Nov 5, 1999
It's no secret that in order to save money the several bankrupt railroads that formed Conrail in 1976 practiced "deferred maintenance": whatever work that could be put off was put off for as long as possible. While this might have helped some predecessors' bottom line, it didn't exactly help Conrail get its trains running on time!
Railroads like the Penn Central pushed off locomotive maintenance to the point where they had few reliable locomotives remaining on their roster. Sure they had some locomotives that worked, but not enough to effectively run their railroad. When Conrail came along in 1976, they inherited these maintenance headaches. Needing to get the railroad up and running, Conrail decided to bite the bullet and order new locomotives.
In 1977 the first order of new GP-40-2's arrived on Conrail. These were powerful turbocharged locomotives, using a 16 cylinder 645E3 prime mover to produce 3,000hp. Since they were based on the improvements of the Dash-2 line, they were also extremely reliable compared to their GP-40 cousins. Conrail received units from 1977 until 1980, placing them in series CR 3280-3403. But these were not the first GP-40-2's to operate on Conrail.
The First GP-40-2's:
Only a couple of years prior to the beginning of Conrail, the Reading Company took delivery of five new GP-40-2's in December 1973 and assigned them to series RDG 3671-3675. Unlike prior Reading diesels, which had been painted in either the older drab green or the newer cream-and-green scheme, these new units were painted in a more spartan solid green with yellow end-striping and cab-roof numbers. These unit will be the primary focus of this article.
Since the units had been purchased to haul high-grade ore out of Bethlehem Steel's mine in Joanna, PA, then down the old Wilmington & Northern Branch to Reading, these units were assigned to Reading, PA. The Reading figured that under usual conditions three GP-40-2's would be able to handle a typical train, though a fourth was always kept handy just in case it was needed. According to Jim Hertzog, the Reading calculated that one GP-40-2 could handle about 16 loaded ore cars, with the average train consisting of 50 to 70 cars. The spare fifth unit would be available in case one of the regular four were to break down; otherwise, it would be available for daily merchandise trains or for service on other local branches. These green locomotives quickly became the darlings of local railroaders and railfans alike well into Conrail.
When Conrail appeared in 1976, the Reading geeps continued plying the W&N much as they had during the later days of the Reading Company. But I do remember a short period sometime around 1977 or early 1978 when Conrail removed the locomotives for use elsewhere on the system. A furor erupted among the railroaders and railfans in the Reading area. This was grand theft locomotive as far as they were concerned! The former-RDG geeps eventually made their way back to the W&N. They remained in service there until the mine closed in 1978, at which time the locomotives began visiting other areas of the system.
The Reading Co. Legacy:
The former RDG GP-40-2's remained untouched by Conrail stencils or total repaint for quite a while, possibly do their connection with Bethlehem Steel. For example, the last photo I took of RDG 3673 was in August 1978 on the local run down the W&N (it was teamed with GP-9 CR 7164 in full CR blue with caboose CR 18712 on the rear.) I still remember the day I took that photo...
It had been a long summer that year, 1978. Conrail was finally starting to settle in. More and more locomotives were appearing in fresh blue, while most other locomotives had been stenciled with their new CR numbers. But a few Reading Company GP-40-2's still remained in their pristine Reading colors: the fabled Grace Miners. But even these units were soon to be stenciled or repainted blue.
It was one of those hot August evenings, when all a kid could do was lie in bed next to an open window, listening to the sound of crickets and catching a faint breeze blow across his face. And if you were a kid and lucky enough to be a railfan in a railroad town, you could also catch the distant echo of locomotive horns and wheels clacking across track joints. It was one of those evenings.
Then the phone rang. It was my buddy from a couple of blocks away. He was excited. The yard, he said, was getting RDG 3673 ready for the Wilmington Northern run that night. Whoa! That did it for me!
I ran downstairs, grabbed my camera, and then my father. Sometimes it pays to live in a family that loves railroading! He grabbed his keys and away we were, swinging by my buddy's to pick him up. We figured that we would have just enough time to catch the train as it approached Franklin Street Station. With cameras loaded and ready, we blazed across the Penn Street Bridge in our old station wagon, the sun slowly setting behind us.
As we rolled into the station parking lot, we could hear the horns of the approaching train. It was only seconds away and we still stuck looking for a parking space! Oh no, I thought, we're going to miss it! But my dad stopped the car just in time, allowing us to leap out of the car and grab a shot of the passing locomotives.
Of course there just happened to be several monstrous cars parked between us and the station platform, with one car containing a local railfan who just smiled at us.
I snapped a shot of the passing train even though most of it was being blocked by the cars. Back then you never knew if the next day the RDG 3673 would show up still in original paint or stenciled CR 3277. So you took your shots when you could!
My heart still pounding, I ran up along the cars until I got to the end of platform and an unobstructed view. With shaking hands and a second remaining, I grabbed an angled shot of the approaching caboose. Then turned to get a better shot of it passing under the old station sign. Standing on the rear platform, a friendly trainman gave a huge wave as the train slipped into the fading light.
Exhausted and satisfied, my buddy and I made our way back to my waiting father. As we drove back home under the hazy August sunset, we talked about our adventure, about trains, and about being a kid during the crazy days of Conrail's youth. I had no idea back then that one day I would be doing the same thing for my son that my father had done for me that evening. Nor did I imagine that Conrail itself would one day fade under repaints like the Reading Company had. It truly was a special evening...
Looking at the photos Bob Dobrowolski has contributed, I can see that the RDG 3672 and 3674 had been stenciled by at least October 1978 and were far afield in New Jersey. The RDG 3671 had been stenciled by at least April 1979, though it probably got done much earlier than that. The last photo I took of RDG 3675 in full colors was in June 1977. If anyone has any other photographic evidence of when these locos were stenciled or repainted blue, I'd like to know.
The Conrail Years:
Based on the improved electronics of the Dash-2 series, the GP-40-2 was a reliable locomotive designed primarily for high-speed intermodal service, though they also found themselves in regular merchandise service. Since all the units were equipped with cab signals, they could be found nearly everywhere on Conrail's system, though at first they tended to appear more regularly in the Eastern section of the system.
Due to their reliability, Conrail retained nearly all of their GP-40-2's until the final days of the railroad, unlike the GP-40's, which were retired in massive numbers during the 1980s. But by the end of the 1990s, Conrail's GP-40-2's were beginning to show their age. Having been replaced in intermodal service by newer and larger locomotives, the geeps were assigned mainly to merchandise freight service. Except on Triple Crown trains in Pennsylvania, which usually used a solitary GP-40-2 to power the train. For those modeling Conrail, you can't go wrong with having several of these small, versatile locomotives in your fleet!
Conrail GP-40-2 Phases:
Any time a locomotive model is manufactured over a period of several years, the manufacturer usually incorporates improvements. Some times these improvements or changes are requested by the purchasing railroad. Model railroaders have come to designate such changed models with the term "phase." I have retained the Conrail GP-40-2 phase numbering that Jim Six's introduced in his Model Railroading article listed on the GP-40-2 References page. Conrail received three phases of GP-40-2's:
Phase I locomotives were the original GP-40-2's purchased by the Reading Company in 1973 (CR 3275-3279). For those choosing to model the GP-40-2 in HO scale, Athearn produces a model of the Phase I GP-40-2 complete with the 2,600 gallon fuel tank on these units.
Phase II units (CR 3280-3385), according to Jim Six, have a 88" nose compared to the 81" nose on the Phase I units. They also have newer corrugated radiator grills compared to the older mesh style of the Phase I. These also have a large anticlimber, newer step wells, and Conrail's unique "split" battery box covers. In addition, Conrail ordered these with the larger 3,600 gallon fuel tank.
Phase III units (CR 3386-3403) have the FRA-approved class lights, a wider exhaust stack found on later Dash-2 locomotives, and a return to the standard battery box covers found on Phase I units. These also have the larger 3,600 gallon fuel tank like the Phase II units. Interestingly enough, there are at least two methods that Conrail and EMD used to mount the class lights, at least on the rear of the locomotives; check the Detail Photos page for details.
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