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  • Feather River GP40s


    Having just emerged from Tunnel 4 at James, Calif., the eastbound BN-170 has an ample 15,000 horses of WP's best road power on the point. Ready to do battle with the Highline are GP40-2 3553 and GP40s 3530, 3525, 3518, and 3543.
    Pacific RailNews - May 1996 - Page 26 Pacific RailNews - May 1996 - Page 27

    By Ken Rattenne  

    On a chilly afternoon in January 1980, the distant throb of diesels reverberates across the east end of California's Feather River Canyon. Western Pacific freight TOF approaches Portola, Calif., after ascending 70 miles of mountain railroad. This train, running on a tight schedule, is led by five weathered GP40s - WP's preferred locomotive model.

    Western Pacific's diesel fleet was comprised entirely of four-axle locomotives, distinguishing it from all other western Class I railroads, which by the mid 1960s, had large fleets of high horsepower, six-axle locomotives. Electro-Motive Division's four-axle, 3 ,000 h.p. G P 40 became the core of WP's modern fleet. The railroad eventually rostered 44 standard units, and 15 GP40-2s (a similar, improved model introduced in 1972 - primarily the use of replacement modules in the electrical cabinets-on the GP40 design). The Wobbly - as it was affectionately known to its fans - boasted one of the largest fleets of GP40s in the West.

    Western Outcasts

    Electro-Motive Division manufactured 1,201 GP40s for sale in the United States, 24 units for Canadian roads, and 18 for Mexico between November 1965 and December 1971. While the GP40 was one of EMD's most popular four-axle road units, finding favor with companies in the East and Midwest, it was not as popular with western railroads. The demands of hauling heavy trains up the grueling mountain grades found on many western railroads were better met by the high horsepower, six-axle models (also introduced in the 1960s) than by the four-axle GP40s. Of the big western railroads, Great Northern, Union Pacific, Northern Pacific, and Santa Fe did not order any new GP40s (though UP bought secondhand units years later), and Southern Pacific acquired a mere eight units through subsidiary Cotton Belt. Western operating departments favored EMD's six-axle, 3,600 h.p. products and purchased 1,000 of its S D45s and similar locomotives ( including the F45 cowled variation) during the 1960s and early 1970s - representing more than 80 percent of the sales of these models.

    The Initial Order

    In 1965, WP was in the midst of a unit replacement program that found the railroad purging its aging fleet of EMOD FT and F7A cab units, replacing them with twenty-two 2,500 h.p. GP35s. The GP35 proved to be one of EMO's less-successful models, largely because of the design of its electrical system. The rotational energy produced by the turbocharged 2, 500 h.p. 567D3a prime mover was converted to direct current by a D32 main generator that could not produce more than 2,400 amps without burning out. The flow of this power to the D67 traction motors was controlled by a magnetic amplifier system that never worked properly. Switches in the electrical cabinet controlling transition would of ten hang up, causing the unit to unload. Western Pacific also experienced problems with dynamic brakes and traction motor flashovers on the GP35s. The railroad temporarily derated the units to 2,000 h.p. in 1964 and 1965 while EMD worked to correct these problems.

    Needing additional power, WP looked to EMD for a more reliable locomotive. EMD introduced the GP40 in fall 1965, and WP's primary interchange partner, Denver & Rio Grande Western, ordered 13 of the new units sight unseen - taking delivery of them in January 1966. Taking the Grande's word, WP ordered 10 GP40s for May 1966 delivery, trading in a like number of worn-out World-War II era FTA and B-units.


    LEFT: When first purchased, the U30Bs were well-liked for their exceptional pulling power-they could haul more tonnage per unit than GP40s, and at higher speeds. However, soon these units spent more time in the shop than on the road. WP U30B 3067 is still resplendent in its Zephyr paint as it leads 3525, 3503, and 3514 through Serpentine Canyon on June 1, 1971. RIGHT: Dropping down through the Sierra foothills, a four-year-old GP40 3503 leads a westbound past James Siding. In spring 1970, the unit still looks much the same as it did when it Ieft the EMD plant in 1966.
    Pacific RailNews - May 1996 - Page 28 Pacific RailNews - May 1996 - Page 29

    These first GP40s, numbered 3501-3510, looked similar to WP's GP35s, but had several important differences. The trucks were spaced two feet further apart, allowing for a 3,600 gallon fuel tank (1,000 gallons more than on the GP35s) ; the dynamic brake blister was longer, and the three exhaust fans that sat on the long hood were all of the same diameter (the GP35 had a smaller center fan . The internal differences were significant. The GP40 featured EMD's new 16-cylinder turbocharged 645E3 prime mover rated at 3,000 h.p., an AR 10 alternator; and four D77 traction motors - all new building blocks developed by EMD for its new 40 series locomotives. This combination proved far more reliable than the trouble-prone design of the GP35. The first 10 WP GP40s also came with standard footboards rather than the pilot plows that had found favor with western roads, and Pyle-National headlights, consisting of a single large bulb and separate reflector. They were painted in the enduring and colorful silver-and-orange "Zephyr" scheme. These units used some trade-in parts from WP's IT units. The most obvious surviving components were the Blomberg trucks that were upgraded to handle D77 motors.

    The early GP40s did have some difficulties - often the case with new models - shortly after their delivery. Road crews complained about inconsistent traction motor field shunting, and roundhouse mechanics were finding the high power rectifier diodes unreliable. Plus, the automatic wheel slip control system - a new design-proved problematic. As a result when the units were running in multiple, they did not load properly. Once these bugs were worked out, however, the GP40 proved to be a very reliable locomotive.

    In 1967, Western Pacific ordered an additional six units, Nos. 3511-3516; these locomotives were identical to the first 10.


    Like most western railroads in the 1960s, WP initially expressed an interest in six-axle power; and after the delivery of its first GP40s, it road-tested EMD's SD45.

    In February 1967, EMD sent an SD45 demonstrator test set to Stockton, Calif.; and WP operated the units on several road freights. The rail road was especially impressed with the pulling abilities of the SD45s on its steeply graded Keddie to Bieber, Calif., High Line. However WP, unlike its neighbor Southern Pacific, had a very favorable 1 percent ruling grade on its mainline; and as a result, it did have the same need for high-horse power six-axle motive power on that route. Also because WP and its interchange partner Rio Grande were competing for east-west traffic on the Overland Route against the significantly more powerful UP-SP combination, WP could not afford to subscribe to the long, slow "drag freight" mentality. To attract traffic, WP and D&RGW had to offer something that UP-SP did not. Thus, while WP was intrigued by the impressive tractive effort of the six-axle locomotives offered, management decided that high-horsepower, four-axle locomotives were more appropriate for the railroad's operations. WP also felt that SD45s were more expensive to operate. Not only were they beyond WP's locomotive bud get at the time, but the ongoing cost of unit maintenance and physical plant upkeep necessary to operate six-axle locomotives in the tortuous Feather River Canyon convinced the railroad to order General Electric's U30Bs instead (which WP had tested in November 1966). GE offered WP five U30Bs at the cost of four SD45s-a bargain that the mechanical department would question in later years. WP accepted five U30Bs in September 1967, numbered 751-755. An other 15 U30Bs arrived in 1968 and 1969, and two former demonstrators were purchased from General Electric in a 1971 bargain-basement deal.

    Electro-Motive Division was not the only manufacturer to court WP with high-horsepower, six-axle road units. In February 1969, Alco sent three of its 3,600 h.p. "Century" C-636 demonstrators to Stockton, Calif., for evaluation. These locomotives were Alco's answer to the SD45. The mechanical department's tests revealed no surprises, and it concluded that these six-axle diesels put additional stress on curved rail. Westem Pacific did not place an order with Alco; several months later, Alco announced its departure from the locomotive business.

    By 1969, WP had collected solid data on both its EMD and GE units and found that the EMDs per formed better. Although the GE "U-Boats" were excellent pullers, there were serious flaws in their engine design. The U-Boats also tended to spew oil and suffered from frequent engine failures. By contrast, after the few initial bugs were resolved, the GP40s la bored without serious problems. Adding to the GP40 Fleet In 1970 WP placed a third order for GP40s- 10 units, Nos. 3517-3526. This order was painted in WP's new " Perlman green" scheme and featured EMD's standard twin-sealed beam headlights instead of WP's signature Pyle National lights. After delivery, the railroad applied red-and-white oscillating lights to the low nose of each unit (a feature also found on its U30Bs), and large pilot plows, correcting a mix-up at the factory that resulted in the order arriving with small plows. Internally these units contained several design improvements developed by EMD, including the elimination of traction motor field shunting. Plus, there were improvements to the rectifier diodes and to the IDAC wheel-slip system, which showed a dramatic improvement in performance over the first two orders.


    RIGHT: Against the Minneapolis skyline, 3015 is on point of the Wisconsin Central transfer into BN's Northtown Yard on April 17, 1994. In 1983, most WP GP40s were stored. Some were later rebuilt for use on the WC. BELOW: Thankful to still be working and not collecting dust in a deadline, WP 3513 displays its new identity as Missouri Pacific 662 on June 3, 1984, in Houston, Texas. The air conditioner housing atop the cab pinpoints this locomotive's heritage.
    Pacific RailNews - May 1996 - Page 30

    The final order of 18 GP40s (3527-3544) came in August and September 1971. These units came from the factory with nose mounted signal lights and the now-standard large pilot plow. Additionally WP upgraded the order to include extended-range dynamic brakes, a feature not found on earlier GP40s.

    In 1972, Western Pacific placed an order with EMD for GP38-2s. However WP canceled the order when GE offered a cheaper alternative; WP ordered GE's higher-horse power U23B instead.

    Western Pacific GP40-2s

    In 1972, EMD implemented a number of improvements to its locomotive line: the most important were modifications to the 40-series electrical system. Electro-Motive Division identified the improved models with a "-2" suffix, and the units were henceforth known as "Dash 2s." Accordingly, the GP40 was superseded in EMD's catalog by the GP40-2. Western Pacific took delivery of five GP40-2s (3545-3549) in July 1979, painted in WP's "New Image" scheme (more orange on the cab) and featuring air-conditioned cabs and extended range dynamic brakes. However, WP did not opt for the truck mounted shock absorbers that appeared on many other Dash 2 units. These locomotives did not feature the standard lighting set found on the majority of WP's power and were delivered with only the single twin sealed beam headlight above the windshield.

    Western Pacific's final locomotive order before the UP merger was for an additional 10 GP40-2s (3550-3559), delivered in April and May 1980. These units were fully equipped, featuring a full lighting package, air conditioning, and the standard large pilot plows.

    The Bicentennial Twins

    In early 1976 Western Pacific chose GP40s 3540 and 3541 to wear patriotic colors - red, white and blue for celebration of the nation's bicentennial. These GP40s became 1776 and 1976 respectively. The 1776 was painted in March 1976 and spent a month touring the railroad. Later the pair roamed the WP system, with the operating department insuring that the specially painted units always led trains. On Fourth of July weekend 1976, both locomotives were floated across San Francisco Bay from Oakland to San Francisco aboard WP's car ferry Las Plumas (Spanish for feather) for public display on the Embarcadero. The pair were in good company, sharing the spotlight with SP's GP40P-2 3197, Santa Fe's SD45-2 5701, Amtrak F40PH 203, and a bicentennial train supplied by WP.

    In 1979, both bicentennials were repainted in the orange-and-green "New Image" paint scheme and returned to their original numbers.

    Early Retirements

    Not all 59 GP40s and GP40-2s were on the roster when UP took over WP in 1982. On March 28, 1970, 3505 was destroyed at Floka, Nev., in a fatal derailment along with a pair of the GP35s. This unit was sent east to EMD as a trade-in for WP 3523. Ten years later; in April 1980, another two units, 3527 and former Bicentennial 3540, were destroyed in a fiery derailment at Hayward, Calif., that killed two employees.

    Following a derailment in 1971, Western Pacific sent 3506 back to EMD at La Grange, Ill. EMD returned it as the first GP40 painted in the Perlman green paint.


    WP's last two months of existence found the railroad pressing everything it had into road service. Drifting down the east side of Altamont Pass on Nov. 23, 1982, the San Jose Manifest heads for Stockton. Helping GP40 3629 is a high hood GP20, two F7s, and a GP40-2.
    Pacific RailNews - May 1996 - Page 31

    In 1980, WP sent 15 of its oldest GP40s, Nos. 3501-3516, to Morrison-Knudsen in Boise, Idaho, for re-building. As a result of this investment, these locomotives survived on the UP well beyond the rest of the WP GP40 fleet. Each completed locomotive was repainted in WP's New Image paint scheme and featured oscillating headlights placed on the nose of the short hood, giving these units the same lighting package as the balance of WP's road fleet. Another visible modification follow ing rebuilding was a boxy protrusion housing the cab air-conditioning unit - a new feature for these units.

    Merger Madness

    In 1983, change was in the wind for WP's fleet. After the railroad merged with UP in December 1982, changes in power assignments came quickly during the first few months. In 1983, UP began pulling GP40s from service and placing them in deadlines in Stockton, Calif., and Salt Lake City, Utah. Eventually most found their way to a single mammoth deadline in the Sierra foothill town of Oroville, Calif., and finally Portola, Calif. Many of these units eventually migrated east for the start-up of the ill-fated Chicago, Missouri & Western in 1987. Today most of them can be seen in the maroon and gold of the more successful Wisconsin Central.

    There were exceptions. The GP40-2s were assigned to jobs on the former WP once held down by WP's GP9s and GP20s. Others were sent east to help with branchline duties on other parts of the UP system. They were particularly prominent on the MP in Texas.

    Upon evaluating the condition of the GP40 fleet, UP's mechanical personnel determined that the 15 GP40-2s and the 15 rebuilt GP40s were the most useful. The balance of the unmodified locomotives were sent to Little Rock, Ark., for storage and were eventually returned to their lessors. The units in the best shape, former WP 3501-3516, were cycled through the paint shop, renumbered 651-665, and assigned to MP for service on trains in Texas and Louisiana.

    One locomotive, GP40 3532, received a coat of Armour yellow soon after the merger, with Western Pacific lettering in the UP style. Union Pacific soon decided against preserving WP's identity, and no other units were painted this way.

    Back on Home Turf

    The 651-665 lasted on the MP for only a short time before UP decided to reassign the units back to former WP mainline terminals. These locomotives, which had served WP as road power, were now as signed to locals and yard jobs. Union Pacific preferred six-axle locomotives for road assignments.

    WP's rebuilt GP40s outlived their GP35 cousins, which also had been rebuilt by MK. However, most of those units were retired by UP in 1993, leaving only the GP40-2s, three SW1500s, and four rebuilt SW9s as examples of WP motive power on UP. In 1991 former WP 3545-3550 were modified to allow electrical mating with the newly constructed slug-units, and today labor on UP3002-2007 respectively

    While the WP name and most of the railroad's locomotives are gone, the railroad survives as a key component of the Union Pacific System: its mainline now caries more trains than it ever did under WP. These fortunes may change, though, if UP successfully merges with SP since UP plans to divert much of the traffic moving through the Feather River Canyon and over Altamont Pass to SP routes.


    Article Details

    • Original Author Ken Rattenne
    • Source Pacific RailNews
    • Publication Date May 1996

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