TT00001  Helpers on 1960s NCL and Mainstreeter



12/25/02 22:06

Chris Frissell

Lately I've had a little bit of time to ponder late-1960s consists for the Mainstreeter and North Coast limited as they passed through the Rocky Mountain Division.  Occasionally one sees photos of these trains with the usual A-B-A combination behind an additional A unit tagged on point as helper.  The examples I have seen have all been from Bozeman Pass or Homestake Pass segments of the line.  So, some questions:  Under what conditions were helpers used on these passes? I assume it had a lot to do with consists and tonnage, so that meant mainly in the summer and early fall months for the NCL and, at least through the mid-60s, the December express freight shipping and mail surge for the Mainstreeter.  Did winter conditions ever factor in to warrant passenger helpers in this decade?  Any one have specific recollections or records of how frequently and what season helpers were used and how were helpers operated on these Passenger trains?  I assume helpers joined westbound trains and uncoupled from eastbounds at Livingston, but once a helper was on point, did it stay the distance to Missoula (or clear through to Paradise for an assist over Evaro too?).  Did Mullan Pass and/or Evaro rate helpers of their own accord?

12/25/02 23:03

Bill Kuebler

As a point of technicality, a fourth diesel unit in a locomotive such as you describe in your question was really not a "helper." It was simply one of four units in a four-unit locomotive. The engine crew's pay, however, was directly related to the number of units in a diesel locomotive, because their pay was based on total "weight on drivers" of the locomotive they handled. For that reason, passenger crews liked having a fourth unit, whether they needed it or not. In any case, they usually didn't refer to a fourth unit as a "helper", but merely as one of the units in their locomotive.  As for conditions warranting four units on trains 25, 26, 1, and 2, the usual factors were: running times required for schedule, tonnage, ruling grades, availability of units, and sometimes weather. There is a common misconception among some NP fans that four unit passenger locomotives were reserved for lines west of Livingston. While this is generally true during the 1950s (and even then there were exceptions), by the 1960s there were enough F-units in the transcontinental pool--and few enough passenger trains using those units (trains 5 & 6, for example, were discontinued in 1960)--to allow more four-unit passenger locomotive operations than was the case in earlier years. I am unaware of any written rule or company policy that said there had to be four units if there were more than a certain number of cars in a passenger train, but Special Instructions did contain tonnage ratings that were to be observed. Judging from numerous photos of trains covering the NP diesel era, when trains 25 and 26 got up to about 14 cars or more, a fourth unit was not uncommon, even in the 1950s--but neither was a fourth unit mandatory. The NP used four-unit locomotives more liberally as time went on, so that by the mid-60s, four units were much more common all over the system. As for trains 1 and 2, the length of the train that might get four units was also up around 14-15 or more cars. There were times when trains 1 and 2 (the Mainstreeter) had five units. The longest Mainstreeter I know of was train 1 that passed through Fargo on July 4, 1966. It had 26 cars. That was a freak deal, though. Its usual max length in those years was around 16 or 17 cars.  As always, there were exceptions to whatever "pattern" one might observe. I know of instances where a 14-car North Coast Limited operated with three units, even west of Livingston (three could handle a 14-car train anywhere on the NCL route), and other instances where, say, a mere 13 cars got four units, even east of Livingston. In the coldest winter weather, a fourth unit was quite common, even on trains that were less than 14 cars, because steam generators were prone to malfunction. If all three units' steam generators were working, however, three units could usually handle a 14-car train, even in very cold weather--IF they were all working. Sometimes it took a great deal of effort by the engine crew to keep them (or get them) working. In February 1969, for example, No. 26 nearly froze up west of Staples because a broken water line effectively rendered all the steam generators useless for providing heat to the train. In desperation, the engine crew ran 83 miles per hour (right up against the governor) in a grand effort to get into Staples before the train froze. They made it--barely. In that particular instance, however, the number of units in the consist was irrelevant to the crisis that had developed. On other occasions, an extra unit made a big difference as to steam generation.  Basically, a fourth unit on a 14 or 15-car train translated into higher rates of acceleration from stops--and thus a better chance to make up lost time on the schedule. A fourth unit also translated to a lower throttle setting to maintain speed on ascending grades. For example, a 14-car NCL with three units would require an average throttle setting of "Run 7" (Run 8 was the highest) to maintain a train speed of about 30 miles per hour during the climb of Butte mountain (2.2% grade), whereas four units could do the same job with an average throttle setting of Run 5. Frequent throttle adjustments were always necessary, of course, because of curvature and slight changes in grade and in train speed, but you get the idea.It is interesting to observe photos of the 1947 North Coast Limited. During the summer season, it was a 16-car train in those days, and many of the cars were heavyweights. Even so, three F-3s usually handled the train over Bozeman Pass and Butte mountain without helpers. I'm sure they were in Run 8 the whole time and could barely keep schedule, but they did it. On other occasions, helpers were added to the train for the steepest grades, such as Evaro hill west of Missoula. Jim Fredrickson has film footage of train 2's helper, the 1356 I believe, uncoupling from the rear of the train at Evaro, circa 1951-52. I have seen one photo of the NCL (train 2 in the pre-dome era) with a steam helper on the rear of its obs--again, ascending Evaro Hill. Helpers on the rear of the obs was pretty much forbidden, but there was at least one exception to the rule. I suspect that was a 16-car train, but don't know for sure.  I just checked the tonnage ratings for passenger F-3s on the 2.2% grades, and it was 460 tons per unit. The rating for three units, then, would have been 1380 tons. Average car weight for the 1947 NCL would have been somewhere around 80-85 tons, so a 16-car train would have weighed 1280-1360 tons. Those figures aren't precise, but they're close. As you can see, a 16-car 1947-era NCL would have almost maxed out a three-unit set of F-3s.

12/25/02 23:48

Chris Frissell

Wow, that was a fast rise, Bill! Clearly I assumed too much from a fairly small sample of photos with 4 units.  Besides the association of the photos with those scenic passes, reasons I suspected helper service include the present-day use of helpers in freight operations on those grades, the steam-era helper operations for these trains on Evaro Hill that you mentioned, and the fact that in most of the photos I can recall, a third cab unit was tacked on the point of the usual A-B-A  diesel set (i.e., A-A-B-A as opposed to an A-B-B-A combination or A-B-A-A).   Your description makes it clear there was a single engine crew, which I take it means that any time one sees a photo of these four-F-unit couplings, as a general rule the engine set was running through between the usual points of power change-out for passenger trains. Thanks for 'helping' set that straight.

12/26/02 0:48

John Moore

Extreme weather conditions, especially in the Dakotas and Montana often dictated an additional unit just for the additional steam generator capacity. In the fifties a helper would sometimes be added on at Whitehall, Montana, east of Butte, and this was usually a steamer. This time of year often saw extra power due to the increase in ridership, and in headend traffic.  I cannot say for sure how often or even whether a steam generator car was added to the NCL from time to time since I did not ever observe one on the NCL through Montana. They saw a lot of use when non steam generator freight equipment had to be used or added to a consist.

12/26/02 8:48

Bill Kuebler

That's right. Engine sets, whether three or four units, operated in the transcon passenger locomotive pool out of Livingston. Locomotives ran out of there on a 16-day cycle that included most of the main line passenger trains--and this cycle included some of the locals, such as trains 3, 4, 5, and 6. On some occasions, depending on the year, fast freights on the west coast were part of this pool operation as well.  Having said all that, however, a four-unit set, and for that matter even a three-unit set, didn't always stay together during the entire 16-day cycle. For example, in 1959, the standard three-unit set that came into Seattle on train 407 (Day 2 of the 16-day cycle) was trimmed to only two units for its next-day trip out on train 6 and return the following day on train 5. Then, after arriving Seattle on train 5 on Day 4 of the 16-day cycle, that third unit would rejoin the other two and the trio would take train 2 out the next evening. Trains 5 and 6, Spokane-Seattle locals, usually didn't need three units in those days, so the third unit just sat out the local run. Four-unit sets were handled much the same way. Units not needed for part of the 16-day cycle would be taken out of the set for a day or two and then coupled back in when appropriate. That 16-day cycle always began at Livingston on train 25, and ended there 16 days later, also on train 25. If major maintenance wasn't scheduled, there was a 24-hour rest and minor maintenance between cycles.  Though rare, there were instances when train 25 or 26 had only two units. Quite surprising to me, and I don't know why there would be only two, other than perhaps a temporary shortage of units for some reason. In one photo, it was train 26 at Billings, circa 1956, an A-B set. In another instance, it was train 25 at Fargo in April 1958, also an A-B set. Strange, because in both cases the train was 12 cars long. Reminded me of CPs operation. That road was fond of maxing out two units on their 13-car "Canadian", even through the mountains. I never could understand that. As for the NP's typical A-A-B-A combo on four-unit sets, that was strictly a matter of availability. In those years, there were about three times as many cab units as booster units in the transcon passenger locomotive fleet. Even so, other combinations occurred from time to time, such as A-B-B-A; A-B-A-A etc. I've even seen A-A-B-B, but A-A-B-A was the most common.

12/27/02 7:47

Bob Plaehn

I had the opportunity to watch (and occasionally ride the cab) of both the NCL and Mainstreeter while living in Missoula and later Dickinson from '68 to the demise of passenger service.  I do seem to recall a few rare times when a steam heater would be on #26 at Dickinson when it had been extremely cold for several days.  Then there was the extremely interesting morning in when my new wife and I awoke one morning while aboard #25.  We were standing in Dickinson, ND and I could tell we were already two hours behind schedule.  The trainman related we had been there for over an hour and the lead F unit would not move.  After another two hours and the diagnosis of an electrical cabinet failure, the local switcher (a GP9)removed the offending unit was then put on the lead ahead of the B-B-A units remaining.  We then proceeded all the way to Livingston with that combination.  We kept the schedule and even made up a little time.  It was quite a sight to watch the GP9 approach station stops with the steam loco type bell clanging away. Some time I will relate about the night that #25 disappeared!  Great forum.  I enjoy reading the various posts.