Dieselization of the Western Pacific

The year 1939 ushered in a historic event for the Western Pacific Railroad; it brought the diesel locomotive. September 26, 1939 would mark the beginning of the end for steam-powered locomotives on the Western Pacific. For it is on that day a small black switcher, the first diesel on the property and soon to be purchased by the railroad, began a service test of 30 hours in Elko, Nevada.

Builder Electro Motive Corporation (predecessor of Electro Motive Division of General Motors Corporation) had assembled a compact 600 horsepower switching locomotive labeled SW1. EMC demonstrator 906, later to become the 501, performed the switching duties at Elko with relative ease. So impressed were WP motive power officials that three of the small switchers were purchased and numbered 501-503. All were delivered in a basic black paint scheme with aluminum striping. Originally, they were to be numbered 167-69, after WP’s 0-6-0 “Fantail” switchers. The three SW1’s were to spell the beginning of the end for the WP’s steam locomotive fleet.

This was not the first non steam-powered equipment owned by the WP. The railroad had received in December 1922 two gas powered motorcars built by Brill subsidiary Service Motor Car numbered 198 and 199. Placed in service on the road’s San Jose Branch, they provided local service on this San Francisco Bay Area trackage until the early 1930’s. After being removed from service, they were stored until being sold in 1939 to the Georgia Car and Locomotive Company for $415 each.

Following disappointing traffic/performance levels of the late 1930’s, traffic levels rebounded during 1940-41. Loaded freight car miles totaled 97,718,228 in 1940 as opposed to 87,946,604 in 1939. The year 1941 would see a further improvement to 123,981,529. The increases in traffic handled made the acquisition of new, efficient diesel locomotives almost essential. WP sampled road diesels during several different periods, beginning with the visit of GM 103 (FT A-B-B-A) from Electro Motive. On May 6, 1940 the first milepost of the road diesel era arrived for the WP when the Denver & Rio Grande Western delivered the “barnstorming” Electro Motive FT demonstrator locomotives, rated at 5400 horsepower per four unit set to the WP at the D&RGW’s Roper Yard in Salt Lake City. Traveling both east and west on the main line, the set was worked a total of 2,077 miles with many kinds of consists and under varying natural conditions. WP’s management was attracted to the newcomers for various reasons, among them their lower fuel consumption levels, their lack of a need for intermediate watering and fueling stations, the ability to leave locomotives unattended, the relative ease of starting the units and, of course, their diminished maintenance requirements.

WP’s first examples arrived in the form of three A-B-B-A sets of FT road locomotives purchased in 1940 and delivered in 1941 with the numbers 901 through 903-ABCD. Paint was a totally new design of overall green and yellow with red stripes and black underframe. This placed WP among the earliest users of the newly developed FT technology.

Yard service would be bolstered in 1942 with additional switchers in the form of American Locomotive Company (ALCo) 660 horsepower S1’s, 504-511, which would assist the SW1’s. In 1943, ALCo sent the WP more switching power: eight 1000 horsepower S2’s that were given the numbers 551 through 558. General Motors also provided three more FT sets in 1943, numbered 904 through 906-ABCD. The EMC and ALCo switch engines were delivered in glossy black paint with white striping. A large Western Pacific “Feather River Route” emblem, the road’s longtime trademark, adorned each side of the cab. The final order for FT’s arrived in 1944 with six additional sets ending with number 912-ABCD with booster unit 912-C equipped with a steam generator for emergency passenger use.

Two factors in particular prevented WP from dieselizing its operations much earlier than it did: The first was its always shaky financial state (except, of course, during WWII) and the second was on account of wartime restrictions imposed upon locomotive builders by the federal government. These two elements alone virtually ensured that WP wouldn’t be able to replace its large fleet of amortized, obsolete steam locomotives before the end of hostilities in the Far East. Consequently, WP’s mechanical forces were required to remain proficient in the maintenance of both steam and diesel locomotives simultaneously. The road’s dozen new four unit FT’s (all that could be obtained from the War Production Board), attired in a most attractive scheme of green and yellow with red pin striping and yellow “Zephyr Gothic” lettering, were kept extremely busy and could rarely be found idle; WP almost literally couldn’t get enough FT’s. Unfortunately, their thirst for “the diesel that did it” was echoed by a myriad of other carriers. WP’s motive power supply problems immediately went from bad to worse; power was being borrowed from all possible sources, including steam locomotives leased from the D&RGW and the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway.

The EMD FT represented a radical departure in locomotive technology when it was produced. It differed from its F2, F3, F7 successors in many ways: It had mechanically driven auxiliaries as opposed to A.C. electrically driven ones; the FT’s traction motor blowers were belt driven ones operated from the cooling fan drive shaft, not individual, electrically operated ones; its radiator shutters were manually operated and even its auxiliary generator was driven by belts. All these features made for a fairly noisy, chaotic engine room!

Following World War II, the War Production Board (WPB) eased its restrictions upon locomotive builders and Western Pacific got in line for replacement motive power for its ragged collection of worn out steam locomotives. Before we examine WP’s postwar dieselization “Plans A and B,” let’s first look at its switcher replacement process.

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