Railroads & Locomotives Locomotives F7: The most famous face in railroading

F7: The most famous face in railroading

By J David Ingles | July 6, 2006

| Last updated on November 3, 2020

EMD's F7 was the star of a 21-year series that set the standard for "diesel"

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Missouri-Kansas-Texas FP7A No. 78-C shows off the locomotive’s famous bulldog nose at Oklahoma City, Okla.
Bill Bryant
“COVERED WAGONS.” “CARBODY UNITS.” “STREAMLINERS.” “F UNITS.” Call ’em what you will, when you’re talking the F-for-freight series from General Motors’ Electro-Motive Division, you’re talking the most famous diesel in railroading.

Maybe “F” should stand for Face. It’s the famous “bulldog nose” that did it. It hit the road with FT demonstrator quartet 103, “the diesel that did it”-i.e., sealed the steam locomotive’s doom with its 1939-40 coast-to-coast 83,764-mile, 20-railroad, 35-state tour.

Credit Leland A. Knickerbocker, the Santa Fe Railway, and Lionel Corp. for a lot of that fame, too. Knickerbocker’s Warbonnet and Santa Fe’s high Hollywood profile, coupled with the postwar toy-train boom, made the carrier’s passenger F3’s and F7’s the leaders of the F-unit brigade.

The entire F series encompassed eight models from the first production FT of 1940 (for Santa Fe, but in freight blue and yellow) to the last FL9 for New Haven in 1960. The count doesn’t include booster units (“B” units, those without control cabs), and any good model railroader or veteran diesel-spotter will tell you there are several “phases” (carbody styles/ internal details) of most of those F types. After the designation “FT,” the builder went with chronology through 9 on the F’s (some numbers were on passenger E units only).

Hands down the largest F-series seller was the F7, which – like its predecessor, the F3 – was rated at 1500 hp. (There was an F5 model – late F3’s in F7 carbodies and with new D27 traction motors, but the builder did not publicly apply the designation.) The F7 sold 3,849 units (2,366 A’s, 1,483 B’s) in North America during 1949-1953, the height of the dieselization of American railroads.

In U.S. diesel history, only two other models, both also EMD, the GP9 and the SD40-2 have outsold the F7. Totals for each of the F groups: FT, 1,096; F2, 104; F3, 1,807; F7, 4,221 (including 372 FP7’s); and F9, 384 (including 83 FP9 and 60 FL9 versions).

An old saw is that it’s easier to name the major railroads that did not buy F’s than to try to remember all that did. Among those that didn’t were Alco stalwarts Ann Arbor, Delaware & Hudson, Green Bay & Western, Lehigh & New England, and Tennessee Central; and some late-to-dieselize roads, mostly coal-haulers that skipped freight carbody units and went right to hoods: Illinois Central, Nickel Plate, Norfolk & Western, and Virginian (yeah, we know, Illinois Central [Gulf] and N&W inherited F’s in mergers and repainted a few). Then there’s the Long Island Rail Road – in the glory days, the only cab diesels it had were by Fairbanks-Morse, but later it employed rebuilt FL9’s.

EMD’s F’s were everywhere. More than 75 North American railroads, from Alaska through Canada into Mexico, wound up with them, and 50 roads bought F7’s new. The largest F7 fleets were Southern Pacific’s (530) and Santa Fe’s (472), although the latter was in a sense two fleets, the Warbonnet red/silver passenger or dual-service units and the blue/yellow freight fleet. New York Central had 293 F7’s, Baltimore & Ohio 257, Pennsylvania 199, Chesapeake & Ohio 148, Southern 147, Milwaukee 118, Great Northern 108, Chicago & North Western 106, and Wabash 105. At the other end of the spectrum were “small and obscure” F7 owners Charleston & Western Carolina; Kansas, Oklahoma & Gulf; Texas-Mexican; and Illinois Terminal.

Like all early diesels, the F7’s were swept aside by newer types, and by the 1980’s most any fan who cared could recite the pockets of active ones, including U.S. Steel’s Atlantic City Mine railroad in Wyoming; Louisiana & North West; Kansas City Southern; and Bessemer & Lake Erie. Many F7’s were rebuilt, some into modernized cab units for commuter agencies (Boston and Maryland), or hood units (Santa Fe’s famous CF7 fleet), or “power cars” for the opposite end of commuter trains (Long Island, GO Transit). Some survived as “executive” units for business trains (North Western and Clinchfield-cum-CSX). Burlington Northern retired its F9AB set to the Illinois Railway Museum but KCS still powers its “Southern Belle” business train with ex-Canadian FP9’s.

Excluding such curiosities, it’s generally accepted that the era of EMD F units in regular everyday freight service for U.S. common carriers ended October 13, 1992, with the B&LE F7’s on subsidiary Western Allegheny in Pennsylvania. The qualifying categories are necessary because, until the mines closed, F9’s continued to haul iron ore for LTV (formerly Erie Mining) in northern Minnesota.

Want to ride behind an F7? Go north. You can still do so in regular service on Alaska Railroad (one F7B) and Connecticut’s Metro-North diesel-powered branches, as well as behind first-cousin FP7’s on Ontario Northland [November 1994 TRAINS] and Montreal commuter trains, plus younger sibling FP9’s on Algoma Central and Canadian Pacific’s restored luxury train the Royal Canadian Pacific.

Restored F7’s from other sources painted to represent Lehigh Valley and Monon (it had only F3’s) pull occasional excursions in New Jersey and Indiana. Dinner trains in Kentucky, Minnesota, and Washington employ F’s, as do a few freight short lines and tourist carriers. Some museums run their F’s, and at least three dozen F’s, about half of them F7’s, are preserved privately or as park displays in more than 20 states plus Canada and Mexico.

Any way you look at it, the F is a face no railroader or rail enthusiast will ever forget.

11 thoughts on “F7: The most famous face in railroading

  1. Did Amtrak use any F Series locomotives with the Phase 3 paint scheme???
    Seems Athearn model trains thinks so. .

  2. Joe Alexander.
    This is a long shot. Many of my Ancestors grew up in Crofton, KY. My grandfather worked for L & N. He died about when the F series was in prototype in 1939…
    I’m looking for people in the know of Crofton.
    I road a short excursion train with an F series in Branson, Missouri.
    With that said, are you still reading this post after 4 years?
    I would like to hear your story.
    Tony Simms, Duncan, Oklahoma.
    I can give you my email if need.

  3. I was born and raised in the little town of Crofton Ky. and can remember the f-7s in L&N gray and yellow. My father was the post master and I used to love watching him on Saturday mornings get the mail bag that was throwed off the train. The track runs through the middle of town, which is now CSX. Very fond memories!

  4. I remember watching them in West Virginia I also had the opportunity to see one from the inside the cab . These were my favorite units

  5. Both of my grandfathers worked for the L&N, which had the most beautiful E and F series (classic yellow and blue with red accents). As a very young boy I would be at the terminal in my home town of Middlesboro, KY when these magnificant giants would stop. There will never be any units more distinctive or more admired (at least by me).

  6. As a kid I rode passenger trains in northern BC pulled by F7's.
    Last year I started model HO railroading. I have 4 trains all pulled by F7's – 1 train is an AB unit , 1 is an AA unit and the other 2 trains are ABBA units.
    F7's are one of the most pleasing locomotives to look at.

  7. There could be a magazine now called "The Faces of "F". There are lots of Gorgeous E and F units, and a section on those needing some help.. Great acticle but time for an update, from every state that has one in any condition!

  8. There is a great rail museum in Cranbrook BC… focuses on old classic rail coaches but it also has one of these locomotives. I live in a rail town in Alberta and my old neighbour was on the crew for the first diesel arriving into town… there is a good picture of a couple of the boys in front of one of the unit.

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