Post-war Railroads

Diesel Engines on Freight Trains

Freight, according to conventional railroad wisdom, was the inviolate domain of steam. EMD's FT and successors proved otherwise.

Produced from 1945 to 1953, the F3s and F7s were a bit more powerful than the FTs (1,500 versus 1,350 horsepower per unit) and embodied myriad improvements that surfaced while FTs were running their wheels off in wartime service. The F3s, F7s, and F9s (a 1,750-horsepower version marketed from 1954 to 1957) eventually numbered 5,856 units. That's standardization. It's also market dominance.

Competitors, including steam-building giants American Locomotive Company and Baldwin, scrambled to get into the act. Both had been testing the waters of diesel-locomotive-building since the 1920s, but neither had done much more than that. Steam died hard, and these two companies, along with the Lima Locomotive Works, represented the "big three" of steam. As an offspring of automaker General Motors, EMD was less encumbered by tradition.

In the freight-locomotive marketplace, EMD had a signficant advantage in addition to its wholehearted commitment to internal combustion (which Alco and Baldwin understandably lacked until long after the writing was on the wall). In 1943, EMD had been ordered by the War Production Board to resume manufacture of the FT and was simultaneously prohibited from building switchers or passenger locomotives. Alco and Baldwin were assigned switchers as their niche. By the time the war ended and these strictures were lifted, these two former steam greats were hopelessly behind in freight-locomotive technology and visibility.

Alco did have some success marketing its FA/FB cab units, designed primarily for freight service, in competition with EMD's evolving succession of F-units. Alco's distinctively flat-faced locomotives had their devotees, but the 1,354 eventually sold represented but a fifth of the total tally racked up by EMD's Fs. Baldwin's equivalent products-popularly known as "Babyfaces" and "Sharknoses" in reference to their designers' variations on EMD's classic "Bulldog" snouts-sold but 265. Fairbanks-Morse, a railroad supply that built locomotives from 1944 to 1963, had a similar product popularly known as the "C-Liner." Total sales: 123.

EMD, Alco, Baldwin, and FM had passenger counterparts to these freight diesels. In all cases they were stretched versions (with plenty of room in the carbodies for two diesel engines rather than one, plus heat-supplying steam generators and boilers), riding on six-wheel rather than four-wheel trucks for better tracking at high speeds. Market-share among the builders roughly paralleled the freight-unit breakdown.

Electro-Motive was not interested in customization, nor in having the purchasing railroads telling them how to make their mousetrap, so to speak. The company staunchly resisted requests for modifications, feeling that it knew best, at the same time recognizing that standardization was the key to financial success. The very fact that diesels were by definition building blocks-each F3, for instance, being a 1,500-horsepower unit that could be operated alone or in lash-ups of two, three, four, or even five or more-allowed endless customization. The former steam builders, on the other hand, lacked this clarity of vision on diesel standardization. As a result, Alco and (particularly) Baldwin tended to get unproductively mired down in special orders.

In any case, the diesels certainly were coming, with EMD leading the charge. Raw numbers tell the story. In 1944, America's Class 1 railroads rostered 39,881 steam engines, which accounted for 91 percent of total motive power; 3,049 diesels, or 7 percent; and 863 electric units, 2 percent. By 1955, just over a decade later, the numbers had more or less flip-flopped: 24,786 diesels (79 percent), 5,982 steamers (19 percent), and 627 electrics (2 percent). By 1960 the case was closed: diesels 28,278 (97), electrics 492 (2 percent), and steam 261 (1 percent). The steam era was history.