Electric Locomotives, The Definition Of Efficiency

Electric locomotives define efficiency. Even today, no other type can match their low operating costs, high tractive efforts, and swift acceleration.  However, they do carry a substantial downside; the initial capital required is so high that railroads find it difficult justifying its implementation.  This sticking point has caused electrification to remain elusive in the United States after more than a century since it first entered service.  During its height patches of railroad were energized across the country from Pennsylvania's Northeast Corridor to Milwaukee Road's Pacific Coast Extension.  There was once even talk that this motive power would one reign supreme.   The first electrics date back to 1879 when Werner Von Siemens demonstrated it successfully on a small railway in Berlin, Germany.  But it was the United States which pioneered its use in main line/heavy haul applications.  The Baltimore & Ohio gained acclaim as the first Class I to energize a short stretch of its Baltimore trackage in the 1890's.  This led to others following in its footsteps.  Today, only Amtrak and light-rail-transit (LRT) services maintain electrified operations.

Heritage Of Electric Locomotion

While Siemens is credited with showcasing the world's first electric locomotive at an exhibition in Berlin, Germany during 1879 the electric motor has a history tracing back much further than one might think.  In their authoratitve book, "The Electric Interurban Railways In America," authors Dr. George Hilton and John Due note the following: "The electric motor had been in existence, at least in rudimentary form, as early as the 1830's; in 1835 the Vermont blacksmith Thomas Davenport exhibited an electrically propelled toy train in Boston and Springfield.  In 1842, the Scottish engineer Robert Davidson operated an electric locomotive from a battery at four miles per hour on the railway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. (Source: Robert Routledge, Discoveries And Inventions Of The Nineteenth Century, 12th ed [London: Routledge, 1898], p. 454)...A series of improvements occurred beginning around 1845 that culminated in Pacinotti's development of the continuous-current dynamo in 1860, and in the announcement of the self-exictation of field magnets in 1866-1867 by several independent inventors: Sir Charles Wheatstone, C.F. Varley, William Ladd, Werner von Siemens, and Moses Farmer."

Amtrak Designs

GE E60 


Acela Express 

Electrics of the Milwaukee Road

GE/Alco Boxcabs: Class EF-1 and EP-1 

Bi-Polars: Class EP-2 

Quills: Class EP-3 

"Litte Joes": Class EF-4 

Electrics of the Pennsylvania Railroad



Electrics of the Baltimore & Ohio

Baltimore Belt Railroad

Electrics of the Virginian Railway

A General History of the Virginian's Electrified Lines 

Class EL-C 

Electrics of the New York Central System

A General History of the New York Central's Electrified Lines 

Electrics of the New Haven Railroad

General History of New Haven's Electrics 


Following their work was the 1870 invention of the generator by Zenobe Gramme, made available for commercial use while reversibility was achieved two years later.  Within a decade these technologies had found their way to the United States; in 1880 Thomas Edison tested an experimental electric locomotive, powered by a dynamo that operated on a stretch of track in Menlo Park, New Jersey although he never attempted to market his concept.  Interestingly, the modern electric locomotive actually developed from the interurban/streetcar movement. This industry would largely disappear by World War II but during the late 19th century contained great hope for a prosperous future.  It all began after Frank Sprague developed an electric motorcar in 1886 for the New York Elevated Railway whereby the motor(s) were situated between the axle, along with a trolley pole and multiple-unit control stand.  This gave way to the typical streetcar which became such a common sight throughout America.  Sprague failed to interest the New York Elevated but others were impressed.  He eventually secured a contract in May of 1887 with the Richmond Union Passenger Railway in Virginia to provide cars for its operation.  It opened on February 2, 1888 and proved successful.

Early Trendsetters

In his book, "Electric Locomotives," historian Brian Solomon points out that the first known application of a "heavy rail" electric took place in 1893 when General Electric manufactured a small, 30-ton machine featuring two axles.  A year later it built another which utilized a pair of trucks and nose-suspended traction motors.  Main line electrics did not appear until 1895 when the Baltimore & Ohio opened a stretch of energized territory in Baltimore known as the Baltimore Belt Railroad (or "Belt Line").  The railroad's "Official List No. 29" issued January 1, 1948 notes the territory covered 7.2 miles from Milepost 90.7 at Bay View, Maryland to Milepost 97.9 at Hamburg Street, Baltimore, of which 4 miles was electrified.  According to the book, "Baltimore & Ohio Railroad," by Kirk Reynolds and David Oroszi it was needed to close a gap between the B&O's Washington-Cumberland route and its new rail line to New York.  Even by that era urban residents had grown increasingly fed up with the constant noise, soot, and smoke associated with steam locomotives.  As a result the B&O, seemingly always the technological trailblazer, came up with a plan to electrify. 

In particular was the 1.4-mile long Howard Street Tunnel, which passed directly beneath the city.  Perhaps most interesting is that it leaned heavily on the pioneering work of early streetcar/interurban operations.  Components for the 600-volt, direct current (DC) system were provided by General Electric including the original three, steeple-cab locomotives capable of 360 horsepower via four gearless motors.  The Belt Line opened on May 1, 1895 although initially employed coke-fired steam locomotives (which produced less smoke) until the electrics arrived on June 27th.  Electrification officially launched on July 1st that year, originally utilizing overhead catenary (energized wires for electrical pickup, strung above the roadbed and supported by trolley poles).  However, by 1900 the B&O had replaced this with an under-running, third-rail system.  The railroad went back to GE for more locomotives in 1912, 1923, and 1927.  Its electrification remained in use until the 1950's when diesels took over.

Another early pioneer was the New York Central.  A historians Brian Solomon and Mike Schafer note in their book, "New York Central Railroad," the NYC had closely watched the B&O's work during planning of a new terminal on Manhattan Island which would be electrically operated.  Sadly, while these studies were ongoing a serious accident occurred inside the Park Avenue Tunnel on January 8, 1902 when an inbound train missed a stop signal and plowed into a fully loaded New Haven commuter train.  The cause was heavy smoke impairing the engineer's vision and the subsequent outcry banned steam locomotives throughout the city by July 1, 1908.  Efforts to electrify were expedited after the accident.  The railroad ultimately based their design from the B&O's, utilizing a a 660-volt DC, "under-running" third-rail system (the energized rail was covered by a wood plank, which not only reduced accidental electrification but also kept debris or weather-related issues from fouling the system).   The project was launched in 1903 and opened for service on September 20, 1906 between Grand Central Station (later Grand Central Terminal) and High Bridge (7 miles).  In the succeeding three decades New York Central extended the network, including portions of the Harlem Line and Putnam Division.  By 1931 it boasted around 70 route-miles of electrified territory.

The densely populated Northeast featured the greatest concentration of electrified territory; in July of 1907 the New York, New Haven & Hartford opened its first segment between Woodland Junction, New York and Stamford, Connecticut.  The railroad offered a high-speed main line between New York, Boston, and surrounding communities.  Its 11,000-volt AC, 25-cycle, single-phase system was eventually strung from New York to New Haven with appendages reaching Danbury and New Canaan, Connecticut.  Alternating-current (AC) technology was developed, and championed, in the late 19th century by George Westinghouse as a substitute for General Electric's direct current.  The two became long-time rivals even after signing a patent pool in 1896 to granting each the right to sell either type.  Since direct current was the established method and relatively easy to implement it took some time for Westinghouse to gain a following.  AC systems carried several advantages including no substations to maintain sufficient supply, voltage could be carried over long distances without power loss, and offered more powerful induction motors which operate a constant speed and torque.  AC did have one notable drawback, it was relatively complicated although as technology advanced it became better understood (by the 1920's refinements enabled DC traction motors to utilize AC power).  

Still, the rugged direct current systems remained popular for years and carried a following, most notably with Milwaukee Road's famously well-built, 3,000-volt DC system across Montana, Idaho, and Washington spanning 660 miles.  Despite America pioneering railway electrification there was never any uniformity established, even following claims it was the future in motive power. As Mr. Solomon's book notes there were three types ultimately employed which included direct current, single-phase alternating current, and three-phase alternating current (only Great Northern used this system during electrification of its Cascade Tunnel in Washington State).   These were broken down based on their power output; low-voltage DC (B&O, New York Central, and most interurban/streetcar systems), moderate-voltage DC (Milwaukee Road), and high-voltage AC (New Haven, Virginian, Pennsylvania, Norfolk & Western, and Great Northern).  During the early 20th century a handful of other carriers electrified portions of their main lines either for long-haul service or suburban operations such as the PRR, Lackawanna, Illinois Central, and Reading.  Coal-hauler Virginian Railway, a regional pike connecting the ports of Newport News/Norfolk, Virginia with the coal fields of southern West Virginia energized its main line from Roanoke to Mullens, West Virginia in the mid-1920's utilizing a 11,000-volt, alternating current (AC) system with powered supplied by its own power plant at Narrows, Virginia.  

Electrification holds notable distinctions in the future development of diesel-electric technology.  First, Frank Sprague is credited with pioneering a electro-pneumatic multiple-unit control system for locomotives during work on New York Central's first locomotive, 1-D-1 #6000, constructed in 1904.  Also known as simply "MU" it enables the engineer to control all of the locomotives in a consist from the lead unit.  Second, when GE and Westinghouse battled for supremacy in the electrification race, each needed a manufacturer to build their locomotives.  As a result, the former partnered with the American Locomotive Company to construct DC-equipped units while the latter engaged with Baldwin Locomotive Works in develop AC motive power.  These partnerships carried over into the diesel-electric era and Westinghouse went on to purchase Baldwin in the early 1950's (it exited the market entirely a few years later).

Designations, Types, And Characteristics

Electrics are classified using a unique system, somewhat similar to how steam locomotives are classified. As an example, when the New York Central electrified its lines in New York City the railroad used a small motor built by General Electric using a 1-D-1 wheel arrangement. These odd sets of numbers and letters designate powered and unpowered axles. Unpowered axles are designated using numerals whereas powered axles are distinguished by using letters.   So, in the case of the 1-D-1; the “1” refers to one unpowered axle located on each end of the locomotive and the “D” refers to four powered axles whereby “A” equals one powered axled, “B” equals two powered axles, “C” equals three powered axles, and so on. While at first these classifications look tricky they are actually quite simple once you know what they mean and stand for. The electric power used in railroad applications was initially provided via direct current, or DC. DC has fundamental drawbacks such as providing relatively low voltage, usually no higher than 3,000 volts, requires large amounts of equipment to properly retain power throughout the system because of the current’s considerable size, and needs power supplies (i.e., substations) located at regular intervals along the line to likewise maintain sufficient power as the high currents result in tremendous power losses across the system. 

Instead, alternating current, or AC, has become the favored means of electrical power for many systems worldwide since the 1930s. AC has none of the inherent drawbacks of DC systems, requires relatively cheaper overhead wires (or catenary), and can employ thousands of volts of power (although AC’s significant drawback is lower traction in comparison to what DC allows). To operate "motors," energized systems require a number of components, of which result in much of the tremendous expensive involved to employ electrification. For overhead systems, these components include the trolley pole; a simple support system that holds the bow collector; the bow collector in turn holds the overhanging catenary which in turn holds the actual energized wires, catenary. To pick up the electricity locomotives are equipped with pantographs, booms that extend above, and over the carbody with “shoes” to collect the electricity and then convert it into whatever horsepower the locomotive is rated for. 

The other type of system is called third rail, and is basically just that, a third rail that parallels the railroad track to one side where “shoes” running down along the ground, near the trucks pick up the electricity. For tight clearances this system is very effective, such as in subways where much of the operations take place underground or in tight spaces. Aside from traditional motors which pick up electricity using an overhead or third-rail application, other types include dual-powered locomotives and AC rectifiers. Dual-powered locomotives, like the EMD FL9 can operate using either electricity or a traditional diesel engine. This system is very efficient in territory that is both electrified and non-electrified as the same locomotive can be used in both territories without having to switch the motive power. The New Haven Railroad is perhaps the most famous railroad for using this type of locomotive as it rostered over 30 of the unique FL9s. 

AC rectifiers are a truly exceptional and an efficient type of motive power. Since by the 1930s AC was the preferred method of electrification most new electrics were likewise built to AC specifications. However, AC, again did not provide quite such high tractive efforts as could be achieved with DC systems. To counter this issue railroads, particularly those which found high tractive efforts very beneficial in mountainous territory like the Great Northern, Virginian Railway, Pennsylvania Railroad, and the Norfolk & Western Railway, needed a new locomotive that operated on AC power but could use DC traction motors to gain the best of both worlds. What resulted were the very successful AC rectifiers in versions such as Virginian’s EL-2B and EL-C; Pennsylvania’s E44s; and New Haven’s EP5s. 

For purposes of this site the surviving electric locomotives listed here were built during the 1960s and before. Unfortunately, because electrics use an expensive and special power source (overhead wires or third-running rail) to be operated, virtually none of the classic models, which survive, remain in any kind of operational status. In any event, thankfully many of the most famous motors have been preserved in some fashion such as Pennsylvania GG1s or Milwaukee Road Little Joes. This list will be categorized by those railroads that owned electrics and which, and how many, survive. One final note, the locomotives listed below are those which served in main line freight service and does not include trolley or interurban cars. 

Chicago, SouthShore & South Bend

Class 2-D+D-2 "800" #803: On display and operational at the Illinois Railway Museum. 

Illinois Terminal Railroad

Class B #1565: Operable at the Illinois Railway Museum. 

Milwaukee Road

Class EF-1 Boxcab #50: Stored indoors and cosmetically restored at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth, Minnesota. 

Class EP-2 Bi-Polar E-2: E-2 is the last surviving Bi-Polar on static display at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis. 

Class EP-4 Little Joe #70: Last surviving of its kind on static display in Deer Lodge, Montana. 

New York Central

Class S-1 #100: NYC’s first S-motor remains preserved but is not publicly displayed. 

Class S-2 #115: On display at the Illinois Railway Museum. 

Pennsylvania Railroad

Class B1: At least one B1 survives indoors and cosmetically restored at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg. 

Class DD1: At least one DD1 survives indoors and cosmetically restored at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg. 

Class E44: At least one E44 survives indoors and cosmetically restored at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg. 

Class GG1: Along with Old Rivets surviving GG1s include (per their original PRR numbers) 4859, 4876, 4877, 4879, 4882, 4890, 4903, 4909, 4913, 4917-4919, 4927, 4933, and 4935. 

Virginian Railway

Class EL-C/EF-4/E33: Two of these locomotives survive: #135 at the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke and #131 at the Railroad Museum Of New England/Naugatuck Railroad at Thomaston, Connecticut. 

Other Notable Survivors

Commonwealth Edison #4, "Steeple Cab": On display at the Illinois Railway Museum. 

Cornwall Street Railway & Light Company #14, Class B-1: On display at the Illinois Railway Museum. 

Iowa Terminal Railroad #30, "Steeple Cab": On display at the Illinois Railway Museum. 

Hutchinson & Northern #1: A small steeple-cab design built in 1921 by General Electric and remains preserved and operational at the Orange Empire Railway Museum. 

Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company #L13, "Steeple Cab": On display at the Illinois Railway Museum. 

Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company #L10, "Steeple Cab": On display at the Illinois Railway Museum. 

Sacramento Northern #653: A small steeple-cab design built in 1928 by General Electric and remains preserved and operational at the Orange Empire Railway Museum. 

Sacramento Northern #654: A small steeple-cab design built in 1928 by General Electric and remains preserved and operational at the Western Railway Museum. 

Union Pacific E-100: Originally Glendale and Montrose Railway #22, later sold to Yakima Valley Transportation and renumbered 297, which was purchased by Union Pacific. It is preserved and in operation at the Orange Empire Railway Museum. 

Wisconsin Electric Power Company #L4, "Steeple Cab": On display at the Illinois Railway Museum. 

Wisconsin Electric Power Company #L7, "Steeple Cab": On display at the Illinois Railway Museum. 

Yakima Valley Transportation #297: Originally built by Baldwin-Westinghouse this B+B design remains preserved in its YVT colors and is operational. 

Because of the initial astronomical costs involved railroads in the U.S. chose to only use electricity when significant savings could be achieved, and only over short distances, such as with commuter and mountainous operations. Today, energized freight railroading is all but extinct in the U.S. However, Amtrak operates significant intercity operations in the Northeast including the PRR’s former main line to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Aside from Amtrak, several regional, state-funded commuter agencies across the country also operate electric locomotives from main line to light rail services.  Today, while electrics in our country are used solely for passenger service the technology has come a long way, even since the AC rectifiers of the 1950s and 1960s. Types like AEM-7s, ALP-44s, and HHLs provide over 4,000 horsepower, operate using three-phase traction systems, provide tractive efforts over 150,000 pounds, and are no longer built by American firms with most manufactured in Europe by firms such as ASEA, Alstom, and Siemens.   While electrics may no longer be used in the U.S. to haul freight trains their reliability and efficiency in passenger service will likely keep them operating for decades to come, particularly as oil prices continue to rise. Extremely quiet and fast, motors are a very unique and interesting aspect of our nation’s rail system, even if they are somewhat rare in comparison to the U.S. railroad industry as a whole, and other systems around the world. Heck perhaps even one day we will again see electrics lugging freights over Stampede Pass or through the Rockies. One can always hope, anyway! 

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