An Ode to the Aging Diesel

Portland & Western #2304 ‘City of Corvallis’ in Albany, OR. 2304 is an EMD GP39-2

I think trains get a bad rap here in the States. A few bad experiences with Amtrak, or getting caught behind mile long Union Pacific freights probably doesn’t help. There seems to be an unspoken rule amongst car enthusiasts that they can’t get excited over trains, either. So bear with me.

Portland & Western Railroad (PNWR) is one of those ‘Class II’ roads. Its about 500 miles of Oregon-only track that came into existence after the failure of national giant Southern Pacific. But here’s where it gets tech-y. Big roads like UP, Amtrak, and CSX generally employ a national fleet of fairly new diesel locomotives. This makes for a pretty boring fleet with little variety.

PNWR #3051 is an SD40. 3051 is a former Kansas City Southern unit.

But on a smaller railroad, it’s a little more interesting. Think of them as the equivalent to visiting Cuba, where vintage American cars are still common (out of necessity). Small railroads across the nation buy the old, sometimes barely usable, diesels that the big guys leave on the auction block. This results in a wonderful display of mechanical diversity and colors. The PNWR has massive steel giants that first ruled the rails as far back as the early 1950s. Some have been repainted in the new corporate orange-and-black, but a good many retain the colors of their original owners.

PNWR #1851 ‘City of Hillsboro’ is an old SD9 built in 1954. In another life, it belonged to Southern Pacific.

These small, local roads are a last grand stand for an entire era of train technology that’s closer to being phased out every year as more and more SD7’s and GP9’s give up the ghost. The locomotives of regional railroads are rolling, roaring testimonies to some of the most powerful and influential business empires that conquered the American landscape (long before car or plane). In their heyday, they were some of the most high-tech behemoths ever to move on dry land. They stop for no one. They demand every car, person, and pet to yield as they travel through towns and cities. The size, power, and sounds of these old trains are certainly something to admire.

PNWR #2005 in Philomath, OR still bears the paint of its previous owner, the Utah Railway. Built in 1963, its an EMD GP38

[Ed. This article was written by Atomic Toasters reader Conor S. Dempsey and is presented here with minimal editing. The photos are all his. I enjoyed reading it, and I hope you do, too. If you have an idea for an article, or come across some neat-o stuff be sure to drop us a heads up at tips at atomictoasters dot com.]

  • fodder650

    I don't car people and train people are exclusive. Myself I follow both and try to learn as much about them as I can. Here in Eastern Pennsylvania we have the state train museum. It's full of steam and diesel locomotives. Outdoors they have some iron in need or restoration and mostly of a more modern vintage.

    It's the ones outside that usually grab my attention since, as a kid, i used to ride Amtrak to see my father, and SEPTA as an adult. As a parent I take my kids to the train rides pretty often during the Spring and Summer. To teach them an appreciation of it as well.

    Here are a few pictures I took at the PA State Locomotive Museum

    • Of course there is plenty of car guys who like trains and vice versa.. I was more referring to the ill-educated street racers, the Amtrak haters, and of course: Jeremy Clarkson.

      Have you been to Steam Town in Scranton, PA? Pretty incredible place. My parents used to take me there as a kid. Definitely one of the high points of my childhood was staring up at the huge driving wheels on the steam locomotives there.

      • fodder650

        Yeah I went up there once and I plan on going back. A very interesting place to go to. It's on my list to go to during the spring with the kids actually.

      • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

        If Fodder or you get a chance ever, head to the Transportation museum near St. Louis. We went on a vacation to St. Louis, my wife and I got the stomach flu, then did not want to let the kids down, and went there, and you know what, it was SO FREAKING AWESOME I did not care how crappy I felt. There's not much better than the look of a kids getting to ring the bell on a steam locomotive after climbing on board. There were hundreds of engines and cars. Oh and they have cars too 🙂

        FTF, spend some time on hooniverse too if you can. I miss your positive outlook and well reasoned points about the superiority of a certain car.

      • Vairship

        Similarly, there's the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum / San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railway

  • GlassOnion9

    I love trains. I'll admit I don't know nearly as much about them as I do about cars, but I still very much like reading about them.

    Last weekend the wife and I stayed at a little B&B in the mountains in western VA. It turns out the place was right on the railroad (I believe it was a CSX line). The house was built in 1760 and 1860. Combine that with the fact that it is out in the middle of nowhere, where the trains don't run at in town speeds… they quite literally shook the windows of the house as they flew by at 3AM. Pretty awesome, but also hard to sleep.

    • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

      I lived in a building attached to the South Shore Line in the room closest to the tracks. You get used to the coal cars in the middle of the night shaking the building and being able to sleep through it. It really is quite like that L scene from The Blues Brothers. More frightening is waking-up to it the first night and seeing one of your roommate's black cat near your feet just staring at you eyes seemingly glowing. I'm glad we ended-up getting along. Cat and I ended-up being buddies.

  • I grew up in Gardiner, Oregon, right next to the last remaining line of the Longview, Portland and Northern:

    <img src="; width="450">

    It ran between the International Paper mill and a junction a little over three miles away, just back and forth hauling mill products. I thought it was wonderful. I still think it was wonderful.

    I know I've mentioned that before, but I wanted to say it again.

  • I'm pretty sure there is a lot of overlap in train and car love. Now the guys that go out trainspotting probably aren't the same guys at LeMons and vice versa but still the love of all things mechanical can be seen. I used to know the guy that ran the locomotive shop for Southern Railway/Norfolk Southern. He drove either an immaculate BMW E12 or a 1965 Mustang and had several other restored 1st gen. Mustangs at one time

    Trains were probably my first mechanical love. I fell hard when I was a little kid: train sets, train books, a subscription to Model Railroader, albums with songs about trains, you name it I was into it with trains. Then I turned 16 and got my driver's license.

  • B72

    Operating a train is a one dimensional endeavor. Driving a car is two dimensional. Flying a plane is a three dimensional challenge.

    I like them all anyway.

    • Operating a train may be a one dimensional endeavor, but it requires a certain level of finesse to command them I am sure. An engineer is responsible for controlling the some of the largest (or at least; longest), heaviest, and most powerful machines created by man. The SD40-2 above weighs roughly 368,000lbs. PNWR's Toledo Hauler is typically powered by up to 7 diesel locomotives, carrying huge amounts of cars (I've lost count at 80). We're talking million pound behemoths that can destroy anything and everything in its path.

      Not to downplay the art of driving or the huge amount of responsibility airplane pilots bear every day, but just because a train engineer's job seems one dimensional certainly doesn't do it justice.

      /end rant. 🙂

      • B72

        Technical challenges of starting and stopping that much mass aside, The logistical challenges of trying to serve our 3 dimensional world with as few rail lines as possible is an amazing task. I ride the train almost daily, and the fact that they run as many trainsets as they do, on time, without drama, is truly a testament to the railroad.Move aside, let the train go through. Let the train go through.

      • GlassOnion9

        Pfft. Even a monkey can do it:

        [youtube phEMU8hpTYs youtube]

        /shameless plug for one of the most awesome guitarists out there

  • Gah, when I did this write up I wasn't quite acquainted with Atomic Toaster's style. I would've included much more technical details about the various PNWR locomotives had I knew how many tech geeks were here. Ah well. Anyway, for those interested, I also capture PNWR units on video. There are a couple of YouTube Channels that focus on PNWR freights, most better than mine, but here's my link anyway:

    [youtube 4fPmx2zbpZQ&feature=BFa&list=UUDQ0gbgmF1Bqr9u6nC7MH7A&lf=plcp youtube]

    • BlackIce_GTS

      Yes, technical details are always welcome.
      I'm pretty near a rail line intersection. If a train is going east and wants to go south, it has to go east until it blocks two majorish intersections, then stop, flip a switch and go back. I've probably spent several cumulative hours waiting for trains to do this.
      On the upside, the engines make very impressive noises when going by slowly pulling a very large number of cars.
      <img src=""&gt;
      They almost always look like this. There's also some blue ones sometimes. Closest I can find is Alco S12, but that's probably completely wrong.

    • Don't sweat it. It was very well written and I'm proud to have been the one to post it.

    • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

      Don't worry about, as you can see, lots of people really dug it. Pretty photos too!

    • Deartháir

      I think it's a hell of a good article. We don't have anywhere near enough train coverage, so if you want to write something else for us, you absolutely feel free. It would be quite welcome!

  • The Professor

    You had me fooled for a minute engineered, I thought you'd gotten all verbose and running off at the fingers, like you had too much coffee today. Phew!
    There is an excellent train museum here in Sacramento. I'll have to see if I can get down there and take some pictures or something.

  • texlenin

    I cannot, will not, denigrate my oil-burning,
    hybrid-electrical brethren on pain of death,
    as the roads must roll, but if you've ever
    had the chance to roll under pressure,
    nothing can compare.
    They breathe, they talk to you, they fill
    one with exultation and the fear in the
    same moment….
    Sorry. Waxed verbose & poetic there
    for a second.

  • aastrovan

    Back in 1976 the "Freedom Train"came through Winter Haven and it was a sight to see.One of the "old time "Engines.

  • sawermassey

    The CPR has been running a very strange assortment of locomotives of late. I rode home an hour ago on a CP7310 with a 2012 CP8912 and a CP8801 towing Metro-North RR engine 222. Other trips that I have had have been on 13000 ton 8500 foot trains which is nothing short of a nightmare coming around a downhill corner to a signal obscured by a building which if run would lead me onto the main E-W Chicago mainline. Pucker doesn't even begin to describe it. With Hunter Harrison shredding our railroad and "sweating the assets" I have ridden a rainbow of different units.

    <img src=""&gt;
    picture credit: <a href="” target=”_blank”>

  • Victor

    Fascinating Story,the rumble of those old big motor Locomotives.