9 artifacts in this set
Diesel-electric locomotives, like this pioneering 1926 unit, were first used in switching operations. A diesel-electric locomotive is two machines in one: a diesel engine and an electrical generator. The diesel engine, or "prime mover," doesn’t move the locomotive itself. Instead, it turns the generator which produces electricity. That electricity is then fed to "traction motors" that turn the locomotive's wheels.
Swiss manufacturer Sulzer Brothers praised the diesel-electric locomotive's advantages in this 1934 advertisement. In addition to the listed benefits, diesel-electrics were gentler on railroad track because they lacked the reciprocating pistons and rods used on steam locomotives. Also, multiple diesel-electric units could be hooked together and operated by a single crew, making it easy to add horsepower to a heavy train.
Because of their low maintenance, high efficiency and ease of use, diesel-electric locomotives were popular with non-railroad industries that shuttled railcars around their own private yards. Ford Motor Company operated this diesel-electric unit. Notice the brakeman riding up front. The platforms at the locomotive's ends provided a convenient perch for crewmembers coupling and uncoupling cars.
Lincoln Zephyr Automobile with the Diesel-Powered "Burlington Zephyr" Streamlined Train, December 1935
Diesel-electric locomotives started appearing on long-distance passenger trains in the 1930s. Their sleek, modern look may have lured some riders away from the highways and back onto the rails. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad's diesel-powered Pioneer Zephyr made a promotional run from Denver to Chicago in just over 13 hours, maintaining an average speed of 77 miles per hour.
While not as romantic as steam locomotives, diesel-electrics soon found their place in the popular culture surrounding American railroads. Colorful paint schemes used on real locomotives of the Santa Fe, the Erie, the Southern and other lines translated well to HO-scale models. This model wears the Pennsylvania Railroad’s traditional livery of Tuscan red with gold "cat's whiskers" pinstripes.
"Old No. 30," the Last Steam Locomotive Replaced by Diesels on the Ford Rouge Plant Railroad, March 1950
The period from about 1945 to 1960 is often called the "Transition Era" on American railroads. Newly purchased diesel-electric locomotives worked alongside veteran steamers as railroad companies replaced their fleets. The changeover was swift after World War II. In 1945, diesel-electrics hauled just seven percent of the nation’s freight trains. Within 15 years that figure soared to 98 percent.
The American Locomotive Company, established in 1901, wisely transitioned from manufacturing steam locomotives to diesel-electric units in the 1920s. ALCO locomotives, built in partnership with General Electric, were popular with American railroads until GE ended the collaboration in 1953 and became a direct competitor. ALCO's market share fell steadily until the company was forced to end production in 1969.
ALCO's -- and later, General Electric's -- chief rival was the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors. From 1941 to 2005, EMD built a full line of locomotives suited to switching, freight and passenger operations. EMD’s elegant "cab units," like the Maine Central locomotive seen in this lithograph, remain icons of 1950s American railroading.
For all of its advantages, there was one thing that the diesel-electric locomotive couldn’t do: reverse declining passenger revenues. Many railroads, like Santa Fe, featured their sleek new diesel-electric locomotives and passenger cars in alluring advertisements. But competition from Interstate highways and jet airplanes was too much to overcome. American passenger train service was nationalized under Amtrak in 1971.