The remit of this site allows me to write about many of my great interests, but I might not have expected American railroads to be among them!
The flow of locomotives across the North Atlantic has always been much more from America to Europe than vice versa. However the 1970s did see two particular European locomotives make a brief sojourn to the USA (and I’m not talking about “Flying Scotsman”!).
The 100mph streamlined Art Deco 2-Co-Co-2 “GG1” electric locos built for the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1930s were, by all accounts, highly impressive machines, but by the time of the creation of Amtrak on 1st May 1971, they were showing their age. Consequently, the nascent organisation quickly sought to replace them with new traction. At the time, there was nothing appropriate “off the shelf” in the States, but procurement of a suitable fleet from Europe would have taken years. Amtrak therefore looked to General Electric to rapidly develop an express (120mph) passenger version of its brutal-looking “E60” locos – 6,000hp machines under construction at that time for heavy freight work on the Black Mesa and Lake Powell Railroad. The initial E60 order was placed by Amtrak in early 1973.
The E60s were not a success. Their fate was largely sealed on Monday 24th February 1975 when loco no.950 derailed at 102mph in Elkton, Maryland whilst on test, and the cause was traced to fundamental wheelset issues. The fleet were restricted to 85mph. Behind the scenes, steps were made almost immediately to pursue the European route after all…
The 1976/1977 Trials
Amtrak therefore selected two modern electric locomotive designs from Europe to test on its famed Northeast Corridor: one from Sweden (which they numbered X995) and one from France (X996). These plans were formalised in October 1975 with both locos to arrive roughly a year later.
The “Swedish Meatball” – X995
The first to arrive, in August 1976, was brand-new SJ Rc4 electric loco, Rc4 1166, built by Allmänna Svenska Elektriska Aktiebolaget (ASEA). This was painted in Amtrak livery and numbered X995. Until April 1977, it was tested on the Northeast Corridor between New York and Washington DC at up to 200km/h.
Upon return to Sweden, it was painted into SJ’s red livery and entered service. As a reminder of its early travels, it obtained a cabside plaque (photo here), although this is understood to have been stolen. Rc4 1166 remains in service to this day with Green Cargo (see photo here).
The “French Fry” – X996
By comparison, although the nominated French machine was relatively new, it was not fresh off the production line. CC21003 was one of a fleet of four dual-voltage machines built to the classic Paul Arzens “nez cassé” (“broken nose”) design; it had entered service with SNCF in June 1974. During 1976, the loco was lent back from SNCF to its builders – Alsthom, in Belfort – from where it was turned into an American demonstrator (no mean feat considering the significant modifications involved – not least a new transformer for the different voltage of 11kV a.c. used over there). CC21003 – by now X996 – was ready by the end of the year and was shipped to the States from Le Havre in January 1977 (see photo here).
X996 was put to work being tested under the same conditions as the Swedish machine. However, these tests were not as successful. Following the debacle with the E60s, Amtrak were understandably tetchy about locomotive suspension, ride quality and wheelsets, and X996 did not shape up in this respect. The Americans concluded that the loco’s design did not pass muster for their needs; the French maintained that the loco was fine but the condition of the track was the issue. The loco was only used in anger over there for a month, between March and April 1977; the testing was then terminated and the loco was returned to Belfort in the June.
It was promptly converted back to the dual-voltage loco it had been when SNCF had returned it there in 1976. CC21003 returned to French metals. In the mid-1990s, along with its three sisters, it lost its a.c. capability and was reclassified accordingly as a CC6500; it became CC6577. It was withdrawn in 2005 and then quietly scrapped.
Predictably, given the issues identified with X996, the lightweight Swedish machine won out with the Americans – and indeed an order for a fleet was forthcoming. These were manufactured under licence by General Motors’s Electro-Motive Division (EMD) in La Grange, Illinois, with bodyshells from Budd and bogies and electricals from Sweden. This fleet, which was delivered to Amtrak from 1980, was designated AEM-7 (ASEA Electro-Motive – 7,000 hp) and eventually numbered 54 machines. Commuter rail operators MARC and SEPTA also purchased small fleets.
Amtrak’s AEM-7s gave sterling service up until the withdrawal of their last examples in Summer 2016. MARC’s followed suit in 2017 and SEPTA’s examples are expected to be gone by the end of this year; ending over four decades of Rc4 technology on American metals.