The GE U34CH was a 3,600 horsepower, diesel-electric locomotive designed for commuter services operated by the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad. The locomotives proved to be the very first commuter locomotives in New Jersey with a shaft driven head end power unit.
In the late sixties and early seventies, the fleet of locomotives and rolling stock the Erie-Lackawanna owned dated to the early twentieth century. For decades, these trainsets have shuffled commuters around the northern part of the state, however, mechanical troubles and ailing passenger comforts prompted an interest in upgrading to newer equipment. This proved an impossible endeavor for the Erie Lackawanna, as they were currently bankrupt and did not have the means to purchase a new fleet of locomotives and passenger cars, however, the state of New Jersey intervened.
Realizing the need for new equipment, the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT), agreed to fund an order for 32 locomotives, and 155 state-of-the-art passenger cars. Initially, NJDOT was seeking to contract Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) for the order, however, GE approached them and offered them a locomotive derived from the U33C, designated the U34CH, which was designed specifically for passenger services. Additionally, the U34CH proved to be the predecessor to the popular U36C freight locomotive.
The passenger cars ordered to work in tandem with the U34CHs proved groundbreaking as well, as they were the first examples of various generations of Comet commuter cars. Additionally, this proved to be the very first time a locomotive and passengers cars were ordered together, and designed to be utilized together. For these cars, Pullman-Standard was the chosen manufacturer, as they offered cars that included the ability to operate the hotel needs off of an auxiliary generator, powered by the prime mover. Because of this ability, these new passenger cars were called “Dieseliners”, which were later known as Comet 1s.
The U34CH proved to be revolutionary, as it laid the groundwork for how passenger trains would operate for many years to come. Prior the the U34CH, passenger cars used steam generators, axle driven generators,or on board diesel generators to power the lights and heat for each individual car. What made the U34CH so unique is the shaft on the prime mover was lengthened to operate an auxiliary generator that would power the passenger cars. This was a first in the northeastern United States, and soon became the staple throughout the country, most notably, in the storied Amtrak F40PH. Because of the locomotive’s high horsepower and dependability, the units could be seen operating on Erie-Lackawanna freights throughout the weekends, and would return to Hoboken Terminal on Monday for the weekday rush.
Additionally, the U34CH was the first locomotive in New Jersey passenger service to use push-pull operation, which serves as the staple operation for commuter services in New Jersey and throughout the country. This sort of operation existed on the Chicago Commuter network, which was able to operate push-pull operation with the new Pullman-Standard Bi-level cars. The Chicago Pullman cars is what encouraged NJDOT to purchase the cars from the company, and employ them on the northern New Jersey routes.
Upon delivery, the units were delivered in a striking dark blue livery with a silver stripe stretching around the entire perimeter of the locomotive, and a red separating stripe. On either ends of the locomotive were the Erie-Lackawanna logo, as well as an NJDOT logo on the long hood to show their ownership. Because of this distinctive blue paint scheme, these units were affectionately called “Bluebirds” by rail enthusiasts.
After a few years in service, several bankrupt northeastern railroads were formed into Conrail, including the struggling Erie-Lackawanna, and the fleet was turned over to their new owner. The units were renumbered into the Penn Central passenger number slot of 4151-4182, however, only one U43CH, 4151, received Conrail lettering after being painted into a special bicentennial paint scheme after emerging from wreck repair. Additionally, a further U34CH was built for Metro-North in 1978, which was rebuilt from a former Chicago & Northwestern (CNW) GE U30C, and numbered 4183.
Upon Conrail wanting to relinquish itself from passenger services, New Jersey Transit was formed in 1983, and became the state’s transportation agency, thus, the units were released to their new owner. Upon NJ Transit’s acquisition, the units nose was painted white, and sported the agency’s logo, however, seven examples were painted into NJ Transit’s “Disco Strip” scheme.
By the early nineties, the unit’s days were numbered with the arrival of the rebuilt GP40PH-2B locomotives, which were recently released from the Juniata Shops, after being overhauled by Conrail. During this time, the U34CH’s began suffering major mechanical issues, and instead of being repaired, were retired.
However, the United Railroad Historical Society recognized the significance of the revolutionary locomotives nearing the end of their service life, and decided to run a “Farewell to the U34CH” excursion to celebrate their over 20 years of dedicated service. The excursion took place on August 27, 1994, and spanned 180 miles through northern NJ. The excursion began by departing Hoboken terminal at 9 AM, traversing the unit’s major stomping grounds. The trip, traveling across the unit’s former service areas included the Boonton Line, Morris & Essex Line, and Main/Bergen County lines, eventually reaching Suffern, New York. After stopping at various stations for photos, the excursion arrived back at Hoboken around 6pm. Although this was the last passenger service a U34CH would haul in North Jersey, the units remained on the property for work train duty until the arrival of four GP40-2 locomotives from Conrail, numbered 4300-4303.
For a short stint in the early nineties, three units were leased by SEPTA for use on their regional rail lines throughout the Philadelphia area, and even received SEPTA blue paint, however, all three were returned by 1993. By the late nineties, numerous locomotives in the fleet were purchased by GEC Alstom, and transported to Mexico for freight service, while others were sold for scrap.
Although this is where the story of the U34CH ends, these units have proved to revolutionize how passenger trains would operate, still to the present day. These groundbreaking locomotives have not soon been forgotten, as the URHS has an example in their possession, number 3372 (4172), which is one of the units that operated on the farewell trip. The URHS plans to completely restore the unit to operating condition, and plans to paint it into its as delivered “Bluebird” paint scheme and its original Erie-Lackawanna road number, 3372.
The GE U34CH was powered by a GE 7FDL-16 prime mover producing 3,600 hp, while powering an auxiliary generator for the passenger cars electrical needs. The auxiliary generator produced 170 horsepower, which left the traction horsepower at 3,430. The units were among the very first GE locomotives to feature steel crowned pistons, which worked to allow the higher horsepower needed for the head end power. The locomotive had six GE traction motors and 91,650 lbs of tractive effort to the rail head. The unit was the first commuter locomotive to feature head end power (HEP), generated off the prime mover’s shaft. Railfans and commuters alike could discern the locomotives because of the constant chugging sound of the GE prime mover, even when stopped. This was due to the prime mover having to be constantly operating at 900 RPM to power the passenger cars, through the auxiliary generator.
|Air Compressor||Westinghouse 3CDC|
|Traction Motors||Six GE-752|
|Air Brake||Westinghouse 26L|
|Bore & Stroke||9.0” x 10.5”|
|Tractive Effort||Starting: 91,650lbs|
|Fuel Capacity||3000 gallons|
|Turning Radius||29 degrees|