course, the Rock Island’s basic problem by the 1960s was its status as a ‘granger’ road in the Midwest.  The combination of overbuilt rail infrastructure in this region, particularly once trucks on government-financed highways took virtually all short-haul traffic away from the rails, and “dead-handed’ economic regulation, which made it difficult to shed the now-unnecessary trackage, was certainly not a recipe for economic success.

It wasn’t that the road didn’t try; it accepted a merger proposal from the Union Pacific in 1964.  Slow forward to 1974, when it was finally approved by the regulator, the Interstate Commerce Commission, but with several “conditions” that needed to be fulfilled.  These, along with the Rock Island’s bankruptcy filing in 1975 caused the UP to back out in August 1975; the ICC dismissed the case in July 1976, and the Rock ceased operations March 31, 1980.

As bad a business proposition that the RI became, from a fan’s viewpoint it was an absolute delight.  Never the prime passenger carrier on a major route (the Golden State, RI’s entry in the Chicago-Southern California market, was a poor third to the Santa Fe’s Chiefs and UP’s Cities streamliners; likewise in the Denver market, where the Rocky Mountain Rocket was handily eclipsed by both the Burlington’s Denver and California Zephyrs, as well as Union Pacific’s City of Denver), it did splash new streamlined Rockets all over the Midwest, and even generated a diesel “exclusive”, EMD’s TA model, in the process. 

For that matter, to enable the Rocky Mountain Rocket to access the Colorado Springs market, the road had Electro Motive develop the unique AB6 model of its passenger diesel E unit line.  This locomotive, based on the E6 B unit, had a control compartment in one end, so that it could lead from Limon, Colorado to Colorado Springs, and a baggage compartment where the second 567 diesel engine would have been in a ‘stock’ E6B. The Rock Island, of course, had the only two ever produced.

As time progressed in the 1960s, the CRIP had one of the most diverse, and fascinating motive power rosters in the land.  Switchers from the recently-demised New York, Ontario & Western; a General Motors Aerotrain in Chicago commuter service; BL2s in passenger service; Alco FAs re-engined by EMD, and the even-more-outlandish EMD re-engined Alco DL-109.  One of the Rock Island’s slant-nosed E6 units, the 630, operated into the 1970s, the last of its kind in regular service.  All of this merited a 10-page article in the January 1965 issue of TRAINS magazine, Christine and the Mongeese, by future Editor J. David Ingles.

And finally, as seen in the photo accompanying this verbiage, as other roads were shedding EMD E units as they discontinued passenger trains, the Rock was acquiring them second-hand from potential partner UP.  Not only that, as illustrated on November 14, 1971, they were using them in revenue freight service, as seen here at Joliet, Illinois.  I suspect that the price was right, and while they had neither the horsepower nor tractive effort of “second-generation” diesels, they did allow the Rock Island to get tonnage over the road, which apparently would have become difficult without their acquisition.

All of this couldn’t last, and we’ve already mentioned that this railroad’s life ended less than a decade later, although in fairness, it did outlast the Penn Central.  However, in its 1960s/early 1970s “glory years”, fans had to love the Rock.  What a show!

Photo: George W. Hamlin

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