Train Basics ABCs Of Railroading Who built the diesels

Who built the diesels

By Paul D. Schneider | May 1, 2006

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American Locomotive Company

For many years after World War II, Alco – the American Locomotive Company – was the No. 2 diesel builder in the U.S. The company’s history as a steam locomotive manufacturer dates from 1901.

The Schenectady (N.Y.)-based firm began producing its first diesels in conjunction with suppliers General Electric and Ingersoll-Rand in 1924, using its traditional name, American Locomotive Company.

From 1940 to 1953, Alco and GE combined their locomotive sales forces and marketed their products under the joint Alco-GE name. Although American Locomotive’s steam and diesel locomotives had long been known as “Alcos,” the name Alco (a contraction of American Locomotive Company) was not made official until American Locomotive changed its name to Alco Products in 1956, four years before Alco and GE would divorce over GE’s own entry into the new domestic locomotive field.

For simplicity’s sake, any locomotives built under the foregoing names can be called “Alcos.”

North of the border, Alco’s Canadian subsidiary was the Montreal Locomotive Works (MLW). In 1968, it adopted the name MLW-Worthington Ltd. in deference to the 1967 acquisition of MLW by Worthington, a subsidiary of Studebaker-Worthington. In 1979, MLW-Worthington Ltd. was acquired by Bombardier Inc., which marketed refined versions of several Alco designs until its exit from the locomotive market in 1987. As is the case with Alco, locomotive-watchers commonly refer to locomotives built under the foregoing names as “MLW’s,” although since MLW’s products were based on Alco designs, they are frequently lumped under “Alcos” too. Bombardier’s later designs, on the other hand, are considered unique and the old MLW or Alco labels are usually not applied.

If there’s one word to describe Alco’s reputation as a locomotive supplier, it is “innovative.” In pre-World War II times, when the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific asked for a locomotive for branch-line service, Alco added road trucks and a short hood to a 1000 h.p. switcher and created what became known as the RS1, the first road-switcher style diesel.

Alco’s 1500 h.p. RS2 – the RS1 taken one step larger – debuted three years before rival EMD unveiled its similar 1500 h.p. GP7. Other Alco innovations include the first mass-market six-motor unit (the RSD4) and the first use of an A.C. alternator instead of the conventional D.C. generator (Atlantic Coast Line C630 2011 in 1966). Alco also pioneered remanufacturing in 1965 when it outshopped four Milwaukee Road RSC2’s with upgraded components.

Alco quit the new-locomotive market in 1969.


Another member of the “Big Three” that turned from steam to diesel was Baldwin, the generic name for diesels of both Baldwin Locomotive Works (BLW) and Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton Corporation (BLH), the latter the product of a 1950 merger.

Regardless of what was on the builder’s plate, however, Baldwin never enjoyed the success of Alco, let alone EMD, which was the No. 1 builder in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Like Alco, Baldwin enjoyed a relationship with its electrical supplier, Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Co. After some experimentation, Baldwin launched a line of standard diesel switchers in 1939; road diesels – a more profitable market – came as soon as possible after World War II, in 1945.

All of Baldwin’s production was performed at Eddystone, Pa., just south of Philadelphia, until BLH’s departure from the market in 1956.

If you had a special request for a diesel locomotive, you knocked on Baldwin’s door. Ask for a bidirectional, high-horsepower locomotive for slow-speed transfer service and Baldwin cheerfully supplied a twin-engine, 2000 h.p., center-cab tabbed the DT-6-6-2000. Need a monster 3000 h.p. passenger unit with more wheels than numbers and letters in its model designation? Baldwin’s answer was the DR-12-8-1500/2, commonly known as the “Centipede.”


Electro-Motive was the unquestioned top locomotive supplier until the early 1980’s.

It began as the Electro Motive Corporation (EMC), a gas-electric car design outfit purchased by General Motors in 1930. In 1941 EMC and subsidiary Winton Engine, which supplied the diesel engines for EMC switchers, were merged into General Motors Corporation, and their organizations and assets became the Electro-Motive Division of GM. Products of Electro Motive Corporation are known as “EMC’s” and Electro-Motive Division as “EMD’s,” but in the last few years, describing GM locomotives has become more tricky.

In 1950, the company broke ground in London, Ontario, for its Canadian locomotive subsidiary, General Motors Diesel Ltd., known simply as GMD. GMD then changed its name to General Motors Diesel Division (GMDD). In 1988, GM shifted all new locomotive assembly to London, leaving EMD to build diesel engines and other components, which are then sent to London for final assembly.

Consequently, there is no such thing, technically, as an EMD, SD60M, because all such units are “built” at London by GMDD. There are, however, EMD SD60’s (minus the “M” designation) built at EMD’s factory in McCook, Ill. (the postal address is nearby La Grange). Confusing matters more are units such as Burlington Northern SD40-2’s 7167-7205, which were built by GMDD in 1979 when EMD was overbooked with new locomotive orders. Were such units GMDD’s or EMD’s?

It’s hard to tell the suppliers without a scorecard, or at least a comprehensive, up-to-date roster.

Which one word best describes GM locomotives? How about standardized? Or utilitarian? Or elegant? Certainly those words describe many of GM’s products: yeoman GP7’s, one of several GM non-turbocharged, four-motor road-switchers known as “Geeps”; leggy, streamlined E-series six-axle passenger diesels; businesslike NW- and SW-series switchers; and the boxy, angular GP and SD models introduced after 1964, usually called “second generation” diesels, because they were the first built to replace older diesels, rather than steam locomotives.

Although EMD’s market share dropped to second place behind GE in 1983, EMD locomotives remain a fixture on today’s railroad scene.

In January 2005, GM sold EMD to Greenbriar Equity Group LLC and Berkshire Partners LLC.


Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of supplier Fairbanks-Morse.

FM’s entry into the North American locomotive market was the happy result of two facets of FM. One was an old-line railroad supply firm that produced pumps, track cars, and other railroad-related items. The other was a supplier of non-railroad diesel and gasoline engines, which gained renown for the development in the 1930’s of a highly successful opposed-piston diesel engine for submarines. FM’s opposed-piston engine powered about half of the U.S. Navy’s World War II submarines. One version of that o.p. engine made a name for itself in the repowering of old gas-electric cars, and the firm entered the new-locomotive market in 1944.

From 1944 until 1949 FM had its road units assembled under contract at GE’s Erie (Pa.) works, prompting those units (all six-axle passenger cab units) to be known as “Erie-builts.”

All FM yard units and road-switchers were produced at FM’s Beloit (Wis.) plant during this time, and all FM locomotives called Beloit their birthplace from 1949 until FM quit the trade in 1963.

FM’s units appealed to the senses. Their unique o.p. engines made a distinctive booming or drumming sound that were unlikely to be confused with anything else.

When FM’s were under-maintained, they had a tendency to smoke. But unlike Alco’s 244-engine models (which were known for throwing clouds of black smoke upon rapid acceleration because of turbocharger lag), FM’s spewed whitish-blue clouds of volcanic intensity. Aesthetically, FM switchers and road-switchers were characterized by boxy, no-nonsense lines and long, tall hoods – traits not masked by design flourishes added to early FM’s by noted industrial designer Raymond Loewy.

Perhaps the most famous FM is the Train Master, a 2400 h.p. six-motor unit built between 1953 and 1956. Dieseldom’s so-called “second generation” generally refers to the high-horsepower race conducted by EMD, GE, and Alco in the early 1960’s, but when you consider the state of “high horsepower” six-motor diesels in 1953, EMD’s 1500 h.p. SD7 and Alco’s 1600 h.p. RSD5 were bush-league compared with FM’s 2400 h.p. Train Master.

Today FM has all but vanished from the railroad scene. Not a single road-switcher unit survives in service in the U.S. or Canada (where FM produced its designs in conjunction with Canadian steam builder Canadian Locomotive Corporation in Kingston, Ont.). A handful of switchers survive on industrial railroads and at various military installations around the country.

General Electric

Readers who regard General Electric as a late-comer to the North American new-locomotive market may be surprised to learn that GE, in conjunction with Ingersoll-Rand, fielded a respectable line of switchers in the 1930’s using engines supplied by IR and Cooper-Bessemer.

While a partner with Alco between 1940 and 1953, GE produced what many consider to be the archetypal center-cab switcher, the 44-tonner, so named because of its 88,000-pound weight. This was the biggest one-man locomotive possible under a 1937 diesel agreement that prevented the railroads from operating any diesel over 90,000 pounds without a fireman. GE also offered a 70-ton model (for branch lines with restricted axle loadings) and a 95-ton model (a beefed-up 70-tonner).

GE’s switcher line eventually expanded into the “1974 line,” consisting of three models between 600 h.p. (the SL80), 800 h.p. (SL110), and 1100 h.p. (SL144). While all three were designed as industrial units, GE attempted to promote the SL144 as a Class 1 railroad switcher. A pair of SL144’s subsequently demonstrated on Chicago & North Western and Burlington Northern before being sold to industrial customers.

In terms of marketing road diesels, Alco and GE went their separate ways in 1953, although GE continued to supply the former with electrical gear.

During the 1950’s, GE dabbled in road diesels-research which culminated in 1959 with the introduction of the U25B. The U stood for “Universal,” the 25 for 2500 h.p., and the B for four﷓motor trucks. But what U25B spelled was a serious challenge to the surviving diesel suppliers, EMD and Alco. The U25B helped rocket GE to the No. 2 market spot, bumping Alco to a third place position from which it would never truly recover. And the U25B’s higher horsepower and centralized air system made EMD’s then-current GP20 seem like the same old Geep with a turbocharger tacked on, prompting EMD to meet the challenge with its 2250 h.p. GP30.

In 1983, GE finally toppled EMD from its No. 1 market position, but the rivalry between the two continues to this day.

GE can hardly be accused of treading water in the domestic locomotive market, especially in terms of aesthetics. For instance, compare four motor GE models against their EMD competitors. While the shape and contour of EMD diesels changed little from the GP35 of 1964 to the advent of widecab SD60Ms in the early 1989s, GE’s U-series diesels from the same period (often referred to as “U-boats”) went through several external changes. Most evident to the trackside observer were windshields (one-piece at first, then split); the size of their short hoods (long at first, then drooped, then short and drooped); the size and shape of their radiators (from the U25B’s uncluttered lines to the flared, bat-wing-like radiators found on later U33 and U36 models); to road trucks (beginning with the traditional AAR Type B truck and changing to GE’s own FB2 “floating bolster” design). The vagaries of GE locomotive aesthetics continued with the squared off carbody lines and flared radiators of its Dash 8 series. Flared radiators are a hallmark of GE’s modern AC4400’s and 6000’s.


Changes in design are about the last things that characterize the sixth major builder, Lima-Hamilton, That is because Lima, as it’s generally referred to (and pronounced LIE-mah, not lee-mah), was not around long enough to tinker with its diesel designs.

Lima dipped its toe into the domestic diesel market in 1947 when it was clear to the company that steam was, in a word, dead. It merged with engine-maker Hamilton and trotted out its first switcher in 1949. When Lima merged with rival supplier Baldwin a year later, the fate of Lima diesels was written on the wall. A year later all Lima locomotive production ended without being carried over into Baldwin’s locomotive catalog.

All Lima locomotives were constructed at the old steam erecting shop in Lima, Ohio; engines were produced at the Hamilton factory in – where else? – Hamilton, Ohio.

At the risk of offending any Lima aficionados, the company’s products were hardly distinctive, at least aesthetically. Lima’s four switcher models (they came in 750, 800, 1000, and 1200 h.p. configurations) looked like severely squared off Baldwins or elongated Alcos. The same can also be said of Lima’s sole four-motor road-switcher model: a 1200 h.p. unit that resembled Alco’s pioneering RS1; and a double-engined 2500 h.p. center-cab model that looked like a squared-off version of Baldwin’s center-cab.

If anything stands out on Lima diesels it’s the rounded corners on their windshields, not exactly something to raise the average diesel enthusiast’s blood pressure.

Limas, like FM’s, were hardly best-sellers. Lima, in fact, never sold a locomotive to a railroad west of Kansas City. The farthest west Limas got was on St. Louis-based Wabash. A couple of short lines and museums are the only places you can find Limas today.

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