Corvette on Rails


Gary Dolzall

November 26th, 2020

The early 1960s spawned a menagerie of fascinating diesel locomotives in North America, and among the most captivating was the stylish Electro-Motive GP30.

Words and Photographs by Gary Dolzall

The history of dieselization in North America now stretches a century in length, and among those many decades the 1960s witnessed extraordinary events. With the coming of the early 1960s, the railroads were beginning to replace the diesels that had first replaced steam, road-switchers had become the standard, and a “horsepower race” was blooming among the builders. Electro-Motive dominated the diesel marketplace, Alco (American Locomotive Works) remained a significant player, and General Electric, one of the pioneers in dieselization, was at long last making a push to claim a primary position as a builder of mainline diesel locomotives.

After years of collaborating with Alco on mainline diesel locomotive construction, General Electric set out on its own with the landmark 2,500-horsepower U25B of 1959. And, in the long run, what began with this first “U-boat” became a game changer for the locomotive industry.

As GE’s U25B debuted in the spring of 1959, Electro-Motive’s diesel catalog included the first of EMD’s high-horsepower, second-generation diesels, the 2,400-horsepower, six-axle (C-C) SD24. The four-axle, 2,000-horsepower GP20 then followed in November 1959. But the horsepower race was on in earnest, and in 1961 EMD introduced a 2,250-horsepower successor to the GP20 – designated the GP30.

Along with its ample horsepower, the GE U25B featured a modern carbody design, whereas the EMD GP20 had, for all intents and purposes, mimicked the features of the original “Geeps.” Accordingly, EMD made the decision to make its new GP30 not only potent, but stylish. Electro-Motive’s parent, of course, was automaker General Motors, and GM was home to famed design teams first led by legendary designer Harley Earl (known as “the father of the Corvette”), then William Mitchell. Not for the first time (GM’s Train of Tomorrow in 1947 and the Aerotrain in 1955 being prior examples), EMD thus called upon GM’s auto-styling teams to help fashion the GP30’s appearance.

The result of GM’s stylists’ work was a diesel locomotive that was visually unique, with a rounded cab atop that rested on a raised and beveled “hump” that extended back to embrace the diesel’s air intakes and dynamic brake blisters. The raised carbody atop and behind the cab was needed to accommodate a new, taller electrical cabinet, but otherwise was largely for visual panache. EMD’s GP30 debuted in late 1961 with a black, white, and red-liveried demonstrator wearing road number 1962. Along with its 2,250 horses and distinctive visual design, the GP30 featured a new air filtration system with pressurized engine room, sealed high-voltage cabinets, and beefed-up D57 traction motors.

In the hurly burly diesel marketplace of the early 1960s, the GP30 would enjoy a production run of only two years before being succeeded by the 2,500-horsepower GP35 (which in deference to production cost, replaced the GP30’s styling treatment with what became EMD’s long-standard “Spartan cab” design). Its short production life notwithstanding, the GP30 proved a notable success. EMD churned out 948 GP30s sold to 28 original buyers, and the GP30’s customer list included a “who’s who” of America’s big railroads. GP30 rosters ranged from the 152 units acquired by the Union Pacific (including ex-EMD demonstrator 1962) to the single units owned by the Alaska Railroad and the Toledo, Peoria & Western.

With its unique visual design, the GP30 immediately attracted the admiring attention of railfans, and its appeal was furthered by a number of fascinating variations among owners. Union Pacific purchased 40 of its GP30s as cabless boosters, some of which were equipped with steam generators for secondary passenger service; Southern Railway and Norfolk & Western purchased a combined 164 units with high front noses; and GP30s on roads including the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, Milwaukee Road, and Soo Line rode on trade-in Alco trucks.

GP30s proved to have long and prosperous careers, many eventually exchanging original liveries for those of super railroads including BNSF, CSX, and Norfolk Southern, as well as finding work for secondhand owners. Santa Fe and Burlington Northern, in particular, put their GP30s through major rebuilding programs.

Always a favorite of railfans, with age and increasing rarity the GP30 only gained in popularity as a “find” on any railfan outing. Happily that experience remains available today, as a number of short lines such as the Greenville & Western, Cimarron Valley, and Coos Bay Rail Link operate GP30s in freight service, and, befitting its railfan popularity, the GP30 is well represented on tourist lines and at railroad museums, including the B&O Railroad Museum, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, the North Carolina Transportation Museum, and the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, just to name a few.

The remarkable Electro-Motive GP30 – America’s much beloved “Corvette on rails” – remains a memorable train-watching experience not to be missed! – Gary Dolzall

Gary Dolzall Electro-Motive GP30 Bedecked in Burlington Northern’s “white face” livery that tends to accentuate its distinctive styling, BN EMD GP30 2830 leads a cabless GE booster and westbound BN Train 103 along the Mississippi River near Savanna, Illinois, in 1990. BN 2830 began life wearing the beautiful “Chinese red” livery of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy

Gary Dolzall Electro-Motive GP30 Union Pacific operated the largest roster of the EMD GP30, owning 152 examples, including 40 cabless boosters. On Union Pacific’s busy main line between Kansas City and Topeka, Kansas, UP GP30 841 is on the point of an interesting eastbound lash-up that also includes a UP GE U30C and a Chicago & North Western EMD SD40-2. Gary Dolzall Electro-Motive GP30 In a scene captured from the vestibule of the westbound Rio Grande Zephyr, D&RGW GP30 3007 leads an eastbound freight through the rugged Wasatch Range. The Rio Grande purchased 28 GP30s in 1962-63, the last of which were not retired until 1999. Gary Dolzall Electro-Motive GP30 Santa Fe acquired a fleet of 85 GP30s in 1962-63 and was among the railroads that put the stylish diesels through a rebuilding program to extend their careers. Wearing Santa Fe’s latter-day “Yellow Bonnet” livery, GP30 2777 leads a five-unit lash-up climbing famed Edelstein Hill at Streator, Illinois, on April 19, 1986. Gary Dolzall Electro-Motive GP30 Southern Railway GP30 2585 has traded the pitch darkness of 4,295-foot-long Duncan Tunnel for bright sunlight as it rolls eastward across southern Indiana bound for Louisville, Kentucky. Southern’s roster of GP30s, with 120 units, was second in size only to Union Pacific’s, and all of Southern’s GP30s were equipped with high front noses, as were those of Norfolk & Western. Gary Dolzall Electro-Motive GP30 Reliable and versatile, Electro-Motive’s GP30s enjoyed long lives and many made their way to second owners. Handsome Wisconsin Central 713, resting in the night at Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1989, began life as a Soo Line locomotive and rides on trade-in Alco trucks (above). From its yellow-and-green livery, the heritage of Fox River Valley Railroad GP30 820 as an ex-Chicago & North Western diesel is apparent as it leads a FRVR freight north past autumn pumpkins in Wisconsin (below). Gary Dolzall Electro-Motive GP30 Gary Dolzall Electro-Motive GP30 Just a few days after trading its original Gulf, Mobile & Ohio colors for a fresh coat of Illinois Central Gulf orange, black, and white, ICG GP30 2269 stands at Princeton, Kentucky, in 1975 and fully displays the distinctive and captivating styling of America’s “Corvette on rails.”

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