Saturday, March 5, 2011

Modeling diesel locomotive chronology

For those who model the steam-diesel transition era, as I do, the chronology of locomotive introduction is important if era accuracy is a goal. Of course many choose to model an “elastic” era, in order to include whatever their favorite aspects of the SP may be, even though they are not strictly contemporaneous. That’s okay, but it’s not what I’m trying to do.
     I published an article with a diesel road locomotive timeline for the SP, covering 1947 to 1956. It was in the SP Historical & Technical Society magazine, Trainline, issue no. 29 (I think 1992). I constructed this timeline partly for my own use in modeling. I don’t want to repeat that article here, but will mention some relevant parts as I work on needed locomotives for my layout.
     The SP’s mainstay road diesels were the EMD F3 and F7 units, delivered from June of 1947 onward, and continuing into 1953. During 1953, SP management obviously changed preferences in favor of hood unit power, and SD7 as well as Alco RSD-5 locomotives were purchased to work alongside the Baldwin road-switchers already on the railroad.
     This is important because it was not until 1954 that the first SD9 and GP9 locomotives arrived. Personally, I love the looks of both of these EMD classics, especially in “Black Widow” paint, but they unfortunately are just too late to use on a 1953 layout. I own nice models of both the SD9 and GP9 engines and may occasionally run them to enjoy their looks, but properly they do not belong on my layout when it’s being operated seriously.
     I know some readers will say, "what difference can it make? Run what you want,” doubtless adding the old saw, “after all, it’s your railroad.” But everyone has to draw a line somewhere. Would you suggest I then compromise and operate the distinctive Alco RS-11 engines, very handsome also but which didn’t arrive until late 1956? Why not a few red/gray locomotives among all the Black Widow engines? Heck, why not SP’s signature SD45 or tunnel motor power, if you like them?
     Well, that’s not my approach to modeling. I choose to draw my line at the end of 1953. The same thinking applies to the recent very nice HO models of 1954-model Ford trucks. Too bad, they just won’t fit if I’m sticking to 1953. If I wish to be consistent with freight car paint and lettering to reflect 1953 (and I do), I believe it’s equally important for highway vehicles and, yes, diesel locomotives to exhibit the same consistency.
     It happens that there is extensive photographic evidence for all the 1953-era diesels mentioned above being used on the Coast Line, though the RSD-5 engines only had a brief tryout and most SD7 engines worked on the NWP in 1953. So F3, F7, and Baldwin power should be the mainstay of my lineup of 1953 Coast Line road diesels.
     All this is part of an important modeling goal for me: creation of a model scene and model operations that consistently reflect a specific era. As I’ve mentioned in prior posts, to me this is more important than recreating a specific place. Diesel locomotive chronology is just part of that effort.
Tony Thompson


  1. Tony and List,

    I certainly understand that you have set a date at 1953, but as you say one year later you can feature brand new SD-9's and GP-9's. Have you considered changing your date to 1954 right at the latest delivery date of these engines? Would those months be that important to your existing operating approach?


    Paul LaCiura

  2. Well, Paul, that's a good question. But 1953 is really the last year there was predominant steam power on the Coast. Going to 1954 would mean considerably less steam. It's often said that the GP9s were the real death knell for SP steam in its last stronghold, California, as they provided the horsepower to do virtually all remaining jobs on the railroad. In fact, in some ways, 1952 would be a better year for me.

    The real point is, a line has to be drawn SOMEWHERE. I've balanced a number of things in settling on 1953.

    And BTW, I can't close without reminding everyone that the EMD model numbers did NOT have hyphens in them: GP9 and SD9 (and F7 and E8).
    Tony Thompson

  3. Hi Tony,

    I'm new to the hobby only having been in it for about a year. I plan on modeling the SP but haven't decided what location to model so obviously I don't have a layout yet. I was born and lived in the L.A. area for 50 years and my dad worked for the SP at the L.A. Shops for 40 years until he retired in 1962. I arbitrarily decided on 1950 for my layout for several reasons but after reading about your choices for 1953, I might change my mind and add a few years.

    I just discovered your blog and have read all of your posts. I also own and have read some of your books (V1&V4)and will add more as time and funds permit. I think they are extremely informative and educational to modelers of the SP.

    I've read and was amazed at what you wrote about accurate and location appropriate rolling stock. My immediate concern is about the 65 cars I've already purchased - mostly SP box cars, some tank cars, PFE reefers, and some passenger cars (Accurail, Athearn, Branchline, Roundhouse, and Proto). A fast and inexpensive way of building a fleet. I paid no attention to types, accuracy, or quality of these cars until now. I do know that they were all built prior to 1950. I must perform more research to see if they conform to your suggested number of cars that represented the prototypes on the SP back then. These all may be candidates for up-grading or resale. Your perspective has encouraged me to look into but not limit myself to the more expensive but higher quality brands of cars on the market.

    It will take lots of time to gain the knowledge that modelers such as yourself have accumulated over the years for me to make better-informed decisions.

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience with everyone especially us newbies. I look forward to reading more about building and running a more historically accurate SP layout.

    George Corral
    La Grange, KY

  4. Thanks for the kind words, George. I bet your dad had some interesting stories from his 40 years at LA General Shops!

    I wouldn't start worrying about the cars you ALREADY have. Most of us have a certain number of "stand-in" cars to fill out fleets. Refinement can come later, as you upgrade or discard things that don't fit with what your goals are. Even the proportioning of the car fleet is subject to traffic in the specific area you model, such as needing LOTS of SP flat cars if you model Oregon or northern California. This may even affect your choice of locale to model, if you have favorite freight car types, or particular passenger trains, that you really want operate.

    Part of my motivation to write the five volumes on SP freight cars was to show clearly WHAT cars SP owned, and when, and how many (and by extension, what cars SP did NOT own). As a modeler, my selection of photos in those books was often driven by modeler's needs. I've been accused of providing more detail in those books than practically anyone really needs. Maybe so, but my own preference in books I buy is to find ones with MORE information than I need, so that I'm sure they have AS MUCH as I need.

    One thing the books will do for you is show you the appropriate paint and lettering schemes for your chosen era. I think a critical part of doing convincing modeling is era consistency, and nothing (for me) ruins it faster than an anomaly such as a freight car with lettering which is YEARS wrong.

    Good luck with your layout and car fleet planning! There's lots of fun in thinking and planning as well as in building and operating.
    Tony Thompson

  5. Tony, your reasons for picking 1953 are sort of the mirror of my reasons for picking 1957. When I started I figured I'd never be able to afford brass steam engines and there were very few plastic steam engines available. Once I discovered when the SP started buying GP9s and when they started the red and gray paint scheme, 1957 became an easy choice. Having said that, I'm not as much a purist as you, I have high fan F3s still roaming my rails.

    I am learning a lot from these columns and really appreciate the time you put into them. Thank you.

  6. You're welcome, Jim. I would say you've made a rational choice of era in terms of what you want ALONG WITH what's practical.

    Knowing some of the TRUE purists as I do, I can assure you I'm really not qualified for that team. But I do have prototype-oriented goals and I am quite willing to "draw lines" in certain places, as I've discussed in several of my posts. I guess that does put me toward the "purist end" of the spectrum, or something like that.
    Tony Thompson

  7. With regard to the 1954 model Ford trucks, I seem to recall that, at least in the later 1950's, the Big Three (Ford, GM, Chrysler) US automakers would introduce their new-year models in September or October of the prior year. If that were the case for the 1954 Ford trucks, could you not have one of these new models on your layout during the last quarter of 1053?


    Chuck Hakkarinen

  8. You are certainly right about automobile model years, Chuck, equally so in the early 1950s, but my recollection is that the same was NOT done with trucks. I guess research could answer that . . . but for now, I will stick to 1953 or earlier vehicles.
    Tony Thompson

  9. Hi Tony,
    speaking of ''era accuracy'' , regarding SP' s passenger FP7As I learned that during the 60s they used to pull freight trains, too (due to the decline in passenger traffic).
    Is this true for the 50s, too ?
    Did SP and UP pool diesels of freight trains over the Overland Route during the 50s ?
    Thank You for the reply

    1. Yes, it's my understanding that the FP7A units were used in freight service when available, even when new.
      Tony Thompson