Rail golden age nears end: Metro-North phasing out classic FL9s on branches
By Brian Lockhart
October 5, 2003
Bleary-eyed morning commuters or weary evening riders on the Danbury rail line might not pay attention to the type of engine pulling their train to and from work.
Rail buffs, however, recognize those iron horses nearly 50-year-old Model FL9s -- as working history that is slowly disappearing.
"They're one of the last so-called 'living links' to the Golden Age of railroading," said Anthony Gruerio Jr., vice president of the Western Connecticut chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. "Most people only care if it gets to their destination on time. But we pay attention to it. It's like the way some people talk about different Mustangs, or a certain style of Corvette. We look at it in the same kind of detail."
They even draw oversees rail buffs such as Simon Bennet, a resident of the United Kingdom who was in the area earlier this year with friends to track down the Danbury line's FL9s and ride one of the trains.
"A particular peculiarity of U.K. railfanning is our wish to travel behind locomotives. The older the better as far as we are concerned and the FL9s fall into this bracket," Bennet said via e-mail. "We mourn the passing of old 'friends' on the railway as classes of locomotive are retired to make way for the latest in state-of-the-art technology."
Metro-North Railroad officials said the original fleet of 60 FL9s is now down to six that serve the Danbury and Waterbury branches of the New Haven Line.
The engines, which date to 1957 and were produced by a subsidiary of General Motors, are slowly being phased out by the railroad. The FL9s were some of the first engines that could operate on either diesel fuel or electricity. They also retain the streamlined design elements of the mid-20th century that appeared on many things from cars to household appliances.
"They were bought when the railroad was trying out new things," said Norwalk-based rail historian Richard Carpenter, another rail historical society member. "They could operate into Grand Central station where only electric was permitted, then convert to diesel in territory with no electric wire."
The Danbury line was electrified in 1925 and de-electrified in 1961. The old rusty poles that held up the wires still line the track, and a federally funded study is under way to once again electrify the route.
The FL9s were too far ahead of their time, Metro-North Railroad spokesman Dan Bruckner said.
"In its day, the FL9 was really considered cutting edge and high-tech (but) their dual-mode ability was very unreliable. They didn't have the technological sophistication necessary at that point . . . It forced us to continually run them on diesel operations in the tunnels of Grand Central, which is the last thing you want because it produces pollution, dust and smoke."
The FL9s, Bruckner said, will be phased out by 2008 in favor of newer, more automated Genesis models, which convert easily between diesel and electricity.
The Genesis has an "electric brain" Bruckner said, which "can make a lot of decisions in terms of running (the train) where the FL9 could not."
Some of the FL9s are headed for museums while the fate of others is likely to be the scrap heap.
"They're still in one piece and run . . . but the amount of time operating and running them does not compensate for the time in for repair," Bruckner said.
At least one engineer on the Danbury line, Jacob Van Dorp, is not sentimental about the eventual loss of the FL9s.
"It's over 40-year-old technology," Van Dorp said recently on a southbound run from the Danbury train station. Pointing across the tracks to the neighboring Danbury Railway Museum, Van Dorp added: "It belongs over there."
The rail museum has two FL9s on display in its yard, according to its staff.
Van Dorp's counterpart on the northbound run, engineer Thomas O'Boyle Jr., is not as eager to see the FL9s disappear.
"I come back to this when I get bored of (the Genesis)," O'Boyle said during his run to Danbury recently. "The Genesis runs itself. With the FL9s there's a lot more to watch. . . . You have to think ahead."
O'Boyle, for example, said braking an FL9 requires more skill than a Genesis because the former's system is entirely manual, while the latter's is computer-aided.
"There's an art in applying them so you come to a smooth stop," O'Boyle said.
With the Genesis, Van Dorp said, "You only concentrate on the road and pulling in and out of the stations."
Bruckner has trouble describing the intelligence Genesis models.
"I'm trying to explain this in a few words because it's so bright," he said. "It has the ability to make decisions, to analyze situations, to choose best alternatives in terms of operating the engine."
Bruckner said the Genesis' computer "outthinks and outreasons an engineer" on issues such as controlling wheel slippage; ensuring the engine does not overheat; determining how much power to draw from the engine to ensure riders' comfort.
What Genesis has in computerized brains, however, the FL9s counter with beauty, Gruerio said.
He likens the Genesis engines to "rolling rectangles with a slope front" while the FL9 engines have a high nose and wrap-around windshield, that he said became a universal symbol for trains.
"Drive around, look at the signs for stations and look at the train pictured," Gruerio said. "It has the same face as the FL9."
Despite a passion for the FL9s, Gruerio said that, from a practical standpoint, it makes sense for Metro-North to phase them out.
"It would be nice if they kept on," Gruerio said. "But from a revenue point of view . . . it's tough to justify it. It's purely nostalgic."
As long as the FL9s stay in service, that nostalgia will draw rail admirers from near and far.
"I will be back at the end of April 2004, and hopefully there will still be FL9s shuttling back and forth to Danbury . . . and Waterbury," Bennet wrote in his e-mail from the United Kingdom. "If so, then I will take some time out to take a ride behind these magnificent engines . . . They are a lasting reminder of the imagination of our forefathers."
Copyright (c) 2003, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.
This article originally appeared at: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/scn-sa-diesel1oct05,0,7422525.story?coll=stam-top-headlines
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