Railroad Super-engines

In a change symbolic of the entire railroad industry's metamorphosis, locomotives became more powerful and more dependable in the modern era.

In the mid-1990s, the nation's two largest locomotive builders began producing the first diesel locomotives with normal size but gargantuan strength. Both General Motors' Electro-Motive Division in LaGrange, Illinois, and General Electric in Erie, Pennsylvania, unveiled designs based on alternating current (AC) power.


Diesels have operated with direct current (DC) motors for some 70 years, but only recently has technology advanced far enough to make AC motors practical. The chief advantages of AC motors are fewer parts and less shop time, resulting in a more reliable locomotive.

The two builders-along with newcomer Morrison Knudsen of Boise, Idaho-began offering locomotives with previously unheard of horsepower: 4,000, 5,000, and even 6,000 units. They were also loaded with luxuries such as self-steering wheel sets, self-diagnostic computers, and ultra-quiet cabs.

Officials at Burlington Northern, the first railroad to embrace the new technology, hailed the production of such super-engines as another step toward a fully scheduled railroad. The words were not just hype. On some of the railroad's most demanding runs, three of the new units replaced five of the old ones.

To put the revolution in perspective, BN Chairman Gerald Grinstein called it "the most dramatic step forward in locomotive technology since diesel replaced steam."

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