Built to Last

Posted by George Hamlin
on Saturday, May 11, 2024

Norfolk Southern fans can probably be forgiven if they don’t routinely exhibit particular enthusiasm about the motive power of an approaching train; there isn’t likely to be much variety in the offing, either in terms of paint schemes, or locomotive types.  There are exceptions, of course, on the coloration front, in terms of the heritage units and a modest number of other ‘special’ paint schemes, but NS ‘regular’ locomotives have been accurately described as “monochrome” since the railroad’s inception in 1982.

Additionally, the railroad in recent years has operated with very large fleets of a single type from one manufacturer.  While the newly-merged NS inherited a number of different types from its founding components, the Norfolk & Western and the Southern Railway, by the advent of the safety/widecab era, they both waited a significant time before adopting the new paradigm (I saw my first widecabs on the Canadian National in Dorval, Quebec in 1974; it would be 1996 until such a creature was rostered on the NS) and, but once they had dipped their toes in this pond, they accumulated almost  1,100 units of the Dash 9-40CW class, which became known as “catfish” due to the striping patterns on their noses.

Eventually, these were upgraded to the more prevalent industry standard of Dash 9-44CW; but from a visual standpoint, nothing was different.  Similarly, the NS was relatively late to the significant use of AC (Alternating Current) traction motors, but in recent years has acquired nothing but this type of motive power, at least for new units.

All of this leads up to the fact that the catfish fleet is in the process of being turned into AC-powered AC44C6Ms.  This series, numbered starting at 4000 began auspiciously with several ‘special’ paint schemes, including bright blue on the first two, 4000 and 4001 (known colloquially as either the “Blues Brothers”, or ‘Sonic Bonnets”, in some quarters), but stygian black soon returned as the primary hue.  And not to be outdone by  the catfish family, recent rebuilds now are appearing in the mid-4700s; you may sense something of a pattern here…

Admittedly, when I photographed NS manifest train 13R at Boyce, Virginia on April 13, 2024, the C6M present was not terribly prominent: the train  was led by an ET44AC, an SD70ACe, and  C6M 4627, still in fairly fresh paint, at least.  However a pair of gems, in the form of locomotives 6434 and 5008, both in snappy fresh paint, comprised the balance of the motive power.

The former, now classed as an SD40-3, began its career in June 1979 as Southern Railway SD40-2 3328.  The latter, still bearing its original GP-38 designation, entered the Southern Railway’s service in January 1972.  To put this in perspective, the 5004 has been eligible for AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) membership for almost two years as of this writing!

For all the wonders of high-horsepower AC power and widecabs, there apparently are still needs for ‘conventional’ (DC) medium-power diesels, even in the days of so-called Precision Scheduled Railroading.  Yes, it would be interesting to know just how much of these locomotives are original equipment (EMD was engaging in significant diesel locomotive “re-manufacturing” as long ago as the 1960s, so this is, in some ways, not a new process), but from a visual standpoint they clearly are a reference to a different time, and a welcome one, at that, given the previous discussion of lack of variety on class one rosters today.

The 5004 has the added attraction of retaining its high short hood; even in the 1970s, the Southern, along with the N&W. were the only significant buyers of this specification.  And don’t they both look nice in their newly-provided formal dress attire?  A sight for sore railfan eyes, indeed!

Photo by George W. Hamlin

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