General Articles

The Growlers Are Coming

It’s the last long mile for the iron horse with its noise, smoke and wailing whistle. For Diesels are here to stay

C. FRED BODSWORTH October 15 1948
General Articles

The Growlers Are Coming

It’s the last long mile for the iron horse with its noise, smoke and wailing whistle. For Diesels are here to stay

C. FRED BODSWORTH October 15 1948

The Growlers Are Coming

It’s the last long mile for the iron horse with its noise, smoke and wailing whistle. For Diesels are here to stay


THE BLOCK signal at the edge of Montreal’s Turcot yards glowed green in the darkness as CNR train No. 19 snaked its 13 passenger coaches out onto the high iron of the Toronto-bound main line.

"Clear board,” shouted Fireman Ernie York. “Clear board,” replied Engineer Ross J. Hamilton in an echoing shout from the locomotive cab’s right-hand side. Then both of them smiled at each other in embarrassment, for their cab was so quiet that the shouts were unnecessary.

For 30 years Hamilton had been pitting his voice against the clamor of a steam locomotive. Now he was piloting a sleek, streamlined monster that dug in its 4,500-horsepower heels with no more clamor about it than a five-ton truck starting up at a stop light. As he nudged the throttle forward, there was no answering thunder, only a whining growl from behind the cab, like the hum of a distant plane. Inside the cab, Hamilton and York could talk in voices barely raised over a conversational tone, though they still shouted from habit.

Hamilton and York were making railroad history. The locomotive that growled westward out of Turcot yards was No. 754— $600,000 worth of streamlined Diesel-electric power, the most powerful Diesel unit ever to set wheels on Canadian steel.

Owned by General Motors, she was in Canada on a demonstration tour for the CNR. It was some demonstration! On the toughest passenger and freight runs, between Halifax and Windsor, she chalked up a whopping 667 miles a day. That’s a good three days’ work for a steam eater, whose daily average-

is 195 miles for passenger runs, 116 for freight.

CPR men are impressed by the new Diesels, too. Before his retirement, W. M. Neal, ex-president of the company, declared that "the record of Diesels in our own yards and in American lines makes us doubt the economy of ordering more large steam locomotives.”

The Scientist Who Vanished

The Diesel story starts back around the turn of the century when a German scientist, Rudolf Diesel, blew the roof off his laboratory developing an internal-combustion engine which used compressed air to ignite its fuel instead of the electric spark of the gas engine. Advantage: so much heat was generated that low-grade fuel would ignite and create as much power as highly refined gasoline.

In 1913 Diesel vanished off a Channel boat in a glassy sea. No clue to his mysterious disappearance was ever uncovered. Many historians point out that the German Navy was equipping its U-boats with Diesel engines and that the inventor knew too much to be allowed on British soil.

So far as fuel consumption was concerned, Rudolf Diesel's brain child was and still is the most economical power plant known. But it had to be very heavy to stand up under the high compression on which ignition depended. Until the 30’s it was suitable only for ships, then Diesel engines were perfected which were light enough to power locomotives, and even aircraft.

The biggest single factor working

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against Dieselization today is what railway men call “fuel reciprocity.” U. S. railroads spend $175 millions a year for coal to burn, but they get back $500 millions for the coal they haul. Canadian railroads, also, more than pay their fuel bill by hauling coal. Oil, on the other hand, is hauled chiefly by tanker ships or in pipe lines. U. S. railroads spend $60 millions a year for fuel oil and gasoline, get only $40 millions back in haulage. They can’t afford to thumb their nose at the coal industry. That’s why after 10 years of Diesel locomotives cutting operating costs there are only 5,000 Diesels in the U. S. against 37,000 steam locomotives. But more are coming.

In Canada the coal industry doesn’t call the tune in the same way, but because of frigid winters Canadian Diesels must carry a steam boiler to heat passenger coaches. This is a drawback meaning more frequent stops for water and added fuel consumption.

CNR pioneered with Diesel in 1925 when a self-powered passenger car clicked off the Montreal-Vancouver run in 67 hours—a record. Three years later the CN came up with its first Diesel-electric locomotive, No. 9000, which ended its days during the war disguised as a boxcar hauling an armored train up and down the Pacific Coast. But war and depression held up Dieselization of Canadian locomotives.

There have been many improvements since 1925. Today the Diesel “growler” has ousted the coal burner in most of Canada’s main terminal yards, and a few months ago she made her Canadian debut as a freight hauler on the CNR’s Montreal-Toronto mainline division. The CNR has 77 Diesel switchers in yard service (some of them on U. S. subsidiary lines) and another 22 on order. The CPR has 56 and 32 more on order. Up to last spring the only Diesels performing regular mainline service in Canada were a few which span the New York Central’s Canadian short cut between Windsor and Fort Erie. Then the CNR obtained delivery of six 1,500-horsepower units which are now being operated in tandem as three 3,000-horsepower locomotives on the Toronto-Montreal freight hauls.

The steam locomotive, which boasts a long life, won’t go off the rails next year or even in the next 10 years, but will disappear gradually. The first Canadian province to bid farewell to the iron horse will be Prince Edward Island. Six Diesels are now in service there and 14 more are on order; when these are delivered the CNR’s P. E. I. runs will be completely converted. Providing water for Prince Edward

Island’s steam locomotives has been a difficult problem, for in summer the Island’s water supply is often very low. And Diesels will mean a 25% yearly saving in the operation of P. E. I. lines.

At the other side of the Dominion the CPR intends doing a similar conversion on its 180-mile Vancouver Island system. Thirteen Diesels are on order for Vancouver Island and the first of them are expected to be put on the rails late this year. The type of locomotive going to both P. E. I. and Vancouver Island is the smaller switcher Diesel. Neither the CNR nor CPR has any more Diesel road locomotives on order. Said one railway official: “Diesel switchers are being

made now in Canada but the big road jobs are still made only in the U. S. Trying to buy a big Diesel streamliner these days is like trying to buy a fleet of new cars.”

To the urban dweller the Diesel is merely an answer to the smoke nuisance. But to the railroader Diesel’s supremacy over steam is wrapped up in a welter of technical terms like thermal efficiency, availability, axle loadings, centres of gravity and starting acceleration. “Smokelessness” is far, down the list. Diesel cuts fuel costs about one third. Furthermore, unlike a steam locomotive, it quits eating fuel the instant it stops, even if the stop is just for a few seconds.

The Interstate Commerce Commission of U. S. checked the performance of Diesel and steam locomotives on Class 1 railroads for the first six months of 1946 and found that Diesels were cutting fuel costs 45% on passenger runs, 56% on freight and 75% in yardswitching service.

A second big Diesel saving is tied up in the term “availability”—the amount of time that a locomotive is available for work. Most steam locomotives run only the length of a division on a single trip—about 200 miles, then ashes have to be dumped, grates cleaned, coal and water replenished and new fires built. After 100,000 track miles, every steamer needs a complete overhaul that may take several days. Her availability record is about 35%.

With Diesels, 2,000-mile engine runs are commonplace. They need refueling about every 500 miles, but this can be accomplished in a few minutes. Wear and tear is much less than with steam locomotives and breakdowns fewer. The Santa Fe’s new “6,000”class Diesels are designed to operate for a million miles without a major overhaul.

Manufacturers boast that the Diesel locomotive has an availability record

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of 95%. The CNR’s switching Diesels are kept in service 24 hours a day and reckoned over a 12-month period they are working 94% of the time, says E. J. Feasey, Montreal, supervisor of Diesel equipment. When the CNR first put its main-line Diesels on scheduled freight runs, the railway planned for mechanical inspections every 700 miles, but they are now inspected only every 2,500 miles.

CPR performance charts kept since 1943 on Diesels doing yard work show that they have consistently done eight hours’ work on 30 gallons of fuel oil. They require refueling only once every three days and routine inspection once a month, compared with daily refueling and inspection demanded by steam locomotives.

A Diesel cab is as swank as one of the Pullman coaches down behind. Located right up in the locomotive’s nose, it gives the engine crew an unobstructed view of the track ahead. Engineer, fireman and head-end brakeman sit in deep, leather-upholstered swivel armchairs, the cab windows roll down with cranks like those in a car and behind the fireman’s chair is an ice-water cooler with a rack of paper drinking cups beside it.

There is one more item on which the Diesel scores high. Her designers have decked her out with an array of safety devices that cuts the humanerror peril to a new locomotive low. One of the most important is the “deadman control,” a floor pedal on which the engineer must keep a constant foot

pressure, for when it is released it automatically throws on the air brakes, bringing the train to a gentle stop. In the past, wrecks may have been caused by engineers fainting or dying at the throttle. But not on a Diesel.

Another safety gadget for motorists, not train passengers, is the Mars headlight, which traces figure eights across the sky at night to attract the attention of motorists approaching a crossing. But don’t wait for a Diesel to whistle at you—their warning note is not the traditional wail of the steam locomotive but the raucous 20th-century blast of a horn.

Diesel locomotives cost roughly twice as much to build as their coal-burning cousins of the steelways, although mass production and assembly-line construction methods are now beginning to bring Diesel costs down. The price tag on No. 754 was $600,000, whereas the Canadian postwar price for a steam locomotive in the same horsepower class is $350,000. Lighter Diesels, the type now used for switching in many Canadian yards, cost from $100,000 to $200,000.

Stanley F. Dingle, CNR chief of Transportation, estimates that an investment of $25 millions to $30 millions will be required to put Diesel locomotives on the principal transcontinental runs. Probably this factor alone bars the Diesel from becoming a solution, or partial solution, to increased freight rates; but somewhere up the tracks, not so far ahead, the Diesel growler is coming. And that growl signals the death knell of the “iron horse.” ★