Southern Pacific 9010

Jim Evans Photo


I used to love seeing those engines, and the first time I ever spied one, we were transiting the Clinton Avenue overpass at the south throat of Fresno Yard, probably in late 1964, I was twelve. Something about all those windows, that busy little nose, and the white handrails down the side just made the unit pop out and sear my memory. I thought 'What the heck is that??' It had a sort of dragonfly appearance to me, those huge windows looking to me like a dragonfly's big eyes, I guess.

I remember thinking it was especially clean, especially shiny, and especially crisp in the details. Maybe it was the uniqueness, but it just seemed to jump off the track, visually speaking.

Later, that beautiful paint faded to a sadder, paler gray than I've ever seen any other SP locomotive fade, and the red went to a dull tangerine. Sort of common for German synthetic enamels of the time. (I think it was synthetic.) And they looked so shabby, but strong. But nothing seemed to share the sense of purpose and esthetics in the same mix as they did when new. And 4000HP? Just flat 'Wow'.

I heard many fans (most even) saying -- and still saying -- that the K-M's were 'ugly'. I think that's a contextual thing. I thought they were handsome, even beautiful.

And if you lived in temperate Germany, the view out that cab would certainly be second to none...

Robert J. Zenk 2008

K-M Memories

In the Spring of 1969, I climbed all over a trio of K-M hood units waiting for the torch at Associated Metals in Sacramento. It was a miserable, rainy day, and my Dad and I ran out of time and tools or we’d have brought home most of the nose that SP 9010 needs now!

I wonder if there was a little precognition that day?

The next Summer I went with my folks to visit Germany for the first time. A young American railfan with some German in his family bloodlines, fresh with the memories of that scrapyard visit, and of watching the K-Ms reel off the miles at 60MPH down the Valley.

And I was struck immediately by how fast and how frequently the European 'goods' trains operated. With short ‘wagons’, buffers and drawhooks giving little slack, and great alignment on the rights-of-way, those trains just scooted. Macht schnell, all day and all night long.

I wondered why the K-Ms failed over here. I’d read all the stories about costs and breakdowns. But what about the simpler question?

Were the K-Ms just not good enough for the U.S.?

Howard Wise raised a fine question the other day that brought my young railfan’s line of thinking into the present. He asked ‘Did any other U.S. railroad go to greater lengths to customize a locomotive product to meet their needs’?

When you think of heroic efforts to make a new locomotive technology work, many ‘home-grown’ solutions spring to mind from history. Whether it was coal, diesel, or oil-fired turbines with electric transmissions on the UP, N&W, or C&O; boilers-and-driving-rods on the Pennsy; or ‘watertube’ boilers on the D&H -- it was still local conditions and domestic mechanical engineers dictating the designs. The new thinking was in response to known local conditions, and those experiences were factored into the fundamental design by people who knew the territory.

At first glance, it seems that description fits the K-Ms to a ‘T’: born in Europe to U.S. specs, custom-built (in two varieties) to meet U.S. operating requirements.

But how ‘customized’ were they? Sure, they were huge even by U.S. measure, and looked like nothing else. But underneath, the change was little more than a massive boost in dimensions and outputs from European designs that were already on the shelf.

And that can’t have helped.

It’s worth noting that the ‘V300’ that K-M tested around Europe (and which got the eye of the SP) was a near-mechanical twin to the first cab units – but with 25% less horsepower. And that unit failed to gain acceptance in Europe, while even more modestly-powered 2000HP ‘V200’ versions were racking up the miles successfully -- and still live on to this day in active service around the world.

So the K-M product, and the hydraulic transmission, and even the controversial ‘quick running’ Maybachs could work, and work well -- in the right circumstances.

Maybe there were too many variables, and the SP ‘experiment’ should have only tested transmissions and not raised the bar on horsepower at the same time. Still, the K-Ms broke. So were they ‘no good’?

It makes as much sense to say that a batch of late-60’s Mercedes-Benz diesel taxicabs were no good as taxicabs because they failed miserably in New York City. The world experience for decades with Mercedes taxis, in crowded big cities, proves otherwise. But here in the U.S.? They were as doomed as the K-M's were, and maybe for similar reasons.

It’s what occurred to me nearly forty years ago in Germany, watching how they run trains there.

Culture clash.

The SP was looking for pull. Tractive effort. The Germans said “yes, we have that.” And I’m sure they were typically proud of their 33% tractive-effort figures and high horsepower from a single unit. Make even more horsepower? Customize to the U.S.? Ja, we can do that. Aber natürlich.

Then the SP hung as much as they could tie onto a drawbar, treating the new units like Hannibal's elephants. And even the Rio Grande operations weren’t "fast and frequent", not compared to typical European operations. The long, heavy trains coupled to the U.S. K-Ms  simply don't match the conditions of any other diesel-hydraulic success stories at that point in time.

A friend who hostled a K-M or two for the SP tells a story of a single K-M hood unit sent out one day with 13,000 tons tied to the rear drawbar. That'd be roughly 4,500 tons more than the unit was rated in the Special Instructions for that division. Someone obviously thought it could. And guess what? It couldn’t.

So strike one against K-Ms in America: they got beaten up as draft horses when they were possibly more suited to being trotters. Sure, K-M said they could do it. But the German cultural tendency at the time would have made it hard for K-M to say ‘No they can’t’.

Strike two? Well, that’d be maintenance, as in “they need too much”.

You can’t argue with SP's cost figures for the K-Ms vs. one of their EMD diesel-electrics. It’s also argued that a subsidized European workforce provides essentially ‘free’ labor. But what if the clash of cultures, acted out in steel and aluminum, caused the units to be not just unfamiliar, but actually hated?

That couldn’t have helped things.

There was a mindset at work: Germans didn't think that because something needs lubing and adjusting every week that it's a ‘difficult’ design -- they took pride in the act of lubing. Which is not to say that American workers at the time had no pride. But we're talking about American pride, where you often heard someone brag, and rightfully so, about running their Dodge truck for 300,000 miles before changing the plugs. Put that truck next to a German car of the same era where a German would be changing the oil and filter every 2,000 miles and setting his valve lash every 6,000 – with pride.

Ach du lieber.

But what about the burned valves from poor intake design, the insufficient cooling, the rough ride? Well, that was just a willful disregard on the part of the Germans, I think. They were not about to re-jigger the very foundation of their designs for this ‘export experiment’.

I think they were more than happy to design unique frames and carbodies for the U.S., but were not particularly engaged with the idea of rethinking how they made locomotives just to make us happy. After all, look at the units: didn’t we change everything and make it the way you asked?

It’s often said that the first six cab units were too ‘European-looking’. It’s even a criticism that’s leveled at the design of the later hood units. But take a look at a true European K-M like the V300-class, and you’ll see that K-M went beyond the pale to make their units look ‘American’.

But it clearly wasn’t far enough.

So now it’s the end of summer 1970, and I’m back from Europe with my head full of the way they do things ‘over there’. And the K-Ms are gone from the Valley, and I’m sorting my few precious K-M slides while sitting in a K-M captain’s chair. I wish I’d gone to Europe sooner, or made a point to chase the SP K-Ms more often.

Where are they, now that I’m ready to understand them?

Back to Howard’s question: I think SP bit off a huge chunk to make them work well, and I'm afraid that by the time they figured out what they were really good for -- running fast and loose on the flat -- they'd been beat up too badly already, and the numbers were coming back against them with a vengeance.

Like all the bold domestic railroad experiments in alternative power, in the end they moved technology forward but the subjects died in the experiment. The German locomotives may have had the hardest time making a go of it. Because it wasn't clean sheet of paper engineering, it was bending existing practices to fit. Bending them until they broke.

And since domestic experiments like the ‘Jawn Henry’ and the UP’s gas turbines were built to suit by Americans -- whereas the German locomotives were modified beyond recognition from their stock European counterparts -- I’d say Howard, I think you’re right.

Nobody took an existing locomotive design further from its roots than the SP pushed and pulled its unique K-Ms.

Robert J. Zenk 2008

The most unusual locomotive I had ever  seen

As for the K-M's, the first one I saw was in '65 or '66.  I was attending Modesto JC and working part time at a lumber company in the afternoon.  Trackside was blocked for a good 1/4 mile by the lumber yard sheds and I would usually position myself so I could see the trains go by at one end or the other depending on  where I was.  I could tell if Alco's, F's or second generation EMD power was in the the consist before I even saw the train, based on the sound.  One day, I heard a train coming that was totally different.  I raced to the East end of the yard and approached the main line and there was the most unusual locomotive I had ever seen, a K-M.  It was a single unit and seemed like it was lugging half of Roseville behind it.

Jerry Larsen 2009

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