Before the coming of the omnipresent “Genesis” diesel, Amtrak only dabbled with General Electric power.
Words and photographs by Gary Dolzall
Given that over the past two decades and more, General Electric’s rakish “Genesis” diesel has served as the mainstay of Amtrak’s intercity locomotive fleet, it is perhaps surprising to look back and recall that for Amtrak’s first decades, General Electric power was the exception rather than the rule.
At Amtrak’s creation in 1971, the new national passenger railroad gathered together a fleet of hand-me-down diesel and electric locomotives, and, in the case of main line power, the diesels were universally the products of Electro-Motive … aging but elegant E-units and a sprinkling of EMD F-units. In these formative years, Amtrak did call upon secondhand diesels of builders other than EMD for yard duties, and in fact the early Amtrak roster hosted quite a dog’s breakfast of first-generation Alco and GE diesel road-switchers and switchers. In the case of General Electric diesels, Amtrak’s roster included not quite a half-dozen 45-, 65-, and 80-ton diesels used primarily as shop switchers.
Amtrak’s electrified Northeast Corridor, meanwhile, was entrusted almost exclusively to the gallant fleet of veteran ex-Pennsylvania Railroad GG1s, the survivors of which had been built decades earlier by PRR’s own Altoona (Pennsylvania) shops. Also in service were the original Budd-built Metroliners, which were equipped with GE electrical equipment, and, in what was an unexpected twist, Amtrak acquired seven ex-Pennsylvania Railroad E44 electrics for use as maintenance-of-way power.
As Amtrak moved forward in the mid-1970s to acquire its own fleet of standard and modern diesel power, EMD’s SDP40F was chosen (see the We Are Railfans article, “Amtrak’s Star-Crossed Giant”), and when the big six-axle diesel faltered, it was an EMD sibling, the F40PH, that was selected to save the day (see the We Are Railfans article, “To the Rescue: The Amtrak F40PH). General Electric did play a role in Amtrak’s diesel modernization program of the 1970s, but only a modest one. In 1974, Amtrak placed an order with General Electric for 25 3,000-horsepower, six-axle diesels designated P30CH. Similar in size and performance to EMD’s SDP40F, the new GE diesel, which almost immediately garnered the nickname “Pooch,” was different in one key respect: The “H” in its designation denoted “HEP (head-end power) and the P30CH was the first Amtrak locomotive built with such for use with Amtrak’s new Amfleet cars. In their early days, the GE Pooch diesels tended to be based out of Chicago, Illinois.
It might have been expected that General Electric would play a role in Amtrak’s goal to replace the railroad’s aging GG1. And so it did, but the resulting electric locomotive – the big and burly GE E60 – proved almost as problematic as the EMD SDP40F diesel and for several of the same reasons. During 1973, Amtrak ordered 26 E60s, which were six-axle, 6,000-horsepower electrics that weighed in at more than 365,000 pounds. That such a beast of a locomotive would be chosen for passenger service had much to do with the fact that the design was modified (as had been the SDP40F) from a freight locomotive – in this case, GE’s E60 had been first built for the coal-hauling Black Mesa & Lake Powell Railroad in 1973. With Amtrak amidst its transition from steam-heated equipment to HEP, the order for E60s was split between steam-generator and HEP-equipped units (the former would all eventually be converted to HEP).
Both the diesel P30CH and electric E60 would serve Amtrak for the better part of two decades, but neither model garnered repeat orders. The Pooch diesels did earn considerable fame among train-watchers by, late in life, serving as the regular power for the massive consists of Amtrak’s Virginia-Florida Auto-Train, as well as powering the New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset Limited across the expansive American Southwest. The P30CHs were retired at the end of 1991. The E60s, not unlike the diesel SDP40F, suffered from excess weight and tracking liabilities and, after a 1975 derailment, was limited to a top speed of 85 mph. Thereafter, the E60s were primarily assigned to the schedules of Amtrak’s more leisurely long-distance trains. After the arrival of the EMD/ASEA AEM-7 electrics (which began in 1979), Amtrak started selling its E60s, including ten units sold to NJ Transit in 1984. Nonetheless, E60s remained in Amtrak service into 2002. Two GE E60s have been preserved.
General Electric’s secondary role in powering the trains of Amtrak was destined to change, in dramatic fashion, beginning in 1991. With Amtrak’s landmark fleet of F40PHs themselves coming due for replacement, GE corralled an Amtrak order for 52 new diesel locomotives. The first 20 locomotives were ordered to fill an immediate need for more power and took the form of GE’s Dash 8-32BWH. Although based on a freight locomotive (the Dash 8-32B built for Norfolk Southern), the new four-axle Amtrak Dash 8-32BWH was agile and fast and suffered none of the ailments of past freight-to-passenger design conversions. With a North American cab and exotic red, white, blue, and silver livery, the new Amtrak GEs proved immediately popular among railfans and went to work on trains including Amtrak’s long-distance flagships the Southwest Chief and California Zephyr. In the years since, the Dash 8s have served Amtrak in duties ranging from short-haul passenger runs to terminal switching.
The sea change, though, came with GE’s Genesis diesel. In a striking new monocoque carbody design by Cesar Vergara, the GE Genesis diesel boasted 4,000 horsepower, advanced microprocessor controls, wheel-slip management, and blended brakes. Riding bolsterless, German-design trucks, the four-axle Genesis diesels stretched 69 feet long yet weighed in at a moderate 263,000 pounds. Between 1993 and 2001, among sister GE models Dash 8-40BP, P32AC-DM (a dual-power version for use on the New York City-Albany, New York Empire Corridor), and P42DC, Amtrak would acquire 321 Genesis diesels – and the motive power face and force of Amtrak was forever changed. – Gary Dolzall
In the formative years of Amtrak, builder General Electric’s most notable contribution to the passenger railroad’s motive power was a group of 26 E60 electrics for use on the Northeast Corridor. When built in 1975, Amtrak E60 601 (originally numbered 956) carried a steam generator. In this 1988 image, the 6,000-horsepower electric is HEP-equipped and leading the southbound Amtrak Crescent through Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Early Corridor Days: In a pair of late 1970s scenes on the Northeast Corridor near Bowie, Maryland, Metroliner 853, equipped with GE electric apparatus and wearing a flashy Amtrak livery, runs wrong main (above). With one of Amtrak’s Florida “Silver sisters” in tow, Amtrak E60 968 displays its original “Phase II” livery, a scheme that was introduced on the E60s (below).
Aside from some hand-me-down small switchers, General Electric’s first contribution to the Amtrak diesel fleet was the big 3,000-horsepower, six-axle P30CH, which quickly gained the nickname “Pooch.” On a night in 1976, almost-new Amtrak P30CH 704 lays over at Champaign, Illinois while serving as power for the Chicago-Champaign Illini (above). Four years later, Amtrak 704 is visiting Amtrak’s Beech Grove (Indiana) shops for repairs and towers over a little GE sister, Amtrak 65-tonner No. 9, the shop switcher (below).
Among the early assignments of the GE P30CHs were Amfleet-equipped short-haul trains from Chicago. On a gun-metal-gray winter day in November 1976, Amtrak P30CH 701 is serving just such an assignment as it leads the Blackhawk over the Rock River at Rockford, Illinois.
Following the arrival of Amtrak’s EMD/ASEA AEM-7s, Amtrak began trimming its roster of the burly E60s. Ten units were sold to NJ Transit in 1984, and NJT 967, which wore the same number for Amtrak, surely must have felt right at home powering a commuter train through Elizabeth, New Jersey, on the Northeast Corridor in 1988.
Harbinger of change: General Electric’s big breakthrough in supplying power to Amtrak came in 1991, and the harbinger was a group of 20 flashy GE Dash 8-32BWHs. Only months old, Amtrak Dash 8-32BWH 518 is in charge of an Amtrak flagship – Train 4, the westbound Southwest Chief – as it roars through Leeds, Illinois, on Santa Fe rails.
Genesis! Between 1993 and 2001, among sister GE models Dash 8-40BP, P32AC-DM and P42DC, Amtrak would acquire 321 Genesis diesels – and the motive power face and force of Amtrak was forever changed. Amtrak 815, one of 18 dual-power units Amtrak purchased for use on the New York City-Albany (New York) Empire Corridor and wearing its original striped livery, is leading the New York section of the Lake Shore Limited through Garrison, New York, in September 1994 (above). Over the past two decades, Amtrak’s GE Genesis diesels have become omnipresent from coast-to-coast in America. On Amtrak’s Springfield Line, veteran P42DC 88, built in 1997, approaches the Wallingford (Connecticut) station in October 2020.
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