To the Rescue: The Amtrak F40PH


Gary Dolzall

May 27th, 2021

In this, the first of a two-part feature, author Gary Dolzall tells the remarkable story of Electro-Motive’s F40PH.

Words and photographs by Gary Dolzall

At its debut on May 1, 1971, Amtrak faced many challenges, among the most urgent of which was to develop and acquire new locomotives and passenger equipment to replace the armada of hand-me-down locomotives and rolling stock it acquired from the private carriers it replaced.

Amtrak’s original fleet of diesel road locomotives consisted primarily of first-generation Electro-Motive E8 and E9 diesels, supplemented by a handful of EMD F-units. With a need of well over 100 new long-haul diesels to be delivered quickly, Amtrak turned to Electro-Motive and, between June 1973 and August 1974, Amtrak took delivery of 150 3,000-horsepower EMD SDP40F diesels. Given that the big and burly, steam-generator- equipped SDP40Fs were largely design-based on the ultra-successful EMD SD40-2, the decision seemed a logical one. But alas, the SDP40F proved star-crossed – see We Are Railfan’s article “Amtrak’s Star-Crossed Giant” for the full story – and Amtrak again faced an even more urgent need to find new diesel power.

Happily, the solution was right at hand. In May 1975, Amtrak had ordered 30 Electro-Motive 3,000-horsepower F40PH diesels, originally intended for use on the carrier’s short-haul routes. Like the SDP40F, the F40PH was design-based on an existing locomotive, in this case EMD’s GP40-2, with the addition of a cowl streamlined carbody. Unlike the SDP40F, the F40PH was a four-axle (B-B) locomotive rather than a six-axle (C-C) diesel, and the F40PH was equipped with a HEP (head-end power) generator rather than a steam generator.

Entering service in the spring of 1976, Amtrak’s initial F40PHs (road numbers 200-229) were assigned short-haul duties on the northern end of the Northeast Corridor, and out of Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle. With the SDP40F’s serious issues, Amtrak made the decision to call upon the F40PH to replace its nearly new SDP40Fs, and through the mid-1980s Amtrak acquired a total of 210 F40PHs from EMD. As compared to the initial group of units, the later F40PHs had larger fuel tanks (from 1,500 to 1,800 gallons) and more potent HEP (from 500 to 800 kW) to be better suited for long-haul duties. With no small touch of irony, many of the Amtrak F40PHs were constructed with 645-series powerplants and generators from retired and scrapped SDP40Fs.

The nimble, versatile, yet powerful F40PH would prove not only an acceptable replacement for the SDP40F, but in fact a stellar one. Originally dressed in Amtrak’s Phase II livery, the F40PHs went on to become the workhorse of the Amtrak diesel fleet, powering both short-haul and long-distance trains from Maine and Florida to California and Washington State. Indeed, the F40PHs seemed right at home, whether the assignment was the likes of a three-car Boston-Portland (Maine) Downeaster or the long and elegant Superliner-equipped Southwest Chief.

Amtrak’s F40PHs, in some cases upgraded to 3,200 horsepower, would reign supreme as Amtrak’s primary diesel power for the better part of two decades. In the early 1990s, the veteran F40PH diesels were supplemented by EMD F59PHI locomotives (for services such as the Pacific Surfliners) and a group of 20 General Electric Dash 8-BWH diesels, but it would be the General Electric Genesis diesels (in models Dash 8-40BP, P32AC-DM, and P42DC) built from 1993 through 2001 that would come to replace the venerable F40PH.

Amtrak last employed its F40PHs in powered form in 2001, but even so, the careers of some of the veteran units were far from over. Between 1996 and 2007, Amtrak converted 22 of its F40PHs into Non-Powered Control Units (NPCUs) for use in push-pull services. The prime movers of the NPCUs were removed and replaced with a baggage compartment, leading railfans to dub the non-powered equipment “cabbage cars” (for their use as cab cars and baggage carriers). The NPCUs remain in service.

Amtrak’s Electro-Motive F40PH began life as the intended little sister to the SDP40F but turned out to be Amtrak’s rescuer – and indeed a landmark locomotive in American railroading history. Beyond its yeoman service to Amtrak, the F40PH, in a range of variants, also emerged as a successful, widely employed, and long-lived commuter locomotive – and that part of the remarkable F40PH story will be the subject of an upcoming article here at We Are Railfans. – Gary Dolzall

F40PH-Gary-Dolzall-Chicago Brand new, spiffy clean, and handling the duties for which it was originally intended, Amtrak Electro-Motive F40PH 206 – a member of the first group of F40PHs constructed – departs Chicago Union Station in 1976 with a Detroit-bound short-haul service.

F40PH-Gary-Dolzall-Fargo New Year’s Day of 1978 finds Amtrak F40PH 243 and a sister caked in snow and ice as the Empire Builder makes its station stop at Fargo, North Dakota (above). Although equipped with HEP equipment, the F40PH was pressed into service hauling conventional steam-headed passenger equipment and thus required a steam-heater car, as can be seen trailing the pair of diesels as the Empire Builder ducks under the Chicago & North Western main line at Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, in 1979 (below). F40PH-Gary-Dolzall-Wauwatosa F40PH-Gary-Dolzall-Salt-Lake-City With three Amfleet cars and a sleeper, the Amtrak Pioneer, powered by F40PH 218, makes its early morning arrival in Salt Lake City in May 1980. The Pioneer operated between Seattle and Salt Lake City via Union Pacific trackage.

F40PH-Gary-Dolzall-Horizon-Soo-Line With a pair of Horizon coaches and an ex-Metroliner cab car trailing behind, Amtrak F40PH 302 hustles Hiawatha service Train 334 south of Sturtevant, Wisconsin, in September 1990. The train is operating between Milwaukee and Chicago via the Soo Line’s ex-Milwaukee Road main line.

F40PH-Gary-Dolzall-Highlands Race horses! At Highlands, Illinois, on the Burlington Northern’s famed “Racetrack” west from Chicago, Amtrak F40PH 409 and the California Zephyr overtake a Metra/BN commuter train powered by a classic Burlington Northern E9 (above). On May 6, 1990 at Manteno, Illinois, on the main line of the Illinois Central, Amtrak F40PH 228 is on the point of the famed City of New Orleans as it scurries north past an Illinois Central freight headed by IC EMD GP40R 3129 (below). F40PH-Gary-Dolzall-Manteno F40PH-Gary-Dolzall-Mapleton Embracing their inherited long-haul duties with gusto, a duo of Amtrak F40PHs leads the Broadway Limited through a curve at Mapleton, Pennsylvania, on the Conrail (ex-Pennsylvania) main line (above). Amid the fall foliage finery of Massachusetts’ Berkshire Hills, a set of the versatile EMD diesels leads the Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited toward the Berkshires’ rugged summit (below) in October 1992. F40PH-Gary-Dolzall-Berkshires F40PH-Gary-Dolzall-Cranesville Amtrak’s Amfleet-equipped Niagara Rainbow, operating between Niagara Falls, New York and New York City, dashes through the snow and along the banks of the historic Mohawk River behind F40PH 397 at Cranesville, New York, in January 1991.

F40PH-Gary-Dolzall-Chicago-Depot At Amtrak’s ever-bustling 14th Street maintenance facility and coach yard in Chicago, sets of veteran EMDs, including Amtrak’s first F40PH, No. 200, await the next call to duty on May 2, 1990. Chicago was long a haven of the passenger railroad’s F40PHs, as the diesels served both short- and long-haul routes from the Windy City.

F40PH-Gary-Dolzall-San-Diego Although retired as powered units in 2001, more than a score of venerable F40PHs have continued to serve Amtrak as Non-Powered Control Units (NPCUs) for use in push-pull services. At Old Town Station in San Diego, California, 90278 (ex-278) leads the way with a northbound Horizon-coach-equipped Pacific Surfliner service in April 2017. A GE P42DC on the rear of the train is providing the propulsion.

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