Revolution in
the Rockies


From the early 1960s onward, the Rio Grande had been an all-EMD railroad, shunning locomotive purchases from General Electric. The result was a stable of similar-looking and consistent-performing locomotives, and a cheaper parts inventory as well. Locomotives from GM's Electro-Motive Division ruled in the Rockies. But this began to change in the Nineties, due to several factors.

For one thing, GE began to come on strong in the late 1980's as a maker of reliable motive power, and its manufacturing capacity began to outstrip that of GM. Also, the 1988 merger with Southern Pacific included SP's mixed fleet which included GE power. Still, the mountains were for the most part served by EMD products.

Another development was taking place which would alter the picture dramatically: R & D of state-of-the-art alternating-current traction motor technology. It was discovered that AC motors could achieve a higher tractive effort at low speeds, with better mechanical reliability, than could DC motors. Particularly, they have the ability to stall without damage to the motor. This had broad implications in an operating environment where low-speed, high-tonnage grinds up steep grades were the norm.

Demonstrator units utilizing the new technology began touring the former Rio Grande as early as 1994. Several SD60s lettered for Burlington Northern were equipped with AC equipment. Three of them are pictured at right, leading the CSDU train at Tunnel 1 on 7/20/94. The sine-wave logo and lettering on the side of the long hood say "THE FUTURE-TODAY WITH SIEMENS A C TECHNOLOGY".

Before any AC units were ordered by SP, the railroad took delivery of high-horsepower DC locomotives from each builder-- a batch of Dash 9-44CW's from GE, and 24 SD70M's from EMD. These models introduced the safety cab, or comfort cab, design to the railroad. Heretofore, SP had resisted that design, opting instead for standard road-switcher cabs. Shown here are three new SD70Ms leading an eastbound PSCX train at Tolland on 11/22/94.

Although EMD seemed to have gotten the jump on GE, GE's production actually geared up first (and higher). General Electric locomotives took the country by storm, and their AC units moved into the coal-hauling markets with a vengeance. Southern Pacific took delivery of an order of 278 AC4400 locomotives beginning in May 1995. In short order, these had taken over nearly all heavy coal train assignments, and were extensively used on Central Corridor manifests as well. Here's an eastbound manifest at Cotopaxi on 8/16/96.

An additional feature that the new locomotives had was that they were set up as Distributed Power units (or DPU). This meant that they could be controlled remotely from the lead engine, eliminating the need for helpers to have crews. Before long, most coal and taconite trains began running with DPU. Configurations did and still do vary, but typically one would see a pair of locos on the point, with one or two mid-train (swing help) and one or two as rear help. Here we see a pair of SP AC4400's mid-train at Crescent on Janary 4, 1997 (after the merger with Union Pacific)...

... and another DPU swing helper, this time at Pinecliffe westbound on 12/26/98, including a UP unit...

... and here's the rear helper, shoving hard on the same train as above, at the east switch of Pinecliffe.


When EMD finally began overcoming its production problems, it did so in the form of the SD90 series. This unit, for example, is an SD9043MAC, which being interpreted is, an SD90, built with the 4300-horsepower prime mover, "M" cab (wide cab), AC traction. EMD had planned these units as 6000-hp units, but experienced trouble with the huge new H-block diesel engines. To get the units out the door, basicaly, they were delivered with the lower-horsepower engines, with an optional upgrade later. Here #8257 is eastbound at Rocky, rear help, on 9/04/1999.

The SD90 series is a stylistic departure for EMD, particularly in the length and configuration of the long hood. The radiator intakes are of an overhanging style, reminiscent of and yet visually quite different from GE's design, having roof-top fans between them. And the dynamic brake fans have been moved from their traditional place behind the cab to the extreme end of the long hood.

EMD has begun to catch up a bit in the high-horsepower locomotive market, particularly since Union Pacific placed an order for a thousand new SD70M units in the year 2000. Although arriving in stages, their presence is being noticed already. These DC traction units are slated to take over from the existing fleet of SD40-2s and similar models, meaning that the days of most Rio Grande and SP units are numbered. Here the Salt Lake - Denver hotshot train ZRODV passes up Glenwood Canyon on October 10, 2000.


The massive infusion of new locomotives has certainly changed the look of old Rio Grande haunts. For example, look at the ready line area at Grand Junction in August 1998.

Here, two of GE's highest-horsepower units, C60AC's (6000 hp), stand ready at Grand Junction. (8/02/98, photo by Clarence Dent)

A signature scene from the Moffat Road now features locomotives from General Electric, more often than not. Looking west at Crescent, 10/9/2000.

The widespread use of DPU tends to "distribute" the power all over the system, necessitating a lot of "power hops" to get units back to where they're needed. It's very common to see trains for Grand Junction loaded up with a large number of locomotives on the front end. Usually about half of them are just along for the ride. Here an empty westbound coal train has eight (8!) AC units on the front end (12/26/98).

A mix of the old and the new are seen here on a solid auto rack train, parked in Rollins siding on 12/26/98. The SP AC4400 leads an Espee SD40T-2 and a UP SD60M.

GE locomotives have been appearing in a variety of guises. Thanks to the trackage rights arrangement which allows BNSF use of the line from Denver to Stockton, there's an even greater variety of power to be seen. Here an LMX lease B40-8, nearly the same color as the winter sky above, leads an eastbound BNSF manifest through a frigid Fraser on 12/28/97.

BNSF's units tend to have DC traction; here a C44-9W leads an older BN unit through Winter Park towards the west portal of the Moffat Tunnel (8/14/99).

An even more entertaining event is shown here, where an eastbound BNSF manifest meets with a westbound UP coal train. The BNSF train has three C44-9W's, but in three different paint schemes. The two SP AC4400's lead the CSDU train, which is stopped on the main while the BNSF train tiptoes into Clay siding. (9/04/1999)


This final image says it all: big power blasting up the 2% grade at Fraser, with the majestic Rockies towering behind. Interestingly, this Union Pacific coal train is led by two units acquired in mergers, over track also acquired by merger.


Mergers and new technologies have combined to completely change the look of motive power on the old Rio Grande. The advent of AC traction, the emergence of GE as the dominant player in locomotive manufacturing, the standardization on safety cabs, and the new owners and tenants, have all but erased the way things were in earlier decades. Though there has been a resurgence recently of vintage Rio Grande EMD power on the line, it is unlikely to last. And the dominance of the new behemoths from GE and EMD is unquestionable. It is now their day. The Revolution in the Rockies is nearly complete.

? 2 0 0 1 J a m e s G r i f f i n

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