Diesel Spotting, Then and Now

Posted by George Hamlin
on Wednesday, October 17, 2018

(Photo by George W.Hamlin)


When I started reading TRAINS magazine regularly in the summer of 1960, there was very little information available about diesel locomotives for newcomers concerning just what diesel locomotives we were seeing.  Somewhere I’d picked up the fact that a type of visibly-distinctive locomotives that appeared with some regularity in Cincinnati, where I spent my early years, were known as “Sharknoses”.

However, I had no knowledge of who had built them, what their horsepower rating was, etc.  Steam was effectively dead on Class One railroads in the U.S., and their counterparts in Canada by 1960, but what literature was available to the newbie railfan at that point still had details about steam locomotive wheel arrangements, including the names by which they were commonly known, even though there was little chance of seeing these in operation.  

Unlike in England, as I would learn later, there were no roster books available in the U.S. for either steam or diesel locomotives.  TRAINS in those days didn’t routinely publish detailed rosters, and I hadn’t yet discovered Railroad magazine, which did. 

Via the leadership of TRAINS Editor David P. Morgan, this was beginning to change, however.  In May 1962, there was the startling (at the time) appearance of the magazine’s first “All- Diesel” issue.   Inside, feature articles dissected the Reading’s diesel fleet; there was a photo feature on the “Early Days of Dieseldom”; “The story of the SUPER CHIEF” (“America’s first all-Pullman train designed for diesels”); and “From the Halls of Baldwin”, a photo review of that builder’s diesels, including both passenger and freight Sharknoses.

While seemingly appropriate in an environment now essentially bereft of mainline, regular-service steam, (and letters about the All-Diesel issue in the July 1962 “Railway Post Office” ran heavily in favor of the concept), not everyone in the readership was thrilled; one reader tore his copy of the May issue in half, and returned it to Kalmbach with the inscription “… How dare you send me this pornographic material through the mail?” 

However, even in the May issue, a news photo depicted the “Last locomotive to haul passengers on Maine Central, EMD-built (1946) No. 705…”, but failed note that it was an E7.  On the same page, New Haven Alco PA’s were described as “2000 h.p. Alco-GE road diesels”, although it did note that they had been replaced as passenger power by FL-9s, albeit with no mention of their builder.  Still, from my perspective this was a good start for those of us needing more information about dieseldom. 

And things did get better.  Later issued in book form as Our GM Scrapbook, this material was published first as a series of 14 articles in the magazine during the 1960s covering EMD’s product line up to that point in some depth.  Finally, in 1967, Jerry Pinkepank’s Diesel Spotter’s Guide was published by Kalmbach; now, a newbie could spend $3.50 and have the facts (and photos) at their fingertips.

Things have continued to get better on the motive power knowledge front, with the subsequent publication of both numerous books and additional periodicals, including Extra 2200 South, which also commenced in the mid-1960s.  This continues today, and includes TRAINS’ annual “special” about railroad motive power, Locomotive.

Finally, to make identification even easier, it has become relatively common to indicate the model on the locomotive itself.  While some roads had done this historically (the May 1962 issue pictures a Burlington Route/Colorado & Southern F7 (“Most famous of faces”) in that issue’s “Frontispiece” displaying a black badge with the model number in what I recall as silver, right below the unit’s number.

Which brings us to a more modern example, on the cab of Norfolk Southern “Catfish” 9217, a GE Dash 9-44CW seen on train 214 at Bristow, Virginia, on September 3, 2017.  If you look closely, a little motive-power history is revealed:  originally, the NS had its Dash 9s of this model delivered as producing only 4000 nominal horsepower (instead of the 4400 horsepower typical elsewhere), although the additional 400 horsepower was available operationally if needed.

It’s apparent that 9217’s model indication has been modified; the second numeral “4” on the side of the cab appears to have been installed more recently than the rest of the (well-weathered) designation information.  And whether by accident or design, if you look carefully, the newly-added “4” is slightly larger than the original lettering/numerals.  A subtle indication of 9217’s “new and improved” status, perhaps?

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