Ode to the SD40-2

Posted by Andy Cummings
on Monday, June 8, 2009

UP 3076In a documentary photography class I took in college, the professor talked at length about a photo's "form" and its "function." To the uninitiated, "form" refers to an image's artistic and aesthetic qualities, while "function" deals with its utility; its ability to tell a story or capture a feeling. Truly great documentary photographers seek to combine both into their work.

As we railfans often do, I was recently pondering my favorite diesels, and it occurred to me that the SD40-2 is the near-perfect combination of form and function. Now, I'm sure those that grew up in the steam era or the E/F unit era are scoffing at me for saying this, but as a child of the ’80s, I grew up with SD40-2s all around me. I don't suspect I need to explain to any railfan the impact that growing up around a subject has on you; consider your favorite railroad, and I bet it's the one you grew up along. Filed in the same category could be the affinity of many of my fellow Minnesota natives for lutefisk, for which there can be no possible explanation other than (forced) exposure from a young age.

Though it may be boxy and flat-faced compared to its early-diesel-era predecessors, I've come to believe that EMD's second-generation diesels are imbued with an appearance that fits their character. Utilitarian, yes, but isn't that why we love trains? If trains simply ran in circles and looked pretty but performed none of their functions, would they have the same appeal? For me, they would not. For me, a big part of the locomotive's beauty is its ability to move people and freight across land more efficiently than any other conveyance. It's at the intersection of history, geography, economics, and brute pulling power where railroads reach the peak of their power to inspire me. I suspect I'm not alone in this.

For this post, I've pulled a photo from my collection that I'd nearly forgotten, as it's not among my favorites, but I think it fits the subject at hand (an example of function trumping form). I took it in the summer of 2005. The train is Union Pacific's MPRIT (Manifest-Proviso Yard Chicago-Itasca Yard) approaching its destination outside Superior, Wis. It reminds me that the days of solid sets of SD40-2s pulling freights across the Class Is on day-in-day-out basis isn't that far in the past, yet the future lies in bigger power. And I say, bring it on; I've no quarrel with a GEVO, which exhibits a similar beauty of form and function. But to me, this will always be the face of railroading. May it live on forever aboard the short lines and regionals that constitute such an important part of modern railroading.


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