Motive Power Trends, and Oddities

Posted by George Hamlin
on Sunday, January 21, 2024

First, I’m glad that I was able to make the shot shown above, and that it now has been digitized and can be shared widely.  It’s clearly from a now-distant era, where operating practices were noticeably different; it also represents something unusual at the time, but more about that later.  

Re operating practices, those who have read TRAINS magazine for some time, as well as others that have seen this material via perusing back issues of the magazine, may recall the cover story in the August 1964 issue.  The cover features pictures of a pair of Fairbanks-Morse “Trainmasters” and an Atlantic Coast Line Alco Century 628, with the teaser comment “What these diesels started… …has started all over again”, and references page 40, so that readers could satisfy their curiosity immediately.  The relevant article is titled “Are four traction motors enough in 1964?”. 

Indeed, up to that time, most road freights in the U.S., and in particular relatively high-speed piggyback trains (prior to ‘intermodal’ becoming common terminology in the rail business), ran behind B-B/four powered axle locomotives.  EMD had modest sales of its six-axle SD series, including Santa Fe, Burlington,

Southern and Union Pacific for the turbocharged SD24, but a random visit to the tracks wasn’t likely to encounter C-C units on a through freight, in most locations.

The article, by Editor David P. Morgan, noted that the Atlantic Coast Line in 1963 had ordered new C-C/Six-axle power from three manufacturers (Alco, EMD and  General Electric), in the form of Century 628s, SD35s and U25Cs, respectively.  The ACL’s Assistant Vice-President-Equipment came forth with a memorable quotation concerning the four versus six-axle debate: “It’s high school physics, it’s not engineering”.   Morgan goes to explain:“… horsepower ratings are academic unless they can be translated into equivalent drawbar pull”.

History shows that, subsequent to 1964, C-C locomotives would eventually become the dominant tonnage haulers on Class 1 railroads, but this didn’t happen overnight.  Within two years of the TRAINS article, the New York Central ordered a large number of GP40s, many of which were used to pull the road’s “Flexi-Van” intermodal services.

NYC successors Penn Central, and later, Conrail, continued to order GP40s, including the -2 model, in good numbers, and utilized them extensively for intermodal service.  Competitor Chessie System acquired a massive number of the later model, as late as 1981.  Conrail also moved considerable intermodal tonnage behind General Electric’s B36-7, as did future merger partner Seaboard System, and the Southern Pacific also rostered this model.  In fact, significant numbers of high-horsepower, four-axle diesels were produced into the 1990s, as exemplified by the Dash 8-40BW and GP60M units that carried the revived “Warbonnet” paint scheme on the Santa Fe, beginning in 1989.

Throughout this timeframe there was an outlier, however: Union Pacific.  The UP thoroughly embraced the SD40-2, and in effect, never looked back.  During the 1970s, a specific group of this type of locomotive, both converted and acquired new, had higher-speed (80 miles per hour) gearing installed specifically for premium intermodal services, and were numbered in the 8000 series to reflect this; they became known as “fast forties” as a result. 

Probably the most unusual high-horsepower B-Bs were the GP50s bought by the Southern Railway, since they continued that road’s traditional short high hood configuration.  While not assigned exclusively to intermodal services, they were seen in this role frequently.

The photo above shows a trio of this by then very distinctive locomotives arriving in the Atlanta area … on the former L&N, at Smyrna, Georgia on February 4, 1982.  This is a detour due to flooding on the Southern’s Chattanooga-Atlanta line in the vicinity of Rome, Georgia.  The leader is operating per Southern practice with its long hood forward, another distinctive feature, as most railroads by then were using the short hood as the “F” end.  Alas, it would have been nice to have been able to provide a visual location clue that indicates the detour, but sometimes you need to shoot what is presented “as is, where is”.

The long and short of this is that it took the better part of thirty years to fulfill the cover story on the August 1964 issue of TRAINS.  Historically, railroads have been a conservative business when it comes to operations; a more recent example being the more recent change from DC to AC electrical equipment for their road locomotive fleets.  And yes, the Southern’s Norfolk Southern successor didn’t rush into this, either, although I haven’t noticed many short high-hood, routinely operated long-end forward diesels using AC traction recently.

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