The Evolution of the Diesel Locomotive in the United States
(c) 1994 by Benn Coifman
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.
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
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
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
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 horse power 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
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 horse power. However, The main generator was only able to load the
engine to about half of its maximum horse power 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
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
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
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
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 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
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 Division 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. EMD, 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. EMD 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 EMD 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 EMD stressed the economies of scale provided by a standardized
model. General Motors exaggerated this point when, in "On Time, he
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, EMD could now offer standard replacement
parts. Much of Electro-Motive Division's strength lay in the transfer of
policy from GM's auto divisions.
In 1939, Electro-Motive Division 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 EMD'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 EMD's position, World War
II nailed the lid down. 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,
[b] Hollingsworth, B; "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of North American
Locomotives"; (c)1984 Salamander Books Ltd.; London, England. pp 106-107,
[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
[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.
[k] ______; "The Locomotive Industry and General Motors"; printed
1973, General Motors Corporation.
Dickerman, W. C.; "Modern Trends in Motive Power"; in Railway
Age, April 29, 1933, vol 94 no 17; Simmons-Boardman Publishing Co., Philadelphia,
______; "Burlington 'Zephyr' Completed at Budd Plant" in Railway
Age, April 14, 1934, vol 96 no 15; Simmons-Boardman Publishing Co., Philadelphia,
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
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