Electrics in the diesel age: What went wrong?

Despite the strong performance of this advanced electric motive power, U.S. electrification languished. Not a single one of the electrifications that had seemed so likely at war’s end ever went ahead. Indeed, much of the earlier electrification began to disappear.

First part – Electrics in the diesel age

Second part – Electrics in the diesel age: Postwar optimism

Electrics in the diesel age
E44 № PC 4444, Tom Nelligan

What went wrong? A simple answer: the diesel-electric.

But there was more to it than that, for the failure of electrification was tied as well to the availability of capital, the prospective availability and cost of electric power, and the willingness of railroad managers to commit to such a costly, long-term and, ultimately, uncertain investment.

The diesel-electric, of course, was the primary force that frustrated electrification. When the Pennsylvania undertook what proved to be the last major electrification in the 1930’s, diesel power was still unproven. But by the time the war was over, there was little doubt about what the diesel could do. The war left the railroads with some hard choices to make. With plant and equipment worn out, they were faced with large and costly renewal and replacement requirements. At the same time, the capital available for these needs was limited.

Under these conditions, dieselization was an attractive investment. From a strictly operational point of view, electrification had a big edge over either steam or diesel power in both performance characteristics and operating costs. But the diesel afforded many of these same efficiencies at much lower capital cost. Some data developed by GE’s Earl Bill from a 1946 study of New York Central motive-power modernization between Harmon and Buffalo is revealing.

The Central’s study, which compared capital and operating costs for electric, diesel-electric, and modern steam power, projected annual operating and fixed-charge savings of more than $2.9 million for electric power over those for steam. Comparable savings for diesel operation were just under $1.8 million. While this would seem to give a clear advantage to electrification, the picture changed when a return on investment was considered. A Harmon-Buffalo conversion to modern steam power would have cost $80.5 million, while dieselization would have cost $104.5 million and electrification $135 million. At these estimated costs, NYC’s return on the excess cost of electrification over modern steam power would have been 5.39 percent, while the return would have risen to 7.5 percent for the excess cost of dieselization over steam power. When the relative investments required for electrification and dieselization were compared, the return on the excess first cost of electrification was only 3.75 percent.

With numbers like this and investment capital in short supply, the Central began a conversion to diesel power. For other roads considering electrification, the results were more or less the same, and none of the expansive projects being talked about at war’s end ever moved beyond the drawing board.

Not only had electrification ceased to grow, it began to decline as well. Here, too, the diesel was often the culprit.

One decided advantage of the diesel over steam power was its ability to run over long distances without changes of power. Electrifications that had been installed primarily for smoke abatement in long tunnels impeded the efficiencies of run-through operation, while diesel exhaust proved to be manageable with improved tunnel ventilation systems. The Boston & Maine ended electric operation through the long Hoosac Tunnel as early as 1946, and before the end of the 1950’s, B&O’s Howard Street Tunnel at Baltimore, NYC’s Detroit River Tunnel, GN’s Cascade Tunnel, and CN-GTW’s St. Clair River Tunnel all had been dieselized. Urban smoke abatement being the only reason for NYC’s Cleveland Union Terminal electrification, it was gone by 1953.

The merger movement that began to rearrange the railroad industry in the 1950’s took more electrifications off the map. Following the merger of the Virginian into Norfolk & Western in 1959, the N&W revised the flow of coal traffic to take advantage of the best grades on the merged system. This left the former Virginian electrification with largely one-way eastbound traffic over its eastern end. This handicapped the utilization of both electric and diesel power, and N&W shut down the VGN electrification in 1962. (By contrast, N&W’s own electrified district had reverted to steam operation in 1950 after a line relocation eased grades and curves.)

The Pennsylvania’s extensive electrification survived into the 1968 Penn Central merger, but the subsequent PC bankruptcy and the formation of Conrail in 1976 brought major changes to the flow of freight that had once moved under Pennsy catenary. The New York — Washington segment of the Northeast Corridor had been conveyed to Amtrak, and Conrail shifted much of the freight to non-electrified former Reading and Lehigh Valley lines, while much of the traffic west of Philadelphia that had used the PRR’s electrified low-grade routes was shifted to former Reading track. With these changes, electric operation was no longer economic, and Conrail lowered its pantographs in 1981.

A few electrifications disappeared for still other reasons. When the installation of a new ore concentrator at Butte, Mont., dramatically reduced ore traffic over the Butte, Anaconda & Pacific, the railroad shifted what traffic remained to diesels and shut off the power in 1967. After 50 years of operation, the electric locomotives and power system on the Milwaukee Road’s Pacific Extension were largely worn out. Run-through diesels took over an increasing share of the traffic, and the catenary was de-energized on the last segment in 1974.

Another false dawn

But even as these older electrifications were fading away, there was once again renewed consideration of the promise of electric operation for American railroads.

In 1965 a special task force of the Edison Electric Institute, a utility industry association, studied electrification of the New York Central main line between Harmon and Cleveland as a basis for investigating the feasibility of electrification of high-density rail operations. The report, published in 1970, concluded there were no serious technical obstacles to commercial-frequency electric operation, and recommended electrification of high-density corridors as both advantageous to the railroads and a desirable new market for utility companies. About 22,000 track-miles, the report estimated, supported a traffic density sufficient to warrant electrification.

This interest in electrification took on a new urgency with the advent of the energy crisis of the early 1970’s and the rise in diesel fuel prices that came with it. Southern Pacific began studying electrification of its Sunset Route between Colton, Calif., and El Paso, Texas, in the late 1960’s. By the early 1970’s, Canadian Pacific was considering an 850­mile installation across the Rocky Mountains. Burlington Northern studied electrification for several principal lines in 1973, with the route between Laurel, Mont., and Lincoln, Nebr., a leading candidate because of growing traffic in low-sulfur coal. Union Pacific looked at wires for its main line from North Platte, Nebr., to Salt Lake City and Pocatello, Idaho, in the early 1970’s. The Santa Fe, which weighed electrification at the end of World War II and again in 1960, began another study in 1972, this time for its entire Chicago — Los Angeles main line.

Electrics in the diesel age
E50C № 100, Nate Murry

Illinois Central Gulf contemplated wiring its Chicago — New Orleans main line and several of its branches. Together with the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Southern Railway began a study of electrification of its Cincinnati — Chattanooga main line, later extended to Atlanta. In 1971, even in bankruptcy, Penn Central was mulling an extension of its former PRR electrification on the former New York Central line up the west shore of the Hudson River to Selkirk Yard at Albany, N.Y. By the end of the decade, only a few years before it shut down its existing electrification, successor Conrail was studying a Harrisburg — Pittsburgh project over the Alleghenies that the Pennsy had considered many times before. Still other roads that at least considered electrification included Missouri Pacific; Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range; Bessemer & Lake Erie; Canadian National; Denver & Rio Grande Western; Quebec North Shore & Labrador; and C&O/B&O.

All of these studies were based upon a new concept of high-voltage, commercial frequency A.C. electrification. The principal motive-power suppliers saw it as a major new market. “We’re committed to electrification,” said a GE spokesman, “the apparent economic benefits make it inevitable.” Even diesel builder Electro­Motive hedged its bet and acquired licenses for electrification technology from Swedish manufacturer ASEA. In 1975 and 1976 EMD put experimental 6000 and 10,000 h.p. prototype locomotives for a new line of electric power into service on Penn Central.

Electrics in the diesel age
GF6C № 6001. Collection of Michael Berry

Several new mine-to-generating plant coal lines completed in the late 1960’s and ’70’s were seen as prototypes for this new vision of railroad electrification. The Muskingum Electric Railroad in Ohio and two Texas Utilities Co. lignite lines in east Texas were equipped with 25,000-volt, 60-cycle, single-phase A.C. systems, while the Black Mesa & Lake Powell in Arizona was wired up with a 50,000-volt system that was seen as the prototype for Western electrification. GE supplied thyristor-controlled, silicon-diode rectifier locomotives for all three installations.

But once again, electrification proponents were in for disappointment. For despite all the interest and all the studies, very little happened. Two more new, isolated coal lines were electrified in the West, and the British Columbia Railway electrified a new branch built for export coal traffic. There was only one new mainline electrification, for a new National Railways of Mexico route between Mexico City and Querétaro, and it never did go into full operation.

What happened this time?

After a decade of sharply rising diesel fuel prices, the petroleum-based energy crisis of the 1970’s had largely abated by the early ’80’s, and diesel prices began to fall. At the same time, the diesel builders continued to develop new generations of locomotives of steadily improving performance and increasing fuel efficiency. Over the 40­year period from 1955 to 1995, for example, diesel fuel efficiency more than doubled. The diesel-electric remained a formidable alternative to railroad electrification.

The enormous capital cost and the risks associated with electrification, too, were still strong deterrents. Even if the projected return on investment looked good, there was still plenty to worry about. Could the electrification be completed on time and at the projected cost? Would electric power be available at stable rates? Would the utilities have the generating capacity to take on the railroad load? If new power plants were needed could the utilities bring them on line in time? Change any of these parameters and electrification might not produce the anticipated benefits.

With diesel-electrics that continued to gain in performance and efficiency, and faced with all the risks and uncertainties that accompanied expensive electrification projects, the railroads yet again turned away from electrification.

Will the bright new dawn of wide-spread electrification ever come?

Consider the steadily rising curve of annual freight ton-miles, and think about the way more and more traffic is being concentrated on key routes as the industry consolidates through merger, and it’s easy to think that electrification will one day be needed just to deal with capacity needs. But if and when that day comes, will the railroads have the resources to carry it out? Or will it take government support, as it did to finally get Amtrak’s old New Haven catenary into Boston recently, or as it has where electrification has flourished almost everywhere else in the world?

Only one thing is certain, and that is that we’ll surely be talking about the uncertain prospects for railroad electrification for many years to come.

Suburban success stories

While most mainline electrifications declined after World War II, suburban or commuter installations fared much better. The new Golden Gate and Bay bridges had helped end the San Francisco Bay Area’s Northwestern Pacific and Southern Pacific suburban electrifications on the eve of the war, while automobile commuting into Philadelphia via the Ben Franklin Bridge helped shut down similar West Jersey & Seashore services in 1949. But elsewhere, the electrified lines continued to flourish; electric operation provided performance characteristics for these demanding, high-density services that could not be equaled with diesel power.

Electrics in the diesel age
Silverliner II № 9002. Roger Puta

Most suburban electrifications suffered from deteriorating maintenance and deferred equipment renewal during the long postwar decline of rail passenger services, but by the end of the 1950’s a flow of public funding had begun that would ultimately re­equip, rehabilitate, and modernize rail commuter services. Two of them were even completely re­electrified. In 1984, New Jersey Transit completed a conversion of the former Lackawanna electrification from D.C. to a modern A.C. system, while the Montreal­area commuter authority completed a similar conversion of the former Canadian National installation in 1995.

As the suburbs grew, a few of the electric systems were even extended. Modest additions pushed Reading’s Philadelphia­area catenary to Fox Chase and Warminster, while Illinois Central’s Chicago suburban wires were extended south to University Park. In the 1980’s, Philadelphia’s SEPTA realized a decades­old dream by unifying the former Pennsy and Reading commuter services with a connecting Center City Commuter Tunnel; SEPTA also added a new line to Philadelphia International Airport.

NJ Transit wire reached Long Branch, N.J., in 1988. Under New York’s MTA, the former NYC third­rail electrification saw a modest extension from North White Plains to Brewster in 1984, while Long Island third rail grew by almost 40 miles, with extensions to Hicks ville and Huntington in 1970, and to Ronkonkoma in 1988. By 2000 an entirely new 25 kV electrification of the fast­growing 80­mile Caltrain (formerly Southern Pacific) route from San Francisco to San Jose and Gilroy was under serious study. The installation would represent North America’s first new commuter rail electrification since the Reading completed its Philadelphia system during 1931­33.

By William D. Middleton
William D. Middleton. Classic Trains, spring 2001, p. 22-29.

WILLIAM D. MIDDLETON has written extensively about railroad electrification. This article was adapted from the second edition of his book “When the Steam Railroads Electrified”, to be published later this year by Indiana University Press.

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