Written by: Gary Dolzall
In New Haven’s noted and unusual “McGinnis” paint scheme, FL9 2002 and a sister unit sleep away the night at the end of the Danbury (Connecticut) branch line. Come the morning, the pair of FL9s will hustle commuters to New York’s Grand Central Terminal.
Gary Dolzall takes a look back at the history of the fascinating EMD FL-9.
Electro-Motive’s classic “F unit” was originally conceived as a freight-hauler and the majority of the more than 7,500 F-units built served in that toil. But the F-unit also emerged as perhaps the finest example in North American railroad history of a true, dual-purpose diesel locomotive. From the 1940s into the early 1970s, many of North America’s finest passenger trains – Santa Fe’s Super Chief and El Capitan, Great Northern’s Empire Builder, Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited, and Canadian Pacific’s Canadian, just to name a few – were entrusted to EMD F units.
And indeed, what was destined to be the last in the line of classic-design “bulldog” nosed EMD Fs was a model that could occasionally be found hauling tonnage, but by far was most accustomed to hauling people: the New Haven Railroad’s remarkable – and exceptionally long-lived – FL-9.
The New Haven (formally, the New York, New Haven & Hartford, or NYNH&H) stretched a 1,500-mile spider-web of trackage across New England, the heart of which was its New York-New Haven-Boston main line (which today forms the northern section of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor). The railroad served both of New York City’s great stations – Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal – and its lines from New York to New Haven were electrified with third-rail (into GCT) or largely with overhead catenary.
In Metro-North service and owned by the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT), New Haven-liveried FL9 2019 leads a northbound MNCR commuter train along the Hudson River at Peekskill, New York in 1991.
Financial distress and management turbulence were constant companions of the NYNH&H throughout its history and in the late-1950s, the railroad, in rather ill-advised (and short-lived) fashion, envisioned discontinuing its electrification (aside from the entry into Grand Central Station that was shared with New York Central). It was a strategy made all the more curious in that the railroad had, in 1955/56, placed into service new electric multiple-unit passenger equipment and ten new EP-5 General Electric-built 4,000 horsepower electric locomotives (soon to be nicknamed “Jets”).
That all notwithstanding, NYNH&H went to Electro-Motive (as well as other builders, including Alco and Fairbanks-Morse) with a request for a dual-service, dual-power (e.g., diesel-electric with the ability to operate off third rail in GCT and Penn Station) locomotive. The resulting proposal from Electro-Motive was for a locomotive similar to EMD’s existing FP9 (first built in 1954), but with significant differences. Most notable of course was the inclusion of electrical apparatus to provide the capability to draw power from a third rail, most importantly from GCT (which faces New York’s 42nd Street) through the Park Avenue tunnel that extends to 99th Street. The weight associated with the unit’s steam-generator, required water supply, and the special electrical equipment dictated the locomotive use an unusual B-A1A wheel arrangement to comply with the 58,000-pound axle-loading restrictions that existed on the Park Avenue Viaduct that extends through Harlem. New Haven was sold on the EMD locomotive, to be designated as the FL-9, and ordered a pair of test-bed units, with 28 production units to follow.
In their later years, a regular assignment for the CDOT-owned FL9s painted in New Haven colors was working MNCR trains on the Danbury branch, a task FL9 2002 has well in hand at Branchville, Connecticut on a gray winter day.
Rolling out of LaGrange in January 1857, the first pair – NYNH&H 2000-2001 – began a lengthy testing period in which various teething issues related to electrical shorts, surges, and the challenges of meshing the units with third-rail operations were sorted out (although in truth, such issues would dog the FL9s for much of their careers). The new units wore New Haven’s colorful and now renowned “McGinnis” livery of reddish-orange, black, and white and the test units rode on EMD’s Blomberg-design two-axle truck at the front and a modified version of its “flexi-coil” three-axle truck at the rear (all production units were constructed with a two-axle flexi-coil truck replacing the Blomberg design). The initial order of 28 production units all arrived by the end of 1957. New Haven’s rather quixote-like quest to “de-electrify” was soon given up, but nonetheless, the FL9s found ample toil, handling main line commuter and passenger trains, running important secondary passenger services such as on the route to Hartford and the branch to Danbury (Connecticut), and working some freight and intermodal runs. In fact, faced with the need to replace aged electric motors such as its EP-3 and veteran Alco DL-109 diesels, New Haven purchased a second batch of 30 FL-9s which arrived from EMD in 1960 and proved to the last of the classic “bulldog” design F units constructed.
Mired in its near-constant state of bankruptcy, New Haven was finally folded into the Penn Central on December 31, 1968. While PC continued to utilize the FL9s extensively on ex-New Haven routes, it also began using the units on its other, ex-New York Central lines that radiated out of Grand Central Terminal, including the Hudson Line that skirts the scenic east bank of the Hudson River. Over the next decade and a half, as New York City commuter operations were juggled from one operating entity to another in the wake of Penn Central’s own massive bankruptcy, the FL9s soldiered on, working for and wearing liveries of multiple entities, including Conrail, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), Metro-North Commuter Railroad, and the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT).
The fall foliage is ablaze along the east bank of the Hudson River in October 1991 as an aged but able FL9 wearing the red, blue, and gray livery of Metro-North hurries commuters northbound near Breakneck, New York.
Although the original fleet of 60 units slowly receded in number with retirements, the FL9s found lengthy and expansive service in the Metro-North/CDOT era, working various commuter lines out of GCT and, in fact, in the late 1970s Amtrak acquired a dozen FL9s. Six of these units, thanks to rebuild, would serve Amtrak long and well, until finally replaced by Amtrak’s General Electric “Genesis” P32AC-DMs. Amtrak’s FL9s powered Empire Service trains north from New York and even led the Chicago-New York Lake Shore Limited on the Albany (New York) – New York City leg of its journey.
For train-watchers, though, even the site of an Amtrak-clad FL-9 rolling along the scenic Hudson stood second to what occurred in Connecticut, where CDOT sent its FL9s through rebuild and the veteran diesels emerged in full “retro” New Haven liveries! Like their Amtrak brethren, the Metro-North and CDOT FL9s would finally be replaced by GE Genesis diesels, but not before the last FL9s had completed nearly 50 years of service.
Amtrak’s purchase and rebuilding of a small fleet of ex-New Haven FL9s gave the veteran diesels another chance to power intercity passenger trains. Racing out of Breakneck Tunnel along the Hudson River, FL-9 489 is powering Amtrak’s Bear Mountain south to New York City in 1991.
Today, one can still marvel at the classic shape of and even ride behind an FL-9. A pair of FL9s is preserved near their long-time stomping grounds at the Danbury (Connecticut) Railway Museum. A trio of FL9s is housed at the Naugatuck Railroad and Railroad Museum of New England site in Thomaston, Connecticut, including ex-New Haven 2059, the last of the model constructed. The Orford Express operating in Quebec, Canada employs an FL-9, and another pair remains busy hauling passengers and tourists on the Maine Eastern Railway between Brunswick and Rockland, Maine.
– Gary W. Dolzall
Photos by Gary W. Dolzall