MÁV M61 “NoHABs” – American technology for Communist Hungary

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M61 017 at Tapolca, 02/08/14 (JW)

The tale of how the state railway of Communist Hungary came to procure American-engined locomotives, even as the Soviets affirmed their power over it, is an intriguing and obviously very politically-charged one.

The Hungarian State Railways (Magyar Államvasutak; MÁV) first dipped its toe in the water regarding diesel traction in the late 1930s but, in common with most other European countries in the same boat, any plans were put on indefinite hold by the advent of World War 2.  Sadly, as much as an unfortunate consequence of geography as anything, Hungary was to suffer an astonishing amount of destruction during the conflict, and its railways were a key strategic target – indeed, 17% of all war damage sustained by Hungary was to its railways.

As a result, 1945 did not leave it in a position to pick up where it left off; significant reconstruction to merely return the railways to something approaching an operable state was the priority.  As a result, it was well into the 1950s before MÁV could re-investigate main line diesel traction.

Hungary in the 1950s

It’s important to interject here that the 1950s did not bring harmony to Hungary.  In common with the rest of Eastern Europe, it was subject to an enforced process of “Sovietisation”, with the political, ideological, social and economic norms of the Soviet Union being forced upon it.  However, this was not universally popular in Hungary.  Occupied by the Germans from the west, and invaded by the Russians from the east, the Hungarians had seen the worst of both sides and 600,000 of its civilians had died in the conflict between the two on its soil.  Many saw the Red Army not as a liberating force but in the same light as they viewed the Nazis.  The unnatural implementation of Soviet policies on Hungary led to a revolt by the Hungarian people in Autumn 1956.  This challenge to their authority was ruthlessly crushed by the Soviets, resulting in the deaths of around 3,000 Hungarian civilians, and served to harshly underline the power that Moscow held over it.

A link to a British Pathe film from 1956, neatly describing the uprising (some disturbing scenes, but then again it was a disturbing event).

The forced industrialisation that “Sovietisation” brought to Hungary in the 1950s resulted in a drastically increased requirement for motive power for freight traffic, hitherto fairly quiet routes now became important freight arteries.  Hungary was now a world of “five year plans”, where (often arbitrary) delivery targets were met regardless of how complete the product was.  At the same time, with propaganda in mind, labour competitions were to be seen in many areas of Hungarian industry and the railways were no exception – one ambition was to have each working locomotive cover at least 500km each day in the name of keeping the wheels of industry turning (this turned out to be too ambitious by quite some margin).  The upshot of all of this is that more and more trains were required to be run, and as a result, more motive power was required.  The obvious solution was diesel traction, which could result in increased efficiency and reduced costs compared to the ubiquitous steam traction in use at the time.  Modern traction would also provide ideal propaganda in a country that was being rapidly modernised.

Initial development

MÁV naturally turned its attention domestically; to the primary Hungarian rolling stock manufacturer – Budapest-based Ganz – which after a period building tanks and Messerschmitt Bf109s during the war, was now returning to the railway market.  However, it was primarily turning out electrics, such as the Co-Bo class V55s.  Diesels were not its forte – however, in 1957, it was able to turn out the M601 – a 2,000hp, 141t 1-Co-Co-1 diesel-electric prototype.

The M601 was not a success by any stretch of the imagination.  It survived less than a year; a catastrophic crankshaft failure on this unique locomotive during trials effectively ended not only its career, but Ganz’s hopes of contracts to provide locomotives to other Communist nations in the early years of dieselisation on the spot.

None of this helped MÁV in its increasingly-urgent search for diesels, though.  Bitten once, they were twice shy in trying unproven traction, and wished for something “off the shelf”.  With only diesel shunters being successfully produced in its own country, it looked to elsewhere in the Communist Bloc; with most of Eastern Europe similarly engaged in rebuilding decimated railway networks, only mother Russia was building main line diesels in any numbers.  Indeed, off the back of the M601 debacle, the Soviet Union offered a version of their TE3 diesel-electric locomotive, but MÁV quickly declined this offer, deeming it entirely inappropriate for their needs – being too big and too heavy.

Having fruitlessly looked east, MÁV naturally swivelled its eyes to the west, where diesels were increasingly ousting steam, and with significant success.  At the time (the late 1950s), arguably the two most successful main line diesel locomotive types in Western Europe were the General Motors-engined diesel-electrics built under licence by Nydqvist & Holm AB (“NoHAB”) in Trollhättan, Sweden and meeting the challenges that Scandinavia threw at them, and the Maybach-engined diesel-hydraulics from Krauss-Maffei that were revolutionising the Deutsche Bundesbahn in West Germany.  In February 1960, arrangements were finalised for MÁV to receive demonstrators of both.

The above is a link to a 17-minute MÁV promotional video from 1978 (“Hív a vasút! Vár a MÁV!”) focussing on the fruits of the efforts that had gone into the modernisation of the Hungarian railways in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – it makes very interesting viewing four decades on.

The demonstrators

First to arrive, that May, was the NoHAB.  This 1,950hp machine was not strictly a manufacturer’s demonstrator, as it had been intended for sale to Finland, but VR (Finnish State Railways) did not take up the order.  This green-liveried locomotive undertook a two-week tour of Hungary, being comprehensively put through its paces on a variety of duties, both freight and passenger, exceeding requirements in all areas.  It was also demonstrated in Romania, Bulgaria and the DDR (East Germany); there are some really interesting photos of its brief spell in the latter in July 1960 on this link.  The loco returned to Scandinavia at the end of its tour, and in the August joined the books of NSB (Norwegian State Railways), numbered Di3.623, with whom it served for the next 40 years.

As a brief aside, Di3.623 is thought not to be the first NoHAB diesel to traverse Hungarian metals.  Back in 1955, Di3.602 (now preserved in Norway) passed through whilst undertaking its own demonstration tour, visiting Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey, an itinerary also followed by Krauss-Maffei’s V200 005 the same year.  Whilst in Turkey, the NoHAB certainly worked as far as Ankara, and is even reported to have reached the Syrian border!  Not bad for a loco that went on to earn its keep working into the Arctic Circle!

The Krauss-Maffei loco arrived in Hungary for its period of testing in the July.  This loco was broadly based on the V200 class of diesel-hydraulics, but took advantage of several years’ worth of technological development – it being a six-axle variant of the four-axle V200 design – although still clocking in at only 101t.  It had been built as an add-on to the order of three such locos supplied to Jugoslovenske Železnice in 1957 to power Marshal Tito’s private “Blue Train”, but had been rebuilt in 1958 as a truly unique demonstrator – losing its two Maybach MD650 power units of 1,100hp each in favour of two 1,500hp MD655s.  Speaking in British Rail metaphors, it was turned from a “Warship” into a “Western” (albeit with Mekydro transmissions).  It had proven itself an exceedingly capable machine throughout testing in Austria and Bavaria, but had thus far resulted in no orders.

For its Hungarian testing, it received the number “M61.2001”.  It again was a tremendous success in terms of the specific tests carried out in Hungary; however, MÁV were discouraged by its two-engine design, which was entirely alien to anything it had clapped eyes on before, and also its hydraulic transmission – after it’d had bad initial experiences with its M31s (although history shows that it did successfully embrace hydraulic transmission eventually).  As a result, the order was placed with NoHAB, initially for 20 machines.

Delivery

NoHAB built them at Trollhättan and, as if to underscore their “out of the box” quality, they delivered themselves to Hungary between May 1963 and March 1964.  In ones and twos, they were worked via the Trelleborg to Sassnitz train ferry, thence the DDR and Czechoslovakia, with journeys taking up to twelve days.  As well as themselves, they brought copious amounts of spares, occasionally in volumes filling complete wagons.

The locos were emblazoned with signage trumpeting “Noch eine NoHAB-GM lokomotive nach Ungarn”: “Another NoHAB-GM loco to Hungary”.  This can only have been for the benefit of the East German Deutsche Reichsbahn; the message was not in Czech, or Hungarian for that matter!  However, regardless of the success or otherwise of their experience with Di3.623, DR did not declare any interest.

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East Germany may not have procured its own NoHABs, but in 1968 – a number of years after the opportunity had presented itself – it did (perhaps oddly) select an M61 as one of the trains featured on a postage stamp produced for the Leipzig autumn fair.

A conflict of interest?

At this point it’d be prudent to mention the elephant in the room – given the incredibly delicate political situation at the time, and with the Soviet Union unhesitatingly resorting to using force to assert its power in Hungary – how was MÁV getting away with procuring traction built outside Moscow’s sphere of influence to a design from the “wrong” side of the Iron Curtain?

Firstly, it must be established that the Iron Curtain was not a solid barrier.  Goods and services crossed it all the time.  This extended to rolling stock too; for example, PKP (Polish State Railways) had obtained its twenty EU06 class electrics from English Electric at their Vulcan Foundry in Newton-le-Willows in 1962; the trade even went the other way, an obvious example being Electroputere in Craiova, Romania, being sub-contracted to construct the first thirty Class 56 locos for British Rail in the mid-1970s.

That is not to say that trade across the black-and-white divide between “Capitalist” and “Communist” countries was straightforward or even encouraged.  Conspiracy theories continue to circulate that the sinking of the MV Magdeburg in the Thames Estuary in October 1964, whilst conveying 42 British-built Leyland Olympic buses bound for Cuba, was orchestrated by the CIA – the USA having imposed a trade embargo on Cuba, which it “encouraged” its allies to follow, in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The supply of 10 diesel locomotives to Cuba the following year by Brush Traction was deemed so politically sensitive by Brush’s parent company Hawker-Siddeley, keen to protect its business opportunities in the USA, that all references in publicity were not to Brush but to the innocuous Clayton Equipment Co. of Hatton, Derbyshire and the machines were constructed not at Brush’s Falcon Works in Loughborough, but at Internal Combustion’s site in Derby.  It was business that these companies in the “capitalist West” wanted, but depending on the circumstances, they did not necessarily want it to be common knowledge.

However, Sweden was not necessarily the “wrong” side of the Iron Curtain, depending on your viewpoint.  It was ostensibly neutral in the Cold War, and as such maintained trade links with both sides with minimum concern to either side.  Its very neutrality had a strategic purpose – forming, as it did, something of a tangible, physical barrier between “East” and “West”, although this barrier would surely have counted for nothing in the event of nuclear conflict!

The fallout

Despite all this, the decision to source traction from the Swedes was not popular with the Soviets.  The award of a contract to even a “neutral” country was seen as taking work away from the Comecon nations; that is, those who had joined the “Council for Mutual Economic Assistance”, the economic union of nations aligned with Moscow.

This would perhaps have been negated if GM/NoHAB had granted Ganz a licence to construct a production batch of locos in Budapest; as they had in the 1950s when the Belgian company AFB (Anglo-Franco-Belge) had built the class 202, 203 and 204 locos for SNCB and the class 16s for CFL in Luxembourg.  This is what had happened with the English Electric EU06 design (the first 20 locos were supplied complete from England; but nearly 500 Polish licence-built examples followed); it is what was eventually done for the 18-cylinder Pielstick power units for MÁV’s class M63 diesels in the 1970s (see a stunning photo by Philip Wormald here), for example, and also for the Fiat power units for PKP’s SP45s.  This would have been a win-win solution; the workers’ jobs seen to be protected, professional dignity preserved, and arguably superior locomotives provided.  That licence, however, was not forthcoming.

At roughly the same time, the Russians finally reached a position to provide a diesel loco that, on paper at least, began to meet MÁV’s needs.  1964 saw an order for twenty machines; 1965 saw a follow-on order for another 32.  These were the first 52 locomotives of the type that went on to be known, not just on MÁV but also worldwide, as “M62s”.

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M62 loco no.628165 is seen at Győrszabadhegy, being passed by M41 no.418108 on a passenger train, 24/04/15 (JW)

The M62s were not the immediate across-the-board success that the NoHABs had been – developed as they were in the Soviet Union, and not specifically for Hungary’s requirements, they did not feature any sort of train heating capability (Russian convention being to heat each coach individually).  As a result, steam vans had to be cobbled together – initially using boilers retrieved from withdrawn class 275 2-4-2T steam locos – and then electric train heating vans, in order to make them viable motive power for passenger trains through Hungary’s colder months.

In contrast, the M61s proved ideal “out of the box” and met all expectations, and MÁV was very pleased with them.  It is no secret that those involved in their operation would have liked more.  NoHAB were certainly equipped to build them, and even offered a more powerful version (using a 20-cylinder 645-series power unit, as in the DSB MZ class, as opposed to the M61s’ 16-pot 567-series power units).

However, as these would need to be sourced from a non-Comecon nation, and as a loco of the equivalent power classification was now available from the Soviet Union, any further orders were always going to go to Lugansk and not Trollhättan – regardless of the real-world differences in MÁV’s early experiences of the two.  Further M62 teething troubles required ironing out even as further batches were ordered and delivered, although it must be conceded that the locos eventually settled down to give good service over many decades.

MÁV’s M62 fleet eventually totalled 294 machines, by far and away Hungary’s most numerous diesel locomotive type.  Eventually, over 7,000 M62-type locos went on to be produced, for markets as far afield as Cuba, Mongolia and North Korea – but MÁV’s M62.001 (still going today) was the very first of them.  It’s an interesting “what might have been”, though, to consider how different Hungary’s motive power scene would have looked over the last half a century if the circumstances or timeline had been slightly different.

The above is a link to a video uploaded to YouTube by Becsky András featuring some interesting M61 scenes from 1996.

Legacy

The last M61 was withdrawn from normal service in 2000, however seven survive – all still in Hungary – and can semi-frequently be sampled on mainline railtours and occasional seasonal service trains.

As an aside, Di3.623 – the demonstrator from 57 years ago that led to the M61 order – was withdrawn from private use in Sweden following fire damage in 2014.  It was purchased the following year by the Hungarian NOHAB-GM Foundation and “repatriated” to Budapest where, after repair, it will join their operational fleet, ostensibly as “M61.623”.

 

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