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Diesel locomotive (right) brings the Southern Railway's 'Tennessean' passenger train into Harrisonburg, Virginia, 1947

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Diesel locomotive (right) brings the Southern Railway's "Tennessean" passenger train into Harrisonburg, Virginia, 1947
NMAH, Transportation Collections, McBride photos


This object appears in the following sections:

Work and Industry
American Railroads in the 20th Century — Railroads to Mid-Century / Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927

Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927
Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 — What Happened to the Railroads?

Steam locomotive, Southern Railway No. 1401

Diesel and steam locomotives together
Currently on display
From the Smithsonian Collection

This picture shows a time of profound transition. A two-unit diesel locomotive (see General History, above) and its passenger train arrive at a town's station. The roof overhang of the station and a lone figure are at the right. A steam locomotive and its passenger train (hidden) wait on a side track. It is 1947, and the new diesels are encroaching quickly into railroad operations. The picture is symbolic: the clean, new diesel is pulling one of Southern Railway's 'named' passenger trains - meaning that this is one of Southern's premier trains. The smoky steam-hauled train is doubtless a less prestigious one.

More than displacing one type of machine for another, the diesels are radically changing a century-and-a-quarter of railroad structure and culture: Diesels are cutting drastically into employment (because diesels require so much fewer maintenance hours and operating dollars), ending time-honored trades (boilermakers, foundrymen, steam fitters, machinists), cutting the number of trains and train-operating jobs (because multiple-unit diesels pull more cars per train), upending union-management relations, and closing steam-era repair shops and yards. It is one of the most drastic and widespread industrial transitions in American history, affecting over a million skilled workers and their families.

(The two-unit diesel shown was a highly popular model for passenger trains made by Electro-Motive Division of General Motors. GM was, in fact, the leading pioneer and innovator in diesel-locomotive technology in the U.S. from 1935 through the 1970s, selling more diesels to railroads than any other manufactuer. GM no longer builds passenger locomotives.)

Date Made:
NMAH, Transportation Collections

New, more-efficient diesel-powered locomotives began replacing steam locomotives on U.S. railroads in the mid-1930s, but only gradually. After the end of World War II in 1945, railroads everywhere in the country began buying diesel locomotives in great numbers. Diesel locomotives entirely displaced steam locomotives on most railroads in the U.S. by the mid-1950s. On the Southern Railway, a rapid adopter of diesels after the war, the last regular operation of steam locomotives was in 1953.

(A point of railroad terminology: separate diesel locomotives are/were often referred to as 'units.' That is because a number of diesel locomotive units - two to eight - can be readily coupled together and then be fully controlled, together, by a single locomotive engineer. A number of diesel units coupled together in that way form a single locomotive for operational and dispatching purposes, regardless of the number of units. If one locomotive engineer controls it, it's one locomotive. Railroaders might refer, for example, to a "two-unit," or to a "four-unit" locomotive.)

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