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General Motors Once Built Locomotives -- Really Good Ones

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author photo by Aaron Gold February 2017

Time was when General Motors had their hands in a lot of pies. GM subsidiaries made refrigerators, airplane engines and quirky Swedish cars. They also made locomotives -- and they're largely responsible for the transition from steam locomotives to diesels on America's railroads.

In 1930, General Motors purchased the Winton Engine Company in the hope of gaining some traction in the industrial diesel market. After figuring out that Winton's primary customer was the Electro-Motive Company, which built gasoline-powered railcars, GM decided to buy EMC as well. In 1941, the companies were formally merged to become the Electro-Motive Division, or EMD.

Around the time of purchase, Winton and GM research began working on a 2-cycle diesel engine, and the result was the Winton 201. The engine was workable but troublesome, and the improved 201A was not improved enough. Even so, EMC built a handful of Winton-powered switchers, locomotives and self-propelled passenger trainsets, all using an electric transmission (the engine turns a generator that powers electric traction motors geared to the wheels, a simple and robust way to deliver such high power loads). All were successful. The railroad business looked promising -- and rather than try to debug the 201A, GM thought a clean-sheet design would be more expedient. The result was the 567, a 2-stroke 45-degree vee engine that displaced 567 cubic inches per cylinder. (If you really want to geek out, check out this PDF, History and Development of the 567 Series General Motors Locomotive Engine, written by Eugene Kettering, Charles' son, in 1951. It proves -- among other things -- that engineers do have a sense of humor, albeit a rather quirky one.)

The tide turned in the late 1930s when the first 567-powered locomotives hit the rails. Chief among them was the FT, a freight locomotive powered by a 16-cylinder 567. Though many think the F stood for Freight, it actually stood for Fourteen, rounding up the 1,350-horsepower rating. The engines were sold in permanently coupled pairs consisting of a streamlined "A" unit and a cables "B" unit. In 1939, GM put together an A-B-B-A set totaling 5,400 hp and sent it on a tour of America's railroads. The FT was a huge hit: Compared to steam locomotives, the diesels were clean, easy to operate and much more fail-safe. They didn't require frequent water stops and were nowhere near as maintenance-hungry as the steamers. And unlike steam locomotives, if more power was needed, the railroad could simply add more units; all could be controlled from a single cab. Steam power was doomed.

EMC went on to develop the streamlined F-series and the passenger E-series, which used a pair of 12-cylinder 567s powering four of the six axles, as well as switchers with V6, V8 and V12 engines. Steam was quickly vanquished from road service, but remained in use on smaller branch lines. What to do? GM came up with the idea of the road-switcher, a locomotive that had a narrow hood for better visibility, similar to a switcher, but a larger frame and high-speed trucks (the unit that carries the wheels and motors). Some say the GP7 was designed to be intentionally ugly so that railroads would banish it to the far corners of their routes, where steam still held sway. The GP ("General Purpose") units went on to be wildly successful, as well as the longer 6-axle, 6-motor SD ("Special Duty") units, which developed more low-speed pulling effort by distributing the diesel engine's power over six axles rather than four.

And what of the competition? Steam locomotives were often built in-house by the railroads, but there were three major steam-locomotive builders at the dawn of the diesel: American Locomotive Company (later Alco), Baldwin Locomotive Works and Lima Locomotive Works. Although they got an early start in diesel-electric locomotives -- Alco partnered with General Electric, while Baldwin and Lima merged with engine-maker Hamilton -- they were still building steamers when GM was throwing their full weight behind diesels. Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton soon fell by the wayside, as did upstart Fairbanks-Morse, which built opposed-piston diesels that worked brilliantly in WWII submarines but not so well in locomotives. Alco gave EMD a run for their money -- but when General Electric started building locomotives of their own in 1959, the writing was on the wall.

With help from Alco, GM diesels had conquered steam by the mid-1950s. So what was next? A horsepower race! The 567 had topped out at 1,800 hp, so EMD turbocharged it for 2,000 hp, then 2,250, then 2,500. By then the venerable engine had hit its limit, so in 1966 EMD replaced it with the enlarged 645, developing 3,000 hp in 16-cylinder form (eventually to rise to 3,500) and 3,600 hp in an ill-conceived 20-cylinder version. The 645 would be upgraded in the mid-1990s to the 710, still an outgrowth of the original 567. In 2015, EPA emissions regulations sounded the death-knell for EMD's 2-cycle diesels, but the 710 remains in use (and in production for export markets).

Unfortunately, while the old steam locomotive manufacturers were no match for EMD, General Electric was. Their market share built steadily throughout the 1970s -- and when the locomotive market took a downturn in the 1980s, EMD contracted while GE continued to develop. As a result, GE was soon ahead of GM in market share. General Motors put EMD up for sale in 2004, and in 2005 it became Electro-Motive Diesel, maintaining its famous initials under new ownership.

GM is out of the locomotive business, but GM locomotives are still out there. The SD70 series, developed under GM stewardship, remains in production -- and while most Amtrak trains are now powered by GE-built Genesis-series locomotives, if you ride Amtrak California or Cascades, there's a good chance your train will be pulled by a 710-powered EMD F59PHI. (If it grumbles, it's a GE; if it whines like a jet plane, it's an EMD.) One thing is for sure: GM left an indelible impression on the railroad business.

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General Motors Once Built Locomotives -- Really Good Ones - Autotrader