A Closer Look at the History of Diesel Locomotives

The year 1918 marked the precursor to the diesel locomotives we know today. The United States, much like the rest of the world, had enjoyed the fruits of its labor during the Industrial Age of the previous centuries. At that time, the steam-powered locomotive was born and train travel became a necessity for some, and a luxury for others, seeking to travel across the great nation. Technology wanted to move past the steam engine, however, and a company by the name of American Locomotive Company -- ALCO -- partnered with two major players remaining in the industry today, Ingersoll-Rand and General Electric, to design a diesel-powered motor car to run on the Jay Street Connecting Railroad #4 in New York City.

The GM-50, as it was called, was the first diesel-electric powered vehicle to find its way on the railroad tracks, and by 1924 the trio of companies had designed a more advanced diesel motor that powered a 60-ton boxcar. The Central Railroad of New Jersey purchased the engine that produced 300 horsepower of energy, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, commonly known as B&O in those days, followed suit. Working with B&O, the Electro-Motive Corporation, which later became known as General Motor's Electro-Motive Division, fine-tuned the diesel-electric locomotive design in the 1930s and B&O began running the engines on North American railroads.

Diesel-electric locomotives took off because experts and laypeople alike easily understood their mechanics. A diesel locomotive generates energy to produce enough power to drive the electrical generator found within the engine. The generator powers the traction motors, and the traction motors are the engines that turn the locomotive's wheels. This series of one powerful piece supporting and driving another powerful piece produces an efficient way to propel the immense locomotive across the tracks, far more efficient than a steam engine. Each part of the diesel-electric motor serves its own purpose, and the diesel-electric locomotive generates and utilizes its own power to motion the train.

As the technology behind the diesel engines advanced, B&O continued to run its trains on diesel-electric power. By 1935, B&O was powering its smaller passenger trains using diesel-electric locomotives, and as the technology evolved over the next 50 years, diesel-electric engines beefed up the power to lead heavier passenger and large freight trains across the country. Part of the reason the railroad companies stuck with diesel was its efficiency. Diesel-electric locomotives ran with less fueling than steam locomotives. This kept the trains moving on the tracks instead of having to stop frequently to "refuel" with water and oil. Diesel-electric locomotives also required less maintenance than steam-powered engines. This also kept the engines on the tracks, moving and making money, instead of "in the shop" costing money. Diesel-electric locomotive engines won the hearts of many a railroad company because they were more profitable than a steam-powered locomotive.

Today, new companies have taken over where the American Locomotive Company and the ALCO-GE-IR trio left off. A newer incarnation of diesel-electric manufacturers is a partnership between Electro-Motive Diesel and GE. This company has been building diesel-electric locomotives since 2005. Steam locomotives, and the companies who produced them, finally fell out of complete favor in the mid-20th century, with the final standing steam locomotive manufacturer, ALCO, closing its doors prior to 1970. Advancement in technology does that -- removes once key players from the game. In part because the key players might not understand the wave of the future; in part because advancements in technology produce a more efficient way to do things. The diesel-electric locomotive is a prime example of technology catching up to the needs of the industry and the people who run it.

For more information on diesel-electric powered locomotives and American railroads, please consult the following links: