Highhood diesel reunion in Chattanooga

Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA

I have always been a big fan of highhood diesel locomotive, probably stemming from the fact that the locomotive that got me started on trains was the Indian Railways WDM2, also known as the ALCO DL-560 were almost all built as highhoods. For those that don’t know a highhood is a style of diesel locomotive design with equal height carbody sections on both sides of the cab, the long hood contains the prime mover and all other mechanical bits that make the locomotive run while the shorthood infront of the cab is generally empty save for a bathroom. The highhood configuration was very common on early diesels such as the EMD GP7 and the ALCO RS11 but for visibility reasons many US railroad’s switched to low hood configurations on second generation diesels. The highhood configuration was even more popular overseas and can be found on diesels built all over the world. In the US the last major railroads to purchase highhoods were the Southern Railway and the Norfolk & Western which continued ordering highhood diesels until EMD and GE decided to phase out the configuration in the mid 1980’s. The Southern’s units were designed to run long hood forward stemming from the railroad trying to reduce terminal time and facilities by making the locomotives bidirectional. The reasoning was that by placing the engineer on the left side of the cab (most US locomotives have the engineer sitting on the right) that they could see signals running long hood forward. In the event that the locomotive was pointing short hood forward the crew could still see the signals as the short hood did not obstruct the view as much. The N&W used ordered their locomotives with high hoods for the same reason except with dual control stands so the crew would always be on the correct side to see the signals.

Long Hood forward

Short Hood forward

Drawings by Sorin Oprisan, check out his website to download these great drawings for your own website! 

The Southern and N&W merged in 1982 to form Norfolk Southern, which continued the Southern and N&W practice of long hood forward operation. However the introduction of modern safety cabs with the GE C40-9W series made this style of operation impractical, the final nail was put in the coffin when NS train 255 collided with Conrail TV-220 at a diamond in Butler, Indiana. The lead locomotive of the NS train was running long hood forward and despite the fact that the accident was primarily caused by human error the practice of long hood forward was called into question. A copy of the STB report can be read here. From then on the highhood locomotives have gradually disappeared from Norfolk Southern fleet, either through retirement or rebuilds. The last group of locomotives were the Southern GP38-2s, however after rebuilding a few to short hood forward operations the railroad decided to sell the remaining units effectively ending the highhood era on US Class 1 railroads. While the days of seeing highhoods in regular service is quickly ending thankfully a few have been preserved by museums. The Tennessee Valley Railroad museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee recently acquired 2 new highhood locomotives and finished restoration of two others so naturally it was a good time to put them on display for their annual railfest event. This years event would feature the newly restored locomotives both operating on the museums passenger trains and a night photo shoot with 3 restored Southern locomotives. While I normally do not attend big museum events due to the big crowds I decided this was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Southern 2594:
A 1963 built EMD GP30, this model is known for the distinctive raised hump running from the longhood over the cab, which was according to legend inspired by designers in GM's automotive department. The 2594 was one of 120 GP30's purchased by the Southern and served until 1992 when it was donated to the Southeastern Railway museum by Norfolk Southern. In 2007 it was leased to TVRM who restored it to its Southern appearance.
Southern 3170
A 1971 built EMD SD40, one of 31 built for the Southern. This locomotive served Southern and successor NS until 2007 when it was retired and stored in Altoona, PA. While most of the former Southern SD40's were scrapped in 2014 the 3170 along with N&W Class unit 1580 were saved for preservation. The 3170 was restored to service in 2015 and repainted in full Southern tuxedo paint. Unfortunately Altoona shops replaced the 3170's blown engine with another defective prime mover and the locomotive became a perpetual shop queen before finally being retired again and donated to TVRM in 2016.
Southern 5000:
The class unit of Southern's 257 unit fleet of EMD GP38-2s. This is the most modern unit in TVRM's fleet and was in service with Norfolk Southern until earlier in 2017. Norfolk Southern has decided to sell most of its former Southern GP38-2s and many have found their way to shortlines and leasers which in most cases have promptly cut them down to low hood units. Thankfully TVRM was able to save 5000 and sister unit 5044. 5000 was repainted just months before the event.
TAG 80
1968 built EMD GP38, the final locomotive purchased by the Tennessee Alabama & Georgia railroad. The railroad operated between Gadsden and Chattanooga and existed primarily to serve the large Siskin Steel mill in Gadsden. The locomotive is named for John Alexander Chambliss who was one of a group of investors who purchased the TAG and led it to profitability. The TAG was purchased in 1971 by the Southern who acquired the line simply to eliminate competition and quickly abandoned most of the route. The 80 however soldiered on being renumbered 2879, getting dynamic brakes and being set up to run long hood forward. It served until 2001 when it was retired by Norfolk Southern and donated to TVRM. However it languished for many years on the account of many missing parts until it was restored to operation by Norfolk Southern and repainted by TVRM in 2016.

NC&STL 710
A 1950 built EMD GP7 built for the Nashville Chattanooga & St. Louis. The railroad operated a network of lines in Tennessee and Georgia, most famously the former Western & Atlantic Railroad. The railroad was purchased by the L&N and the 710 became L&N 1710 before being sold to Amtrak for maintanence of way service where it was renumbered to 772. TVRM purchased the locomotive in 2005 and restored it to its striking red and yellow scheme. The locomotive spent several years on the Hiawasee River railroad before returning to Chattanooga in 2016. Just prior to railfest the locomotive was returned to its original appearance which included removing the paper air filters and restoring the front mars light along with a fresh coat of paint.

Trip Report

I headed north with my friend Kyle Yunker to Chattanooga on September 9th for the first day of the event, TAG 80 was planned to lead an excursion down to Chickaumaga, Georgia so that would be the first target for the day. Traffic on I-75 was unusually heavy due to the mass of people evacuating from Hurricane Irma and the typical Florida driving practices of driving under the speed limit in the left lane was not helping. Because of this we arrived a little late and it was a few tense minutes of find the train before suddenly it rounded the curve as we drove up Holtzclaw Avenue which ran along the TVRM owned “Beltline” which connects to the Chattanooga-Summerville line at 23rd St. 

Running along Hortzclaw Avenue, one of the many disused industrial sidings off the Beltline in the foreground.
Passing through an old factory now being used by Sweetwater Brewing, the train is approaching 23rd St. where the Chattanooga & Chickaumaga pilot will board the train for the trip down to Chickaumanga.

After the train diverged onto the CCKY we debated where to go for the first shot, this was the first time either of us had chased since the track speed was increased from 10 to 25 so we did not know if we could still chase in as leisurely a manner as before. We both wanted to shots at the Rossville Peerless Wool mill and a shot with Lookout Mountain in the background but we were unsure if it was still possible to do both. We decided to try both and it turned out we shouldnt be worried, the train ran even slower than normal. Upon arriving in Chattanooga and talking with the CCKY pilot we discovered this was on purpose to allow the passengers in the diner to finish lunch.

Passing under Battlefield Parkway with Lookout Mountain in the background.
Passing under US 27, Lytle Road follows the tracks for several miles on this stretch.
Usually chasing trains requires fast and sometimes dubiously legal driving, however there are a few times now and then when a train is moving so slowly you can chase it on foot. This was one of those cases and the engineer had the train down a crawl to stretch out the last few miles into Chickaumaga to make for a 12 noon arrival on the dot. 

Due to a failed attempt to photograph the train on a small bridge we missed the train arriving at Chickaumaga and were dismayed that the depot was actually unblocked, we had both chased the fall steam specials to Summerville countless times and without fail the depot was always obstructed with parked plastic cars. The CCKY pilot came over to talk to us and revealed that they would shove back past the depot and then as an added bonus were going to pull a set of plastic cars that had been left on the main south of town to facilitate the passenger train running around, a rare chance to shoot this locomotive on freight!   

We spent several minutes admiring the locomotive and photographing it sitting amongst the freight cars, looking for all the world like a “real” freight locomotive again. Neither of us had eaten so we checked the map and found a local BBQ restaurant, Thatchers BBQ and Grill a block away and walked over. Having eaten alot of sub par BBQ lately this place was quite good and you get alot of food for the price. A mixed chicken-pork pulled plate was 12 dollars with tax and came with three sides. Definitely recommended eating if you end up in Chickaumaga chasing or riding this train. Since the train would be running due north for the most of the trip to Chattanooga we decided to head back into the city to photograph either NS or the museum trains. We photographed one of the several daily trips on the Missionary Ridge line exiting the ridge tunnel and then attempted to photograph some trains on the mainlines through town. Unfortunately NS was very slow and we found nothing to photograph so headed to Grand Junction to catch up with some friends and photograph some of the museums other locomotives. The Southern highhoods were being moved around in preparation for the night photoshoot and the last steam trip of the day departed behind Southern 630 and 4501 doubleheaded. NC&STL 710 was also sitting in perfect light so it was a good time for some loco portraits. 





With nothing more to do at the museum until the night shoot we tried our luck once again at photographing NS with the same results, a CSX coal train running against the light was the only thing we would see. Our attempt to find some local food was also not a success and we settled on Wendy’s along Hortzclaw Ave. As we were leaving the TVRM dinner train slowly rolled by, the train takes the same route as the morning train to Chickaumaga but only going as far as 23rd St. As such the train runs at an snails pace taking an hour to cover the same distance the morning excursion does in 30, not much of a train ride but I’m sure the food was better than our fast food.  It was getting close to the start of the night shoot so we headed back to Grand Junction, where we found no one around but the Southern diesels were idling at the depot. After a few shots we realized that we needed to head to the bridge soon as there would likely be a shot of the dinner train returning. We arrived to find that there were already several dozen people set up and little room to stand. The dinner train did not stop to our dismay and my shot was an overexposed disaster but I was reassured the TAG would make another appearance later in the shoot. After the dinner train was clear the three Southern locomotives backed onto the bridge then continued down the line to pick up the freight cars from a siding in between Grand Junction and the shops. Soon the train pulled up to the bridge and Casey Thomason’s flashes lit up the three beautifully restored Southern units, a sight not seen in nearly 3 decades. The units stayed on the bridge for an extended time as people exchanged spots so everyone got a chance to photograph the scene. The second part of the photoshoot would feature the Southern 5000 leading the freight consist but while the power was being turned on the wye the TAG unit on the passenger consist was backed onto the bridge making up for the earlier run past. While the Southern units look great the blue TAG paint really stood out in the night! With the power turned and the passenger train back in the clear the Southern units returned and posed on the bridge for some going away shots. While flash was definitely necessary for the main scenes I really do like the look of the ambient light of this going away view, helped along by a healthy bump in ISO, the advantage of full frame! The units soon returned with the freight for the finale, the 5000 leading long hood forward across the bridge! While I photographed many of these in service on NS it was great to photograph the class unit looking just like it was the day it came out of the factory. With the photo session over we weighed our options for staying, all hotels would be full or overpriced with the influx of hurricane evacuees and since Kyle did not feel like camping we headed home returning around 2 AM. Getting to recreate the days of the Southern Railway was worth it though! A big thanks to Casey Thomason for setting up the photoshoot and to TVRM for restoring these classic locomotives.