The Evolution of the Diesel Locomotive in the United States

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(c) 1994 by Benn Coifman

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The Political and Economical Climate for Railroads Just before Diesels:

For several decades the United States and the railroad grew and developed together. One can safely say that America moved by rail in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Things changed as other transportation modes matured. In 1900, there were approximately eight thousand automobiles in the United states. By 1920, there were more than eight million cars on America's growing network of roadways. [a] A few years later, air travel began to make a large dent in rail passenger travel. The introduction of the DC-3 in 1936 was the beginning of the end. On the other side of operations, the railroads were losing freight traffic to trucks, pipelines and barges.

The new competition placed enormous pressure on the railroads to reshape the way they conducted business. The railroads were hemmed in on two sides. On one side, the government resisted or prevented the abandonment of unprofitable services. On the other side, the powerful labor unions would not allow the railroads to streamline labor expenses.

Technological innovation was one of the few avenues left for the railroads to cut expenses and preserve profitability. The steam locomotive was almost completely developed by 1920. Innovations were few and far between. Loosely speaking, steam engine designs were enlarged to increase pulling power. Up to the gargantuan Yellowstone's of the Duluth, Massabe & Iron Range RR that were 127 feet long and weighed in at 570 tons. [b] For higher speeds, locomotive designers increased the diameter of the driving wheels over six feet across. Long locomotives necessitated gentle curves. Heavy locomotives required good roadbed and strong bridges. The reciprocating action of the driving rods on fast steam engines ripped track apart.

There was no salvation in using more than one steam engine on a single train, except in situations where extra power was needed for only a short distance, e.g., climbing a mountain grade. In normal operations, two steam engines would waste energy fighting against each other. In addition, each locomotive required its own crew to operate the boiler. The answer to railroads' motive power problem laid elsewhere.

Electrified Railroads:

In 1888, Frank J. Sprague developed one of the first successful electric streetcar operations. He electrified portions of Richmond, Virginia's horsecar line. [c] By about 1900, almost every major, urban street in the United States had an electric streetcar line on it. Streetcars also began to run outside of the city limits on private right of ways. These interurban railways were one of the first competitors to the railroads. With a high frequency of service, they captured most of the local passenger traffic from nearby railroads. Electrical propulsion had proven itself as a viable alternative to steam. In 1893, General Electric produced the first electric locomotive. Two years later, problems with locomotive exhaust in Baltimore & Ohio's Baltimore Tunnel led to first electrification on a major railroad. [d]

General Electric realized early on that electricity was a clean, quiet and powerful alternative to the steam locomotive. The railroads also saw these benefits; however, the large investment in infrastructure precluded electrification from all but a few applications.

Straight electric locomotives never became a dominant technology in the United States. However, they did possess many desirable qualities. Unlike steam locomotives, they never needed to refuel, take on water or empty their ash pan. A steam locomotive could be in the shop for as much as 50 percent of the time, while an electric might be in service for 90 percent of the time or more. At the end of the day, an electric locomotive could be shut down; whereas, steam engines would have a fire in the firebox continually for a month. So, the fire had to be tended 24 hours a day for thirty days. Electric locomotives out performed steam on the road too. Electric locomotives could accelerate faster than steam locomotives. On a heavy grade, a steam locomotive could lose as much as half of its pulling power, while an electric would retain almost 100 percent of its power. On down grades, electric locomotives had another advantage, they could use regenerative braking. Regenerative breaking would prevent heavy wear on the brake shoes and could be used to supply power for an up hill train on the same system. Finally, unlike steam locomotives, it was very easy to connect two electric locomotives together and have them pull one train. In fact, the two (or more) engines would only require one crew because the electric transmissions of several locomotives could be connected to a single controller. This practice is commonly known as multiple unit (MU) operation.

If electric locomotives were so good, why didn't they replace steam? Actually they did replace steam, but not as straight electric's. It would take further innovation to overcome the infrastructure burden. Once the problem of the overhead line was solved, multiple unit operation would spell the end for main line steam.

Branch Line Service:

Branch line service was the first area to suffer from the emerging transportation modes. After World War I, business fell off sharply. On many of these lines, a small steam engine pulling a mixed train could no longer generate enough traffic to pay for itself, much less turn a profit.

The railroads were locked into continuing the unprofitable service. Often, a railroad had guaranteed service on a line in the process of acquiring right of way. It was a small concession when the railroad was the sole means of access. However, as demand waned and costs increased, the small concession grew into a large liability.

As early as the end of the nineteenth century, railroads were looking for low cost solutions for lightly traveled routes. The first self-propelled, steam powered, railcars emerged in the 1880's.

General Electric was still trying to sell the benefits of electric propulsion in the early 1900's. At the same time, the British railways were beginning to use direct drive gasoline cars. Inspired by the success of the interurban electric lines in the United States and the direct drive gasoline cars in England, GE developed an electric railcar that carried its own power plant. It was the first internal combustion railcar in America. General Electric soon emerged as a leader in the fledgling motorcar field. [d]

General Electric was not the only one inspired by the European motorcars. A number of American firms copied the direct drive design from the British. McKeen Motor Car Company also arose to become an early leader in the motorcar field. Unlike General Electric's gas electric cars, McKeen built direct drive motorcars.

McKeen and GE dominated the motorcar market from 1905 until the United States entered World War I. General Electric produced a total of 89 cars, all of which were electric drive. During this same period, McKeen produced 152 direct drive cars. Each design had its short comings. The GE cars had independent controls for the gasoline engine and the electric generator. Most motormen could not master this control system. On the other hand, the McKeen cars had a tendency to shake themselves apart after a few years of service. Both companies produced their last motor car in 1917. [d] Both companies did a lot to advance the technology of the motor car, but as we will see, they were ten to twenty years ahead of the market.

General Electric, the Locomotive Builder: [e]

On July 2, 1913, General Electric completed a special motorcar. This motorcar did not have any room for passengers, nor did it have space for baggage and mail. All it contained was an engine room and a control stand at each end. It was not designed to carry, it was designed to pull. In fact, it was the first commercially successful internal combustion locomotive. The car body construction basically followed the contemporary configuration of a double end box cab electric locomotive. It was built for a start up electric interurban line that did not have enough funds to install over head wires.

The interurban line - the Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester and Dubuque Electric Traction Company (MStPR&D) - never did get around to electrifying their right of way. Ultimately, they employed 15 rail cars and four locomotives, all of which were gasoline-electric and equipped for multiple unit (MU) operation. In fact, MStPR&D purchased four of the first five internal combustion locomotives produced by GE.

One month after completing their first internal combustion locomotive for MStPR&D, GE finished East Erie Commercial (EEC) #1006. The EEC was owned by GE and switched their plant in Erie, PA. The 1006 was built as a prototype for a gasoline electric switching locomotive that could be substituted for straight electric locomotives in light service. After three years on the EEC as a test locomotive, the 1006 was delivered to the Jay Street Connecting Railroad in Brooklyn, NY, to be subjected to further testing under actual service conditions.

All five of these early gasoline electric locomotives suffered from the same control problem that afflicted the GE motorcars. In essence, the control system left the successful conversion of engine output into drawbar pull over all ranges of engine and locomotive speed to the judgment of the operator to adjust to varying conditions of tonnage, topography and train speed. In effect, the locomotives were unable to efficiently convert potential engine horsepower into drawbar pull.

Motorcar sales began to fall off for GE by 1915, only four units were sold during 1916 and 1917. The control problem proved to be too great. In the midst of World War I, GE decided to exit the motor car field for good. [d]

Dr. Lemp: [e]

In 1910, Dr. Hermann Lemp, who had been with GE since 1892, was assigned the task of solving the control problem. Six years later, he was ready to put his research to the test. GE made a small gas electric locomotive available to Lemp. He substituted a single control lever that would automatically coordinate the engine and generator. Dr. Lemp added a governor to directly control the fuel admission to the engine and the main generator shunt filed excitation. This control system was so successful that it was adopted for standard production purposes.

General Electric's early internal combustion locomotives were not a complete success. The gasoline electric locomotives failed to show the fuel economies over steam engines that were anticipated. As a result of a meeting between Dr. Lemp and Rudolph Diesel in 1910, GE decided to substitute Diesel for gasoline engines in their future locomotive production. At the time, diesel fuel was about half the price of gasoline. Unfortunately, there were no domestically produced diesel engines that met GE's criteria, so they opted to design their own. After seven years of development, the first prototype diesel locomotive was completed in early in 1917. The prototype locomotive saw a brief career on the GE owned East Erie Commercial Railroad for service testing. One year later, GE sold three diesel electric locomotives commercially. None of them were very successful, they were all under powered. For all successive locomotives, GE would opt to buy diesel engines from other companies.

Although GE was out of the internal combustion engine business, Dr. Lemp continued to refine his control system. He modified his governor to only control the fuel flow to the engine. The main generator was now automatically self-regulated by the level of current drawn by the traction motors. The new control system was entirely self-regulated by the speed of the locomotive and eliminated the possibility of stalling the engine or overloading the generator.

The revised controller was installed in a locomotive and the engine was put to work as a switcher on company property for a shake down. The new controller accomplished the goal of increasing drawbar pull relative to engine horsepower. However, The main generator was only able to load the engine to about half of its maximum horsepower rating.

In 1921, General Electric entered into an agreement with Ingersoll-Rand. GE would supply a carbody and I-R would supply a locomotive engine that met Dr. Lemp's specifications. The locomotive first moved under its own power in December or 1923. In June of 1924, it was released for demonstration service to various railroads. The locomotive wore the names of General Electric, Ingersol-Rand and American Locomotive Company. Although Alco was not involved with the demonstrator, an agreement had been made that they would build the bodies if any more locomotives were ordered.

Government vs. the Steam Locomotive: [e]

The state of New York enacted legislation in 1903, prohibiting the operation of steam locomotives on Manhattan Island in New York City south of the Harlem River after June 30th, 1908. The state intended to force the railroads to electrify their lines. The legislation was in response to a 1902 wreck. Smoke obscured the view of an engineer operating in the Park Avenue tunnels; he over-ran another train and 15 commuters were killed.

In 1923, this legislation was supplemented by the Kaufman Act, requiring that no railroad or part thereof operating within the limits of the city of New York or within the limits of an adjoining city shall on or after January 1, 1926, use any motive power in its operation within these cities except electricity, to be generated, transmitted and used in said operation in a manner to be approved by the Public Service Commission. [f]

The Kaufman Act was amended in 1926 to extend the deadline five more years. Partially because the emerging diesel locomotives were deemed to be in compliance with the intent of the legislation.

New York was not alone, in 1912 , Chicago passed legislation that required electrified operation of all trains that operated entirely within the city limits, starting in 1927. This legislation only affected trains that did not leave the city limits. In 1919, the compliance date was pushed back to 1935.

General Electric, the Locomotive Partnership: [e]

The railroads interested in the GE, Ingersol-Rand demonstrator were mainly those effected by the steam ordinances. New York Central was the first to receive the diesel locomotive; they were also the one that subjected it to the most severe testing. On August 14, 1924, the locomotive succeeded in starting a train of 93 cars on level track. No doubt the cars were empty. For more practical tests, the diesel was tested against NYC's steam engines in normal operations. After testing the diesel, the New York Central concluded that it could meet their needs to phase out steam in New York City.

Over 13 months, the prototype locomotive was operated on 13 properties. The reliability and economy of operation of this diesel locomotive during its demonstration greatly impressed the railroads. The makers of internal combustion locomotives finally got the attention of the common carrier railroads.

The number of orders generated by this prototype locomotive allowed GE and its partners to build a standard line of diesel electric switching locomotives on a production basis. Alco would build the body and mechanical equipment, then Ingersol-Rand would build and install the engine. Finally, General Electric would install all of the electrical equipment and test the locomotive. Ingersol-Rand was left with the primary responsibility of selling the units. Two box cab models were offered: 300 hp - 60 ton and 600 hp - 100 ton. Construction began on four locomotives, with the assumption that they would be sold before they were completed. Each unit was sold to a different railroad during 1925; however, they all wound up switching cars in New York City. The second production run consisted of 11 locomotives. Six were placed in service on various New York railroads, two went to Chicago railroads, one was kept as a demonstrator, and the last two were purchased by industrial roads where steam engines were too hazardous to operate.

In 1928, Alco left the partnership to begin production of their own diesel locomotives. General Electric would assume the tasks formerly assigned to Alco for the construction of these box cab locomotives.

In total, 50 locomotives, built to standard designs, were produced by the partnership between 1925 and 1931. These locomotives constituted the first manufacture of diesel locomotives on a production basis.

After the 1920's, General Electric would not lead the development of the early diesel electric locomotives; however, GE would go on to be a leader in electric transmissions and controls for diesel electric locomotives, selling these products to the other locomotive manufacturers.

A Market for GE Must be a Market for Westinghouse: [e]

With the success of the General Electric partnership, a number of other companies were beginning to develop their own diesel electric locomotives. In 1926, Westinghouse formed their Railway Engineering Department. The Railway Engineering Department, located in East Pittsburgh, PA, was charged with the responsibility of engineering the design of a line of diesel electric locomotives that would be competitive with the Alco-GE-IR units.

Westinghouse selected a Scottish engine company, Beardmore, to supply the engine for their locomotives. Beardmore was producing a line of diesel engines that had been used in British rail motorcars since 1922. The Beardmore engine was based on a German design from World War I that was light enough and powerful enough to propel lighter-than-air dirigibles. The lighter engines would solve one problem that afflicted the early internal combustion locomotives, having to lug around the weight of a heavy power plant.

Late in 1926, Westinghouse obtained the rights from Beardmore to manufacture this line of engines in the United States. Westinghouse began to tool up their South Philadelphia works to produce the diesel engines.

Prior to 1926, Westinghouse was producing straight electric locomotives in East Pittsburgh with mechanical portions purchased from Baldwin. This practice was continued with the diesels. Baldwin contributed to the design of the trucks and mechanical components for the new engines.

The first diesel locomotive produced by Westinghouse was a pair of two axle, single end box cab locomotives coupled back to back by a drawbar. The locomotive was designed such that it could be split apart and the drawbar could be replaced by standard couplers. The unit was specifically designed for the street running Long Island Rail Road that had several tight curves.

The locomotive incorporated a pneumatic multiple unit (MU) control that would evolve into the standard MU controller built by the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. The two units were semi-permanently lashed together with a drawbar and labeled a single "locomotive". Early on, the steam railroads feared that labor would demand a crew on every diesel locomotive in a single consist, even though they were all controlled by the lead unit. In contrast, it was physically impossible to lash steam engines together without a crew running each unit. This issue was not fully dealt with until the late 1940's. Interestingly enough, the electric railroads had already solved the multiple unit problem by the 1920's. The electric railroads would pay one crew of a multi-unit consist as if the consist were a single locomotive with the combined power of the consist.

Canadian National Railways was pleased with the performance of their motorcars powered by Beardmore engines. As a result, they placed an order for the first diesel electric passenger locomotive. All of the previous diesel locomotives were low power units intended for switching or for branchline service. The passenger engine was a 94 foot long, two unit diesel locomotive that weighed 650,000 lbs. It consisted of two identical, single end box cab locomotives coupled back to back with conventional couplers. The engine was placed in service in late 1928.

The two unit locomotive was immediately assigned to the second section of the transcontinental International Limited. The engine made the run from Montreal to Vancouver in 67 hours, almost a full day quicker than the normally scheduled running time. After returning to Montreal, the two units were separated and the locomotives were assigned to regular passenger service between Montreal and Toronto. The engine was a success, but was plagued by its "one of a kind" status. All replacement parts had to be custom made. Canadian National's shop crews were use to the brut force of working on steam engines, and not the, relatively speaking, delicate diesel electric. One unit was scrapped in 1939 while the other would serve until 1947. [b]

From 1928 to 1930, Westinghouse built a handful of box cab switchers. In 1930, the switch engine took on a new form. In a box cab locomotive, the engineer sits at one end of the unit. He can see forward and to the sides, but any rearward view is obstructed by the body of the locomotive. In normal operation, a switch engine will make several moves in either direction. So, when operating a box cab switcher, the engineer would either have to operate blind for half the moves or waste time walking from one end of the unit to the other. In 1930, Westinghouse broke with tradition and introduced the Visibility Cab. The engineer would sit in a central cab slightly raised above the car body either in the center of the locomotive or on one end. The new car body was contoured to allow good visibility in either direction from a single control stand. Within a year of Westinghouse's introduction of the Visibility Cab, General Electric had dropped the box cab design in favor of a similar car body design. The Visibility Cab is the forerunner of the modern switch engine car body. The modern switch engine car body was first produced by Alco two years after the first Visibility Cab unit.

After entering into a 1936 agreement with Baldwin, Westinghouse ceased production of locomotives. Baldwin was gearing up to produce their own diesel electric locomotives and they agreed to use Westinghouse electric apparatus exclusively. At the close of production, Westinghouse had built 29 units over a nine year period.

New York Central Knows What They Want: [e]

The Kaufman Act in New York City translated into extensive changes for the New York Central. Their interest is evident in the fact that NYC used the first GE-IR demonstrator locomotive longer than any other railroad. However, since the Kaufman Act called for the elimination of all steam locomotives in and around New York City, NYC was interested in more than just switch engines; but, the locomotive builders were not producing any diesels besides switchers at the time. So, in 1925, the NYC drew up specifications for four prototype locomotives, three diesel units and a hybrid-battery unit. The diesels were to be a road passenger locomotive, a road freight locomotive and a heavy duty switcher. The railroad negotiated with diesel engine manufacturers directly for the engines that would power the prototypes. Alco would supply the mechanical portions, while GE would provide the electrical components. In this fashion, NYC was able to enforce a system of common standards that provided extensive interchangeability of parts between its straight electric and diesel electric locomotives.

Work was begun on the switcher, but the project was terminated halfway through construction. The hybrid-battery locomotive was completed early in 1928. This locomotive could operate as a straight electric or as a battery locomotive. The locomotive used an on board diesel generator to charge the batteries.

The freight locomotive was the second unit to be delivered. It was powered by an Ingersol-Rand diesel engine. It was assigned to freight service on the Putnam Division in June 1928. This engine was the first successful diesel electric road freight unit in America. The body was a simple double ended box cab. The locomotive was equipped for multiple unit operation, however, this feature was never used in service.

The final locomotive, the passenger design, was delivered early in the following year. It had a McIntosh & Seymour power plant. The design called for extensive use of aluminum in the mechanical components to counteract the heavy weight and low power of the diesel engine. The body looked similar to the freight unit. The passenger engine was also equipped for MU operation. Like the freight unit, this engine was assigned to the Putnam Division.

The Putnam Division was selected as the testing grounds for both engines for several reasons. The line was close to the railroad's division shops. It was lightly traveled during the day, thus, a break down would not be fatal. Finally, the division's profile was a good sample of everything one could find on the entire railroad.

The diesel freight locomotive out performed the steam engines of similar traction power. One reason why the diesel shown so bright was because the steam engines would lose power on large grades, but the diesel did not. On the other hand, the passenger locomotive was a not a complete success. It was quicker than the steam engines used in passenger service on the division. Partly because the traction motors could accelerate a lot faster than the heavy running gear of a steam locomotive. Unfortunately, the marine engine use in the passenger locomotive proved to be inappropriate for railroad applications. The engine's timing caused the passenger engine to fish-tail as it rolled down the track. On ascending grades, the motion would be passed on to the first coach. Needless to say, the fish-tailing was not popular with morning commuters.

More Than Just a Little Hard Luck:

All of a sudden the smoke ordinances fell by the way side. The stock marked crashed in October 1929. Huge rail yards were turned into grave yards, filled with empty cars in deep storage. The railroads had a huge excess of locomotives. Vast numbers of steam engines were put into storage or cut up for scrap. Many railroads had filled up their yards with unused equipment and resorted to storing locomotives and cars on passing sidings. Just as the diesel was coming of age.

The successful diesel experiments on the New York Central were not completed until 1931. By this time the Depression was in full force. The NYC would not purchase another diesel locomotive until 1944. Throughout their production years in the Great Depression, GE and Westinghouse each averaged approximately three locomotives per year. In contrast, during the early half of the Depression, all of the steam builders combined had an average annual output around 38 locomotives per year. The railroads were just not purchasing any locomotives.

The Start of a Giant: [d, e, g]

After World War I, rail passenger travel began to decline. The railroads were running some passenger trains at a loss. A former bus and truck sales man, Harold Hamilton, knew what the railroads needed. His solution was light weight distillate-electric motor cars. Hamilton organized the Electro-Motive Corporation in Cleveland, Ohio. The company was little more than a letterhead and a rented office. Hamilton subcontracted almost everything out. Winton Engine Company supplied the motors, GE supplied the controls and electrical gear and St. Louis Car Co. built the first car body.

In the summer of 1924, Hamilton persuaded the Chicago Great Western to purchase EMC's first test car. The CGW was skeptical and stipulated that the car must make schedule for 30 days of continuous service or the deal was off. The car performed wonderfully. The Winton engine was rugged and dependable. The car did not vibrate excessively or make too much noise and it operated at a respectable four miles to the gallon.

The market for motorcars took off. The railroads were recovering from World War I and were downsizing a lot of their branchline operations. In addition, the economy was in a boom that preceded the Great Depression. There was little innovation in the EMC cars. The big difference from the pre-war GE motorcars was the improved control system. Needless to say, Dr. Lemp of GE was responsible for the new control system. Hamilton taped the market when the time was right.

In 1925, EMC delivered 36 cars; in 1926, 45. By 1930, EMC's offices were housed in the Winton Engine Company facilities. Winton and EMC had formed a symbiotic relationship. St. Louis Car Co. supplied most of the early car bodies, but EMC had slowly shifted to Pullman Car Company as the preferred supplier.

In 1929, General Motors decided that there would probably be a large scale market for diesel powered locomotives in the near future. Enough of a market to support a full production line. Their first step to enter the market was to acquire a facility capable of engineering and manufacturing a diesel engine suitable for locomotive use. GM purchased the Winton Engine Company in June of 1930. The next logical step was to acquire EMC, Winton's major customer. In December of 1930, GM purchased EMC and in 1941, changed the name to Electro-Motive Division. GM would change EMC into an integrated diesel locomotive builder. The last conventional motor car built by EMC was finished in 1932. In the end, EMC, and later EMD, had sold over 400 motor cars.

The Pullman Company: [d]

Throughout the 1920's and early 30's, Pullman had been building motorcar bodies for a number of different motorcar "builders", including EMC, Mac, and Westinghouse. With the Great Depression in full force in 1932, Pullman built a demonstrator motorcar to try to rekindle some life back into the fading market. The car was called the "Railplane". It was probably the first streamliner. The car was designed by William B. Stout, an aeronautical engineer and designer of the Ford tri-motor plane. The "Railplane" had a welded tubular frame and an aluminum skin. The 60 food motorcar weighed in at only 12.5 tons, about one tenth the weight of a typical passenger car built in the same year. The car hit 90 mph in tests and was used in regular service for a short time. On its own, the car was not a success. However, the motorcar was exhibited in Chicago at the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933 and 1934. While at the Fair, the "Railplane" attracted the attention of W. Averill Harriman, chairman of the board for the Union Pacific Railroad. A year later, UP would be operating the streamlined M-10000, inspired by the "Railplane".

Electro-Motive Division of General Motors: [d, e, g, h, i, k]

Immediately following the acquisition of EMC in 1930, General Motors shifted research and development efforts to the production of a diesel engine satisfactory for rail car and locomotive use. Both Winton in Cleveland and GM in Detroit worked on the development of a two cycle engine.

The other diesel locomotive builders had used four cycle engines almost exclusively up to this point in time. In a four cycle engine, each cylinder fires once for every two rotations of the crank shaft. Whereas, in a two cycle engine, the crank shaft makes a single revolution between each expansion stroke. A two cycle engine has twice as many expansion strokes for each revolution of the crank shaft compared to a four stroke engine of similar design and weight. Thus, two cycle engines have a greater power to weight ratio than four cycle engines. General Motors decided that they could get a big jump in power by using with a two cycle engine design; however, the added power came at a price. A two cycle engine will run hotter, experience more stress and have a lower power to stroke ratio than a four cycle engine. At the time, fuel efficiency and engine life were not an issue, matching the power of the steam engine was, thus, GM went with the two cycle engine.

General Motors was sufficiently pleased with their diesel engine research in 1933 to build two 8-cylinder in-line stationary engine-generator sets for laboratory testing under actual operating conditions. The engines were shipped to Chicago to power the General Motors Chevrolet assembly line exhibit at the 1933-1934 Century of Progress Exposition.

Feeling the effects of the Depression and declining business, America's railroads were looking for ways to reinvigorate passenger travel. As Ralph Budd, president of the Chicago Burlington & Quincy, later explained, railroads had to continue running trains on short routs to handle mail and baggage "whether or not anyone rides the trains." Budd was inspired after seeing GM's powerful diesel engines and Pullman's Railplane. He concluded that what the railroads needed was a new kind of train that was fast, convenient, ultramodern and luxurious enough to fire the public imagination. The Union Pacific Railroad also saw the two exhibits and came to similar conclusions. A race was on to see which of the two railroads would be the first to develop an ultramodern diesel passenger train.

With the engine technology of the day, the new trains had to be lightweight. To get the most out of the available power, the trains were streamlined. The Union Pacific selected the University of Michigan to find the best aerodynamic shape while CB&Q turned to M.I.T. The new designs looked like nothing else that had ridden the rails. They looked more like Buck Rogers's space ship than a train. People were tired of living in the Depression, they were ready for a change and these drastic new body designs, no doubt, capitalized on it.

Both companies turned to General Motors to supply the power plant, but, they selected different car builders. Union Pacific used to the established Pullman Company to build their cars. Like the Railplane, the UP train was constructed out of aluminum. In the other corner, CB&Q looked to a new comer on the railcar scene, Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company (no relationship to Ralph Budd). Budd had been producing auto-bodies before the Great Depression; however, with business down, they decided diversify and construct a light weight, stainless steel railcar. They finished their first coach in 1932. The stainless steel coach was made possible because the Budd Manufacturing Co. had developed the first successful method of welding stainless steel only a few years earlier. Prior to Budd's innovation, stainless steel was used only for cutlery and surgical instruments .

Pullman was able to accelerate the construction of the UP train, however, General Motors was unable to deliver a diesel power plant at an earlier date. So, to win the race against the CB&Q, the Union Pacific decided to use a distillate engine instead. The M10000 was delivered to the UP on February 25, 1934. General Motors was able to complete a diesel electric power plant for CB&Q's later delivery date. CB&Q received the Zephyr in April, 1934. Both trains were actually three car articulated motorcars, but that hardly mattered to the public. The new trains were immensely popular.

Both railroads were unsure of what the new trains could do or how reliable they were. After the initial fanfare died down, the high speed trains were put into service on relatively flat, lightly traveled, short distance runs that could easily be completed in a single day. In such a fashion the trains were given the opportunity to prove themselves, but if they were to fail, it would not be a catastrophic disaster. The M10000 was a mild success, but the Zephyr was a huge success. Before the end of 1934, eight major railroads had ordered high speed diesel powered trains.

Electro-Motive Corporation completed their first three true locomotives in early 1935. They were switch engines, very similar to what the other builders were producing at the time. EMC, however, did not want to be just another diesel switch engine builder. The next three locomotives were prototype passenger locomotives, designed to be competitive with steam engines. These early passenger diesels found their strength in numbers. Two units coupled together with multiple unit (MU) controls had a sum of four diesel engines producing a total tractive effort of almost 120,000 lbs; whereas the average tractive effort of a passenger steam locomotive in 1935 was 36,000 lbs. The new engines out performed steam in almost every respect. After a few bugs were ironed out, General Motors began assembly line production of diesel locomotives. EMC rapidly found themselves in a sellers market.

General Motors took a new approach to locomotive manufacturing. They built and sold locomotives as if they were Buick's. Before EMC introduced their E-units, all locomotives were built on batch orders. Each production run was a custom job. GM changed that, they used mass production and assembly lines. They offered few options from the standard models. The steam railroads were not quick to accept off the shelf designs, but they wanted the new diesels and EMC stressed the economies of scale provided by a standardized model. General Motors exaggerated this point when, in "On Time, the History of Electro-Motive Division of General Motors Corporation", they claimed that the only option they offered the railroads was a choice of paint scheme. With standard models, EMC could now offer standard replacement parts. Much of Electro-Motive Corporation's strength lay in the transfer of policy from GM's auto divisions.

In 1939, Electro-Motive Corporation would attack steam's last stronghold, main line freight. They produced a demonstrator freight locomotive consisting of four units semi-permanently connected units with MU controls. Dubbed the FT, the locomotive toured 20 railroads and served in virtually all possible conditions. The FT was a huge success, and steam's reign was over.

The Great Depression paved the way for EMC's success. First, the Depression essentially ended GE, Westinghouse, NYC, and the steam locomotive builders' experiments with diesel locomotives. Second, it virtually halted the sales and development of steam locomotives. As a result, most locomotives in use in 1939 were at least ten years old. Finally, with the weight of the Depression, Americans were eagerly looking for change. People were anxious to ride the new, high tech train shaped like a rocket ship on a route that previously saw little business.

As if the Depression was not enough to cement EMC's position, World War II nailed the lid down for EMD (following the name change in 1941). The United States government ordered the steam builders to concentrate on building the proven steam engine. While at the same time, the Navy awarded research and development contracts to General Motors to advance diesel technology. At the end of WWII, most locomotives were over 15 years old and had been overworked during the war. The railroads were ready to replace their entire fleets. General Motors a ten year head start on the older locomotive builders, they already had a proven product and the capacity to manufacture it. The former steam builders had almost no capacity to build diesel locomotives.

Changes: [h, j, k]

The new diesel offered massive power in a flexible package. The use of smaller locomotives coupled together - i.e., multiple units - to match the pulling power to the train and terrain was a new concept. The railroads no longer needed to have wildly varying fleets of steam engines for different conditions. Locomotive maintenance became easier, now railroads could order parts instead of fabricating them in the back shop. Diesels spent less time in the shop. The new diesels did less damage to the track because they did away with the reciprocating action of steam locomotives. Water and coaling stations, ash handling, water treatment and storage, boiler washing, and many helper engine facilities were no longer needed in the diesel age. The round house gave way to the run through facility. A steam engine could go approximately 100 miles without refueling or taking water, while a diesel locomotive could reach as far as 600 miles without servicing. A diesel has a much higher starting tractive effort than any steam locomotive. The diesel has a thermal efficiency greater than three times that of the best steam engine. The railroads were able to shed vast amounts of non-revenue support services. The new locomotives allowed the railroads to haul longer trains at higher speeds for greater distances and for less money.

Engine crews proved to be one sticking point that would to be a problem for decades. Diesel locomotives have no need of a fireman since they lack a boiler. However, the position was retained for years. Labor argued that the fireman was necessary for safety and to aide the engineer. In some respects the fireman became a student engineer position.

The railroads agreed to keep the fireman position on diesels in 1937. It was a minor concession at that time since it only applied to nine or ten trains, besides switchers. It also made a good public image to have the extra man in the cab for safety. Labor had won the preservation of the eight-hours-or-a-hundred-miles rule, even though a diesel locomotive could cover several hundred miles in eight hours. In the early forties, they began to push for additional crewmen in the cab. A presidential board rejected the enginemens' demands for extra crew in 1943, and again in 1949. Railroad - labor relations were strained for many years by the transition to diesel.


Where were the steam locomotive builders during all of this?

The steam locomotive manufacturers saw the benefits of the diesel early on. However, they had massive investments in steam engine production. The factories were already paid for. They assumed that they would slowly shift over to diesel locomotives as the technology developed.

The steam builders were just starting to build their own diesel locomotives in the late 1920's. When the depression hit, the market for new locomotives disappeared. The locomotive builders were hit hard. They did continue a limited development program, but money was tight and buyers were few. Things began to brighten in the late 1930's, as World War II was heating up. The steam builders built a number of streamlined, high speed steam locomotives to compete with the diesels and they continued to develop their own diesel locomotives. However, after the war began, the US government decreed that the steam builders must build the proven steam engine and set aside most of their diesel programs until the war's conclusion. EMD and a handful of other companies who had only built diesel electric locomotives got to continue their production. They got a five year head start on the steam builders. General Motors, however, was not just manufacturing locomotives during the war. They were building and developing advanced diesel engines for the Navy.

At the end of the war, the railroads were populated with warn out steam engines, many dating back to before the Great Depression. The heavy use during war time had taken its tool.

Having built up the capacity for mass production of diesels during the war and armed with their technological advances, EMD was ready to corner the market. The steam builders had the capacity to build steam engines, steam engines that could compete with diesels, but the railroads wanted diesels.

At first it was a sellers market. There were several diesel builders for a while, including most of the former steam builders. But EMD's head start would win out in the end.


[a] ______; The World Book Encyclopedia, (c) 1986, World Book Inc., Chicago, IL

[b] Hollingsworth, B; "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of North American Locomotives"; (c)1984 Salamander Books Ltd.; London, England. pp 106-107, 128-129

[c] Gray, G. E. and Hoel, L. A.; "Public Transportation, 2nd ed"; (c) 1992 Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ. pp 12

[d] Keilty, E.; "Interurbans Without Wires"; (c) 1979 Edmund Keilty; published by: Interurbans, Glendale, CA. pp 33-40, 48-55, 109-114, 136-137

[e] Kirkland, J. F.; "Dawn of the Diesel Age"; (c) 1983 John F. Kirkland; published by: Interurban Press, Glendale, CA. pp 17-18, 66-77, 82-98, 108-143, 164-171

[f] ______; Railway and Locomotive Engineering, April 1926, 102.

[g] Reck, F. M.; "On Time, the History of Electro-Motive Division of General Motors Corporation"; (C) 1948 Electro-Motive Division of General Motors Corporation.

[h] Klein, M.; "The Diesel Revolution"; American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Winter 1991, vo1 6 no 3.

[i] Coel, M.; "A Silver Streak"; American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Fall 1986, vol _ no _.

[j] Jones, H. E.; "Railroad Wages and Labor Relations 1900-1952"; printed 1953; Bureau of Information of the Eastern Railways, New York, NY. 128-130, 145-147

[k] ______; "The Locomotive Industry and General Motors"; printed 1973, General Motors Corporation.

Other sources:

Dickerman, W. C.; "Modern Trends in Motive Power"; in Railway Age, April 29, 1933, vol 94 no 17; Simmons-Boardman Publishing Co., Philadelphia, PA.

______; "Burlington 'Zephyr' Completed at Budd Plant" in Railway Age, April 14, 1934, vol 96 no 15; Simmons-Boardman Publishing Co., Philadelphia, PA.

Van Metre, T. W.; "Trains, Tracks and Travel"; (c) 1936 Simmons-Boardman Publishing Co., New York, NY.

Sources for Development curves:

Interstate Commerce Commission; "Fifty-Fourth Annual Report on the Statistics of Railways in the United States for the Year Ended December 31 1940"; United States Government Printing Office, Washington DC 1942

Interstate Commerce Commission; "Fifty-Seventh Annual Report on the Statistics of Railways in the United States for the Year Ended December 31 1943"; United States Government Printing Office, Washington DC 1945

Interstate Commerce Commission; "Sixtieth Annual Report on the Statistics of Railways in the United States for the Year Ended December 31 1946"; United States Government Printing Office, Washington DC 1948

Interstate Commerce Commission; "Sixty-Third Annual Report on the Statistics of Railways in the United States for the Year Ended December 31 1949"; United States Government Printing Office, Washington DC 1951

Interstate Commerce Commission; "Sixty-Seventh Annual Report on the Statistics of Railways in the United States for the Year Ended December 31 1953"; United States Government Printing Office, Washington DC 1956

Interstate Commerce Commission; "Sixty-Ninth Annual Report on Transportation Statistics in the United States for the Year Ended December 31 1955"; United States Government Printing Office, Washington DC 1956

Interstate Commerce Commission; "Seventy-First Annual Report on Transportation Statistics in the United States for the Year Ended December 31 1957"; United States Government Printing Office, Washington DC 1958

Interstate Commerce Commission; "Seventy-third Annual Report on Transportation Statistics in the United States for the Year Ended December 31 1959"; United States Government Printing Office, Washington DC 1960

Interstate Commerce Commission; "Seventy-Sixth Annual Report on Transportation Statistics in the United States for the Year Ended December 31 1962"; United States Government Printing Office, Washington DC 1963

Interstate Commerce Commission; "Study of Railroad Motive Power"; United States Government Printing Office, Washington DC 1950