Union Pacific Motor Cars

This page was last updated on January 24, 2013.

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Union Pacific Doodlebugs

by Ed Keilty

(published in the 1982 as part of Keilty's book "Doodlebug Country") (PDF; 10 pages; 4MB)

The intimate relationship between the Union Pacific and the McKeen Motor Car Co. was thoroughly covered in our first book, Interurbans Without Wires. The UP set William McKeen up in the business in a part of the Union Pacific Omaha shops, was half-owner during the years that the cars were produced, and ultimately became complete owner until the firm was dissolved in 1920.

It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the first 19 McKeen cars were nominally built for the UP. In actual practice, often if an order was received for a car from another railroad, it was filled with a new car from the Union Pacific roster.

The original fleet numbering scheme used by the UP was to give the car the same number as the McKeen builder's number. This led to some rather puzzling gaps in the number sequence. To compound the problem, cars that were later purchased second-hand were given the numbers of these missing cars.

At the keystone of the Edward Harriman empire, the UP was a large and complex organization and the right hand did not always know what the left hand was doing. In 1911 Julius Kruttschnitt, then director of maintenance and operation for the UP (and later chairman of the board of the Southern Pacific) inquired as to why two McKeen cars built for the North Coast Railroad, a subsidiary of the Oregon-Washington Railway & Navigation Co., were built with wedgeshaped fronts rather than the parabolic front standard on the Harriman lines.

A startled McKeen wrote to Kruttschnitt: "we built a wedge-shaped front end for the North Coast on their specifications, we not knowing at that time that they were a Harriman line interest."

The McKeens served the Union Pacific and associated lines very well probably far better than their performance on other roads. Several ran through World War II with their original drives, and several others were converted to gas-electrics.

When it came to the second generation of rail motorcars, the UP built in its own shops what might be termed the ultimate McKeen. From what remained of the McKeen parts inventory, four unused sides were selected and were combined with the Hall-Scott gas engine, electrical components from GE, and trucks from Brill.

The cars, numbered M-29 and M-30, proved to be exceptionally reliable, became favorites of the company and eventually received such amenities as reclining seats, a feature not often seen in doodlebugs. The remaining motorcars in the fleet were stock model EMCs and Brills.

Each division of the system, the UP, Oregon Short Line, Oregon Washington Railway & Navigation Co., and the Los Angeles & Salt Lake, had its own numbering system, avoiding overlap, and although there was some transferring of equipment among the divisions, it was not extensive.

The UP division had by far the largest fleet, and a large proportion of the lines in Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado were served by railcars at one time or another. In contrast, the Los Angeles & Salt Lake had only two cars, and most of the time only one. One of the routes the LA&SL doodlebugs covered for a short time was the very obscure Montebello-to-Anaheim branch in Southern California.

The Union Pacific's only venture in the third generation of railcar was the famous City of Salina, one of the first streamlined trains. It spent its relatively short life (1934-1942) on the Kansas City-Salina run, later cut back to Topeka. It was retired just in time for the World War II scrap drives, thus it was unable to join its contemporary streamliners, the Zephyrs and the Flying Yankee , which were eventually presented to museums. Sadly, none of the UP's early streamliners survived.

The last group of cars was retired in 1958 as the branch line runs they were protecting were eliminated. Oregon Short Line car M-66 was rebuilt in 1950 into detector car DC-2, and Oregon Washington Railway & Navigation car M-98 survived until1961, and then was converted into a work car.

Car M-35 has been restored and is now at the Illinois Railway Museum. One other car might be mentioned. Originally Detroit & Mackinac car 201 or 202, it was purchased by the Teledetector Co. of Chicago and converted into a rail detector car. This firm was apparently planning to become a rival to the Sperry rail detector service, and two cars from the D&M were purchased. Only one car was converted, however, and was sold to the UP as its detector car DC-3.

The DC-3 is still in service, and after many rebuildings it now sports a rakish front end dominated by a massive plate glass windshield which makes it appear a bit like an airport control tower!

The St. Joseph & Grand Island Railroad was very closely associated with the Union Pacific, but was not officially made a part of the system until after its last railcar had been retired.