In 1847 the Great Eastern Counties Railroad of England tried a 7-passenger steam-powered car. Like every railcar, its objective was to provide service cheaper than could be done with a regular train. Steam cars were used until around 1920. Compressed air cars were tried in the late 1870’s. Their range limited them to short runs. Battery-powered cars first appeared in 1880. Originally, they were also limited to short range, but eventually could cover 100 miles or more.
The gasoline (or alcohol or kerosene or whatever) engine was first built in the late 1880’s. The big hit was, of course, the automobile, but in 1890, the Patton Motor Car Co. demonstrated a gasoline-electric railcar. Others such as the Hydro Carbon Company of Chicago built gas-mechanicals without much impact. The McKeen Motor Car Company grew out of Union Pacific’s dislike of high branchline passenger costs. It was started in 1904, spun off from the UP in 1908, and folded in 1920. By 1913, 138 had been built. These pointy-nosed cars didn’t last because the power plant and drive equipment were not insulated very well from the rough tracks which usually comprised branchlines.
In 1904, the General Electric Company’s Railway Engineering Department recognized the potential of the gas-electric car. Henri G. Chatain, A. F. Batchelder and E. D. Priest were given some space in the Schenectady Works to begin development seriously. At that time, J. R. Lovejoy was the department general manager, William B. Potter was the chief engineer, and John G. Barry was the assistant manager.
Barry eventually headed the department and went on to become an industry leader through offices he held in the American Electric Railway Association. Potter was a veteran of electric traction. Beginning with the West End Railway in Boston, he worked on installation of systems in Albany, Utica and Saratoga. He invented the series-parallel controller used on most electric railways. His more than 130 patents included railroad control equipment, electric braking and switching equipment. He developed the otheograph used for recording the wheel action of various types of rolling stock. He participated in some of the major electrifications such as Milwaukee, Great Northern, Paris-Orleans and London Underground.
The best engine for their specifications was built by Wolseley of Great Britain. The Delaware & Hudson lent GE a Barney & Smith combine for experimenting. An ALCO motor truck was added on the front. Two 75 h.p. traction motors and a 600-volt generator were added. Once the huge engine was added, the baggage compartment was filled and the car weighed 68 tons. A trial run from Schenectady to Saratoga showed D&H 1000 (sometimes referred to as GE No. 1) could go 40 mph.
The designers, now joined by William Everett Ver Planck, decided their next car needed: light weight, greater power, single end control, and a more dependable engine. The engine was the most difficult to accomplish. In 1906, a Gas Engine Department was formed. A new V8 was developed that required an explosive charge to start. It weighed 3,900 pounds as opposed to the 7-ton Wolseley. GE No. 2 was an all-steel from Wason Mfg. Co. of Springfield, MA. The final weight was less than half that of car no. 1. This car trialed on the Lehigh Valley; Chicago Great Western; Dan Patch Lines; and the D&H. It was extensively damaged by hitting a locomotive on the Rapid City, Black Hills & Western. Car 2 was later sold to the Dan Patch Lines where it was destroyed in a 1914 fire.
A third GE demonstrator was built which incorporated even more improvements such as a 125 h.p. engine with compressed air starter. Car 3 eventually traveled 50,000 miles in demonstration service.
An attempt was made in 1909 to break into the street railway business. New York’s Third Avenue Railway Company had several “horse-powered” lines. Not wanting the expense of electrification, they had a “bake off” between the GE car and a battery powered one. The battery won.
By 1909, orders were coming in. Southern; Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh; Frisco; and Dan Patch Lines. Many improvements were made by Hermann Lemp. In 1910-11, the Gas Engine Department moved to a new plant in Erie, PA.
Before production ceased in 1917, almost 100 motorcars were built. Several were oddballs. One for the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie was only 42 feet long (as opposed to 70-foot normal). It was designed to pull a trailer. One was built as a line car for the New York, Westchester & Boston. It was the only GE (except no. 1) without a Wason body. Some cars built for southern railroads had two doors – to comply with “Jim Crow” laws.
Operating costs ranged from 12 to 17 cents/mile. Cost of the cars was between $20,000 and $30,000. They usually ran with a crew of two (not withstanding labor agreements requiring more). Don’t forget though gasoline only cost 7 cents/gallon.
In the 1920’s, GE worked with Ingersoll-Rand on switch engines.
There was some degree of internal dissension within GE. Many would rather have sold all-electric. Little did they realize that non-electric would almost end electric.
GE’s history was wrapped around electric traction. In 1884, Frank J. Sprague, convinced that a street car could be powered by electricity from overhead cables, built a street railway in Richmond VA. By 1888, 40 cars were in operation. The Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company joined the Edison General Electric Company in 1890.
Elihu Thomson and Edwin J. Houston, two science teachers from Philadelphia, formed a company in Lynn MA that also built streetcars. Their company merged into the Edison General Electric in 1892 to form today’s General Electric Company. One of their employees was Charles Van Depoele, a woodcarver whose trolley-pole proved practical for overhead electric operation.
By 1908, General Electric completed the electrification of Grand Central Terminal. Although this installation used direct current, Charles Proteus Steinmetz, GE’s “wizard of electricity”, developed methods of designing alternating current machinery that would assure the future of GE in electric propulsion.
A big competitor was Westinghouse Electric Manufacturing Company. Beginning in the 1920’s, they built the electrical gear for some diesel-battery cars. Most of these were for Canadian National. New Haven’s Comet of 1925 was an example of a 6-cylinder, 400 h.p. unit (run as a three-car articulate). Boston & Maine got a V-12 about the same time. Between 1928 and 1937 they built several locomotives with Baldwin.
In 1930 General Electric built 34 three-power oil-electric box cab switchers (class DES3) for the New York Central. These were used mostly in the New York harbor area because of their light weight and fire safety aspects. They used battery power for traction. The batteries could be charged through either third-rail contact shoes or a 300 h.p. diesel engine.
The Electro-Motive Company came into being in 1922 in a little shop in Cleveland, Ohio. It got into the railroad business by making gas-electric motor cars using carbodies from St. Louis Car, electrical gear from GE and engines from Winton. In 1930 both EMC and Winton became subsidiaries of General Motors. By 1934, a new factory was underway in La Grange and streamliners were produced for Union Pacific (“City of Salina”) and Burlington (“Zephyr”).
In 1938 a steam-electric locomotive was built for the Union Pacific. Later on, gas turbine locomotives would also be tried.
In 1945 Fairbanks-Morse entered the locomotive business but it didn’t have a plant. GE built 111 locomotives for them before they struck out on their own.
The success of Budd’s RDC prompted GE to draw up plans for a diesel-electric railcar with underslung engines. GE argued that an electric transmission would enable its car to out-accelerate RDC’s and to pull trailers.
In 1960, GE announced its intention to enter the road diesel market with a 2500 h.p. four-motor hood called a U25B (Universal line, 2500 h.p., B trucks). Growth and the overtaking of EMD was accomplished by making good on low fuel consumption, high reliability, attractive financing and favorable trade-in allowances. Over the last 29 years there were some rough spots.