Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"Erie Built's"

Union Pacific Railroad, Argo Yard, Seattle, July 1958. The first time I saw the Fairbanks-Morse “Erie Builts” was in the summer of 1958. The family had driven down to Seattle for two weeks, and I took this opportunity to explore new railroads and locomotives.
I found these units at Stacy Street Yard in Seattle. My first impressions were what filthy units they were; looked liked they leaked oil from every crack and crevice, and two, what an unusual motor sound.
In all honesty at the time I took these photos I no ideal what I was looking at. Remember, I was only 16, and the only railroad I had been up close and personal with was the Canadian National Railways. But I did have the moxie to look for a builder’s plate and jot down relevant information.

It was after we returned to Prince Rupert, that I learned these were the so-call Fairbanks-Morse “Erie Built’s.” Famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who designed the Shell gasoline logo, along with dozens of other things that became national icons, designed these units.

For those of you lucky enough to have seen these units in action, you undoubtedly remember, even after all these years, the distinctive “drumming” – some called it “drumming” - sound of the Fairbanks-Morse opposed piston motors. Unlike the hypnotic GM-EMD 2 cycle chanting, the Fairbanks-Morse headless opposed piston design resulted in a unique sound, which reverberated in and out of synchronization with sister units at throttle up.

Portland, July 1959. This west bound Union Pacific passenger train runs on permanent slow orders through the switching plant that will direct her across the Willamette River swing bridge, into Union Station in down town Portland, following her afternoon run through the beautiful Columbia River Gorge.

Fairbanks-Morse (F-M) was a late comer into the diesel locomotive fray that took off like wild fire following the Second World War and subsequent freeing up of metals such as aluminum from the war effort.

As the urban legend goes, F-M found themselves knee deep in opposed piston motors designed for US submarines. In 1944, F-M entered the railroad market with the famous H10-44 1,000 horsepower switcher, featuring the controversial opposed piston engine.

F-M’s board of directors decided to compete with Electro Motive Division’s E-7 and ALCo’s PA in the six truck A-1-A passenger locomotive market, powered by a single F-M opposed piston 38D8 10 cylinder motor, rated at 2,000 horsepower to the generator. So swift was the decision made, that:

  • F-M had no shop space at Beloit to erect the beast, and
  • No catalog model number.
A manufacturing agreement was reached to produce the locomotive in both a cab “A” and cab-less “B” booster unit at General Electric’s Erie Pennsylvania shops; thus, the name “Erie Built’s” was coined. These were the very shops that gave birth to the memorable Milwaukee Road Box Cabs and Little Joes, and later, the famous General Electric Gas Turbines (GTEL’s) among others.

A few more than 100 of what became known as the “Erie Built’s” were delivered to the head end of many famous cross country varnish giants, including the Milwaukee Road’s “Olympian Hiawatha.” She ran from Chicago to Minneapolis behind a brace of EMD E-7’s. From Minneapolis to Seattle / Tacoma “Erie Built’s” blasted all the way cross-country and under the trolley wires to tidewater.

Several years later, my Dad worked as Chief Engineer on board the M/V Mikiona, a deep-sea tug operated by Hawaiian Tug & Barge. The vessel was on a triangle run between Honolulu, Sacramento, and Astoria towing a massive grain barge.

The barge took most of its load, limited by the depth of the Sacramento River, in California and was “topped off” in Astoria.

The Mikiona was twin screw, with a pair of Fairbanks-Morse Model 38D 8½ rated at 1,667 horsepower each at 750 rpm. With the loaded barge, they managed an average of 276 miles a day, and had about 5 days reserve fuel when they hit Honolulu. Not much of a margin hitting a group of islands in the middle of a big ocean!

I enjoyed many hours visiting with my Dad in Astoria, listening to those engines, and the conversations about what a bitch they were to work on, especially in the heaving seas between Astoria and Honolulu. Having to separate two engines to get to the liners. In short, he had nothing nice to say about the Fairbanks-Morse Opposed Piston design.

Another friend of mine who lived in Portland was lucky enough to ride these units from Portland to Hinkle with his Dad. Again, no good news. Tim told me that leaving Portland with three engines running, they counted it as a good run to get to Hinkle with at least two still on line.

I suspect that in addition to the early lead General Motors had in the prime mover market, F-M was never able to catch up. In fact, no sooner had the demonstrator units built for Union Pacific been delivered, when a strike at the Beloit facility further delayed F-M’s initiative in the passenger market for almost a year!

And the oft-cited reliability of a submarine motor adapted to a locomotive frame continued to dog Fairbanks-Morse.

F-M tried to re-group and in 1950 launched the “Consolidated Line” of locomotives, including the replacement for the “Erie Built” known as the “C-Liner.”

Three units lashed together almost 195 feet long bumper to bumper! I count myself very fortunate to have seen and experienced the sight and sound of the Fairbanks-Morse “Erie Built’s," consigned to the scrap yard three short years after I took these photographs!

For such a large locomotive, 65’ + change, the machine room housed a relatively small motor!

Railroad Stuff: Union Pacific 650 originally built as UP 50-M-1A in December 1945. F-M number 1060, GE number 27789. Subsequent renumbers 981, 700, becoming 650 in February 1953. Retired to the bone yard in September 1961.

Union Pacific 656B built as UP 703B in November 1947. F-M number 1128, GE Number 29392. Became UP 987B, and subsequently 653B in February 1953. Retired, September 1961.

Union Pacific 656B built as UP 706B in April 1948. F-M number 1143, GE number 29437. Retired, November 1960. All three units had the Fairbanks-Morse 2 cycle 38D8 1/8 10-cylinder engine rated at 2,000 horsepower. Originally built for passenger service, they ended their days hauling freight.

1 Comments - Click here:

Steve Wilson said...

My great-grandfather was an engineer for the Union Pacific during the era of the Erie Builts. One day, he was assigned to drive the eastbound Portland Rose out of Portland, OR.

On the point were three Erie Builts. By the time he reached Troutdale, one of the units died, so he put it on idle, and proceeded into the Gorge with the other two.

When he reached Cascade Locks, a second unit died on him, but he was able to limp along with only a single FM. However, by the time he reached Hood River, the last FM gave up the ghost, and he completed his run to Huntington with an aging FEF-1.

Reliability was always a problem.

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